Britain has deployed a Royal Navy vessel in the English Channel to counter a surge of Iranian migrants crossing the congested waterway just hours after the arrest of two suspected smuggling kingpins by police.
HMS Mersey, an offshore patrol boat, is usually deployed to monitor fishing boats and trawlers to prevent illegal fishing and will now gain an expanded remit. The ship’s new role will be to use advanced radar equipment to spot small craft.
The boat is expected to remain deployed at least until two border patrol cutters can return from current postings patrolling the Mediterranean sea. Officials had been reluctant to take the high profile step, fearing the vessel could act as a magnet for those looking to be picked up and taken to UK shores.
The government estimates 312 migrants used small boats to cross the channel from France in 2018. The latest boat, according to local media, carried 12 people who arrived on the south-east coast in a small boat earlier this week.
British officials said the two men arrested are suspected of involvement in smuggling migrants from France to England by sea. Most of the Iranians involved are believed to have been smuggled from Belgrade to the north France coast by mafia gangs having reached Europe through a now defunct visa-free travel scheme.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said late Wednesday that a 33-year-old Iranian citizen and a 24-year-old British man.
The NCA confirmed the arrests in Manchester in a statement. "NCA officers have arrested a 33-year-old Iranian national and a 24-year-old British man in Manchester, on suspicion of arranging the illegal movement of migrants across the English Channel into the UK," it said.
The men are being questioned but have not been charged or identified. They are suspected orchestrating the smuggling of the migrants across the English Channel in small semi-rigid boats not suitable for the choppy conditions.
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The arrests are the first since Britain’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared a rise in migrant crossings to be a “major incident”.
Mr Javid questioned whether migrants using small boats to cross the Channel, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, were genuine asylum seekers, not motivated by better economic prospects.
"A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in," he said.
While the overall numbers are small compared to the thousands that have attempted to reach European Union territory by crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa and Turkey, Mr Javid declared the uptick in crossings “ a major incident”, returning from a holiday early to deal with the issue.