The UK plans to carry on with its migrant “push-back” policy despite mounting opposition within the government.
The British Navy, which will take over operational control of Channel crossings from UK Border Force later this month, has ruled out implementing the controversial policy. However, a public row among Whitehall departments has revealed a larger role for the Ministry of Defence than was previously acknowledged.
Earlier in the month, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told the House of Commons that “neither the Royal Navy nor the Royal Marines will be engaged in push-back”.
The minister had been defending government plans to get the Royal Navy to halt undocumented migrants using small boats to cross the Channel to several Conservative MPs who criticised the strategy for burdening an already-stretched military and using it as a “taxi service”.
On Thursday, Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Home Affairs Committee that Mr Heappey has been “wrong to say anything specific in regards to work operationally [because] they’re still being planned, that work is not completed yet”.
Responding to Ms Patel’s comments on social media, the Ministry of Defence’s press office reconfirmed its position that the Royal Navy and Royal Marines would not be used to carry out push-backs but said a military commander could instruct the Border Force to do so. It was the first time the MoD revealed that it will have powers to instruct Border Force vessels under the new government policy.
It is not, however, the first time that members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines have indicated their aversion to the push-back policy as well as concerns over the forces’ capacity to monitor migrant crossings.
Last month, a former Royal Navy commander told the Commons Defence Committee that the navy had “no spare capacity” for the operations and said the solution to the crisis was “not at sea”.
“If you fill the Channel with ships you could make this problem worse because you’re now making the crossing safer, and therefore more attractive,” said Tom Sharpe, a former patrol boat commander.
Also speaking at the committee, Vice Admiral Sir Charles Montgomery, a former Second Sea Lord and director general of Border Force between 2013 and 2017, said he would be “happy if the expression of pushback was never used again”.
“I cannot conceive a situation where you’re physically turning these ships back that’s either legal, or, perhaps more importantly, safe,” he later added.
Push-backs, if deployed, would involve three Border Force jet skis surrounding a migrant boat and directing it back to France. It would also require the use of one of its five cutters and at least two of its rigid inflatable boats.
The French government, along with several rights groups, has criticised the tactic and said it contravenes international law. Relations between countries on either side of the Channel have soured in recent months with President Emmanuel Macron blaming the UK government for not taking responsibility for the crisis after failing to establish legal routes for asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel has made a clampdown on traffickers who facilitate the migrant crossings a central part of the government’s asylum policy overhaul, which includes the criminalisation of asylum-seekers who arrive to the UK through such routes.