Row as Royal Navy backs down on role as Channel migrant 'taxi service'

Row as Royal Navy backs down on role as Channel migrant ‘taxi service’ as number of crossings more than doubles to 20,000 so far this year

  • Royal Navy will no longer take charge of Channel migrant crisis from January 31
  • Navy will instead return operational control of rescuing migrants to Border Force
  • It comes despite least 20,000 Channel migrants arriving in the UK this year
  • Tobias Ellwood, Commons defence committee chairman, slammed ‘folly project’

The Royal Navy has become embroiled in a row after backing down on its role as a ‘taxi service’ for migrants in the Channel – as the number of crossings has reached more than 20,000 so far this year. 

The Ministry of Defence has told ministers that Navy ships will return operational control of rescuing migrants and bringing them ashore to Border Force on January 31 ‘unless there are ministerial actions’.

It comes despite a group of migrants arriving ashore today having taken the provisional total to have crossed the Channel by boat to 20,042 so far this year – a milestone not reached until November in 2021.

The first Royal Navy ships were deployed to co-ordinate Border Force and Coastguard boats to rescue migrants in May earlier this year.

It subsequently deployed a 260ft offshore vessel and a Wildcat helicopter, along with fast training boats and inflatables, following a request from the Home Office. 

However, the Royal Navy now plans to end its involvement amid accusations it failed to stop the influx of migrants and fears that its withdrawal could send a message that the issue is no longer being taken seriously.

It comes despite current armed forces minister James Heappey telling MPs in January that the Navy’s role in the Channel would continue ‘until the deterrent effect is achieved and the cross-Channel route for small boats collapses’, The Telegraph reports. 

A Home Office source added: ‘The Navy would need to continue to be involved. We need to show illegal immigration is being taken seriously. What message would an ending of their involvement send to traffickers?’ 

But Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, slammed the Navy’s involvement as a ‘folly project’, telling The Daily Telegraph: ‘The Navy is being sucked into an operation they should never have been involved in.

Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Tyne with her support vessel on patrol in the Channel off the coast of Dover, Kent

The Border Force boat Typhoon pictured escorting 50 migrants back to Dover to be processed on June 24

Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured) has been accused of carrying out an ‘ill thought out publicity stunt’ to tackle the migrant crisis

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, slammed the Navy’s involvement as a ‘folly project’

‘This is not their terrain – this is Home Office, Coastguard, Border Force terrain.’ 

Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry, former chair of the Government’s Marine Management Organisation, told LBC that the Home Office lacked ‘a real strategy’ when requesting assistance from the Navy.

He said: ‘The Border Force has always had charge of this, the Navy has never had charge. The real problem we have got in the Channel is there has never been a real strategy. 

‘What we are doing is tinkering around the edges and reinforce failure. Until we have a comprehensive review of the strategy that involves every Government department, deals with the European Convention on Human Rights and all the other legal aspects, you are never going to solve this problem.’ 

Former Labour armed forces minister John Spellar also said the Navy have been ‘providing a super-taxi service’ to those making the crossing.

He said: ‘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.

‘I would say Border Force should retain control, with the Navy giving them assistance.’

And speaking to BBC Radio 4 today, he added: ‘We are at record numbers already and it was always going to be that. They [the Home Office] were never clear what the Navy was supposed to do. 

Pictured: A Royal Navy vessel tows boats thought to be used by migrants as they are brought in to Dover in May

At least 20,000 Channel migrants have arrived in the UK this year – a milestone not reached until November in 2021

An inflatable craft carrying migrants crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel earlier this month 

‘The image that they tried to project that they would push back boats. That was clearly against long-standing international law of the sea, as was made clear to us in evidence even from the defence ministers at the select committee. 

‘This never made any sense, but what it did do is divert Navy personnel at a time when we’re undermanned in the Navy. Also, with the international situation, there’s increased activity in the North Atlantic from the Russians. That’s what the Navy should be focused on, not this ill thought out publicity stunt.’

Yesterday, the Daily Mail revealed that more than 4,000 Albanians had successfully made the trip due to new tactics by people-trafficking gangs in the Balkans and weaknesses in Britain’s ‘modern slavery’ laws.

Ministers fear the surge will push this year’s number of small boat arrivals far beyond the record 28,500 seen in 2021.

Once they arrive in the UK, Albanians are claiming to have been trafficked or exploited, making it harder to remove them.

The Navy coordinates Border Force and Coastguard boats to rescue migrants and bring them ashore as part of its ‘command and control’ role.  

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