Exclusive: Royal Navy backs out of Channel migrant patrols

·4 min read
A Royal Navy vessel tows boats used by migrants crossing the Channel earlier this year - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
A Royal Navy vessel tows boats used by migrants crossing the Channel earlier this year - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The Royal Navy is planning to end its role in charge of tackling Channel migrants, The Telegraph has learned.

The Ministry of Defence has told ministers it plans to relinquish responsibility for dealing with migrants crossing illegally to the UK on Jan 31.

It comes only four months after Boris Johnson brought in the first Navy vessels to patrol the Channel, saying the move would help ensure that “no boat makes it to the UK undetected”.

Government sources said the Navy was proposing to hand back control to Border Force “unless there are ministerial actions”.

MPs have complained that policing the Channel has turned the hard-pressed Navy into a “super taxi service” for migrants at a time when its ships are needed for other key military duties.

The move will present the incoming prime minister with a dilemma over whether to overrule military advisers. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have both said the Channel migrant crisis will be a top priority if they secure the keys to Number 10.

The number of migrant crossings has already doubled to more than 20,000 this year, despite the Navy’s intervention. Home Office officials are understood to be concerned that a sudden end to the Navy’s role could send the wrong message to people-smugglers.

“The Navy would need to continue to be involved in some way,” said a source. “The operation is taken much more seriously now they are involved.

“We need to show illegal immigration is being taken seriously. What kind of message would an ending of their involvement send to the traffickers?”

The disclosure comes amid criticism of a “zombie” government that is rudderless while the two Tory leadership contenders fight for Mr Johnson’s crown.

Last week, it emerged the MoD had pulled the plug on an asylum camp at a base in North Yorkshire, a centrepiece of Priti Patel’s plans to reduce the £3 million a day cost of housing migrants in hotels. A day earlier, Mr Sunak, a local MP, had declared his opposition to it.

In April, the MoD was handed £50 million by the Government to take charge of the Channel migrant crisis, with one 260ft offshore patrol vessel to support Border Force interceptions, six fast 45-knot training boats, three rigid-hulled inflatables to shadow migrant boats and a Wildcat helicopter.

The first deployments of the vessels in Operation Isotope coincided with Mr Johnson unveiling plans to deport Channel migrants to Rwanda to claim asylum in the central African state as part of a twin track to break the people-smugglers’ business model.

James Heappey, the Armed Forces minister, told MPs in January that the Navy’s role would continue “until the deterrent effect is achieved and the cross-Channel route for small boats collapses”.

The Navy’s “command and control” role has been primarily to coordinate Border Force and Coastguard vessels at sea to rescue migrants and bring them ashore, with sailors deployed on the quayside to shepherd people to migrant processing centres.

However, there has been criticism by senior MPs from the House of Commons defence committee, as well as Border Force figures, that it has failed to stem the flow of migrants and distracted Navy resources from other duties at a time of heightened tensions with Russia.

Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Commons defence committee and a critic of Mr Johnson, said it was a “folly project” by No 10 to distract from the failure to stem the Channel migrant surge.

“The Navy is being sucked into an operation they should never have been involved in. This is not their terrain – this is Home Office, Coastguard, Border Force terrain,” he said. “Secondly, our Royal Navy is absolutely overstretched at this critical time. It is preventing a whole series of other duties.”

Since the policy was announced, Admiral Sir Antony David Radakin, a former First Sea Lord, has taken over as chief of the defence staff.

John Spellar, a former Labour Armed Forces minister, said: “There was never any clear rationale as to what role they would do. They ended up providing a super-taxi service that they had to do under centuries-old laws of the sea to save lives. It was an utterly flawed intervention.”

Tony Smith, an ex-Border Force director general, said he would have preferred the Army taking a role, exploiting its logistical capability to build processing centres.

“I can’t see how the Navy was going to do much more than Border Force except that they have bigger vessels and more assets,” he added. “I would say Border Force should retain control, with the Navy giving them assistance.”

MoD sources suggested the Navy would continue to patrol the Channel as it had done before Operation Isotope and could be on hand if needed. One source said it had always been the case that the operation would be reviewed, with Jan 31, a year after its start, pencilled in as an end date.