The flow of migrant boats crossing the English Channel has led to daily rants on social media demanding we “send in the Royal Navy to defend our borders”. Here we briefly look at why using the navy this way is impractical, wasteful and has already proven to be largely pointless.
Migration is a highly emotive subject and there are plenty of ill-informed and extreme suggestions about how government should address the arrival of illegal immigrants crossing the English Channel in small boats. The RN is rightly perceived as the UK’s primary maritime shield. Misunderstandings about its role and about maritime law lead people to call for the navy to protect us from this “invasion” and or even “sink migrant boats and let them drown”.
Apart from the monstrous immorality of such actions, it would be asking sailors to contravene a foundational Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulation which requires mariners to come to the rescue of anyone in distress at sea. Participants could also be liable for prosecution under international law for crimes against humanity, not to mention making the UK a pariah state in the eyes of the world. No one serving in the navy wants to be involved in such actions and most would probably refuse to be involved.
Others call for the Navy to “push the boats back” or “return the people to France where they came from”. This is simply not viable without political agreement because UK vessels would need permission to enter French waters as they are no longer conducting ‘innocent passage’ under UN Convention on Law of the sea (UNCLOS) rules.
Feelings are already running high in Calais where the assembling migrants are seen as a British problem that they have to live with. Despite some inter-governmental coordination efforts, there is limited incentive for the French to prevent migrants attempting to cross the Channel and they are very unlikely to welcome back any undocumented people delivered by British vessels. The perceptions around any naval involvement are especially awkward. In 2020 when the UK government was considering deploying the RN in the Channel, the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, went overboard, accusing Britain of a “declaration of maritime war”.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is one of the UK’s most outstanding charitable organisations and rescues hundreds of mariners every year. Because they have been involved in saving the lives of migrants, the RNLI has become a target for a small number of extremists who perceive them to be helping illegal immigrants enter the country. Just like the Navy and Border Force, the RNLI are obliged to help those in distress at sea, whoever they are and cannot and should not have to distinguish between the ‘right’ or ‘wrong kind’ of people to rescue.
Once a migrant boat leaves French waters, the occupants will either make it to a British beach themselves or be picked up by the Border Force or other vessels obliged to rescue them and brought ashore in the UK. There are no other viable options at this point and the future of the migrants has to be resolved on land not by any other kind of action at sea. You could park the entire Royal Navy surface fleet in the Channel and it would not make the slightest difference to the outcome.
The RN has already been employed at various times on such patrols in the Channel. HMS Mersey was deployed amidst great fanfare for a few weeks in January 2019. However, reports of how the ship was used are sketchy. It would appear she provided intelligence to assist the UKBF, rather than interdicting migrant boats herself. The £20,000 cost per day of running the ship was borne by the Home Office. In 2021 the RN was given ‘primacy’ for the patrol operation in the Channel and OPV HMS Mersey along with P2000 boats HMS Pursuer, Charger and Smiter were deployed. They mostly provided surveillance support but unsurprisingly made no impact on the number of people crossing. To the MoD’s relief, responsibility was handed back to UKBF in January 2022. The civilian UKBF is the correct agency for this work and it is a total waste of RN resources to be employed in a manner that was more about political posturing than having an effect.
On the other side of the issue are those in ivory towers calling for the UK to implement an “open door” migration policy or the virtue signallers that repeat the ill-defined “safe passage” mantra. Perhaps they should first consider if they are personally willing to take migrants into their own homes instead of demanding the taxpayer provide a blank cheque to make them feel better. In reality, those not eligible for asylum must be discouraged from coming. If they survive the depredations of the people trafficking gangs, the enormous risks of their journey and make it to the UK they are either likely to be detained for a long period, become an exploited underclass or fall into crime. They inevitably add to the burdens on the poorest in society, adding pressure to resource-starved local councils where housing is already in very short supply and public services overstretched.
Genuine asylum seekers at risk from political or religious persecution have legal grounds to live in the UK and refugees from the war in Ukraine and oppression in Hong Kong already have special status. However, a large percentage of those arriving in the UK are technically ‘economic migrants’ that may have escaped terrible conditions but have no right to live here. It should be remembered that these are individual human beings, not a mob of migrant invaders. There may be a criminal minority but most have experienced abuse and suffering beyond the understanding of many with comfortable lives in the UK. Unfortunately, the answer to poverty and failed states is not to facilitate large-scale and uncontrolled migration. The UK already has one of the highest population densities in Europe and the legacy of social problems created in Germany and Sweden by waves of mass migration in the last decade does not bode well.
We will not attempt to offer solutions to the complex issue of mass migration which demands a concerted multi-faceted international political effort. In truth, the authorities have a very thorny issue to deal with and few attractive options, assailed on all sides by those with sound-bite solutions to complex problems while tightly hemmed in by legal, financial and political constraints (any future Labour government will face all the same issues). Sustainable and humane policies are needed but deploying military forces to intimidate vulnerable people in unseaworthy boats or push them back into French waters is certainly not one of the answers.
(Main image: photo composite)