The Navy will have to be deployed to return Channel migrants caught at sea to France because it is too dangerous and difficult for Border Force cutters alone, its union has warned the Government.
Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the ISU, which represents borders, immigration and customs staff, said officers believed only the Navy had the capability to safely remove and return to France migrants intercepted in their boats in the Channel.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is seeking a new agreement with the French that would allow both the British and French to return migrants whether caught in British or French waters or even if they make it to English shores.
She believes that the traffickers and migrants will only be deterred if they can be convinced that they have no chance of remaining in the UK even if they make it to the British coast.
Border Force have already conducted exercises at sea with the Navy in an attempt to develop ways of picking up boats and returning them to France. Among measures trialled were nets to clog propellers and bring the boats to a standstill.
However, Ms Moreton said the reality of migrants who could resort to violence at sea if they knew they were being returned to France was very different to an exercise “where colleagues are not going to injure each other.”
She said there was a danger migrants would fight back and with some boats carrying up to 40 people, they could overwhelm a Border Force cutter’s crew, which had been reduced from its normal complement due to social distancing rules.
They also had no brig or detention capability. “They are designed for rescue, not incarceration,” said Ms Moreton. “You could also face protests in France or civil unrest if you tried to return them. That’s why the French don’t do it.
“If you do returns at sea, that would be something that the military would have to be involved in. Even then I am not convinced it would be safe but they are far better equipped to do it than us.”
More than 3,000 - including a daily record of 202 last week - have reached the UK across the Channel this year, compared with 1,892 for the whole of last year.
Tony Smith, former Border Force director general, warned at the weekend it could reach peaks similar to the 2000s, when up to 2,000 a day tried to enter the UK on ferries or lorries.
The French claim maritime law means they can only rescue, not intercept migrants, while Ms Patel has said Home Office legal advice suggests they can intervene to return them. She has criticised the French for not taking a more robust approach to turn them round.