According to Border Force statistics, nearly a thousand people crossed the Channel into England on small boats during the first three weeks of January – that’s around three times the rate of arrival for the whole of January 2021. 

Almost 100 migrants crossed in three boats on 10 January, while French authorities halted another boat with 56 people on board. On 15 January, a total of 197 people were intercepted or rescued, with 95 stopped from making the journey. On 18 January, six boats carrying 168 passengers were intercepted on the UK side.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel continues to claim that it is government policy to turn boats back and escort them back into French waters with assistance from armed forces. She has also confirmed that the Government is “considering all options for outsourcing processing” i.e. deporting illegal entrants to one or more third party countries which might provide temporary refuge, though none has yet agreed to offer such resource.

CREDIT: Dave Young

She told Parliament last week: “I originally commissioned the military aid to the civil authorities request that went to the Ministry of Defence very early on, back in 2020. Of course my decision to bring in the MOD is vindication of our need to strengthen our defences in the Channel… All aspects of pushbacks and turn-backs—of the approach we take in the Channel—are operational. This has been tested, there is a basis on which to do it, and individuals are trained. The MOD, maritime policing and Border Force originally came together, and they will continue to work together.”

“Abuse of the Royal Navy”

This statement provoked an outraged response from SNP MP Stuart MacDonald: “The Home Secretary sending in the Royal Navy against small boats full of refugees and asylum seekers is pathetic, inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy, and her grubby shopping around for places to offshore asylum seekers to is an outrageous and dangerous big white elephant. Instead of ripping up the refugee convention and locking up refugees, why does the Home Office not start working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others to live up to our humanitarian obligations?”

Parliament’s Defence Select Committee is also set to challenge the Government’s call on the Navy to assist in implementing her policy under the code-name Operation Isotrope. Chair of the Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, complained last week that “national security and migration control sit firmly under the remit of the Home Office, yet the Government has shifted this responsibility to the MOD… While our Armed Forces are more than capable of aiding efforts to control illegal migrant crossings, an operation of this scale is likely to distract from the core duties of an already overstretched Navy…

“This tactic may, on the face of it, look popular, with 28,000 migrants now crossing every year—‘send in the Navy to sort it out’—but it is not the strategy that will solve the problem of the movement of migrants. We need first to break up the gangs who encourage migrants in the first place, and secondly to help restore governance and security in the very countries from which these people are fleeing—places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Ironically, those are parts of the world where we have used our own hard power to intervene but then departed before there was enduring stability, and now families are fleeing towards Europe.

“Unless the fires are put out at source, we will never reduce the numbers. We need a broader strategy than simply tasking the Navy to the channel, which will not be the answer.”

Distracting the public

Felicity Laurence, Campaigns and Media organiser for Hastings Community of Sanctuary, which champions refugees seeking asylum, suggests that the announcement of fresh Navy involvement was intended to distract the public from the Government’s own current political difficulties. “The policy is as abhorrent to the Navy itself as it is to all those who want a fair and humane asylum system”, she says. “As their own spokespeople have expressed, their ethical mandate at sea is to protect life – not risk it. Any militarisation of border control is deeply worrying; but if the involvement of military personnel, equipment or training is indeed mandated, it should be harnessed to reduce rather than make even worse the suffering – which we have witnessed directly in Hastings – of the people desperate enough to try to cross the Channel. The Home Office itself confirms that virtually all of them (98 per cent) are seeking asylum and are fleeing from places of terrible conflict or persecution.”

The Defence Committee was due to hear further evidence earlier this week on Operation Isotrope, including what “asset” will be used in countering crossings, who will pay for it, how success will be measured and what the chain of command and reporting arrangements will be. Ministers from the MOD and Home Office were due to appear.

Operation Isotrope

The Royal Navy’s choice of code-name, Operation Isotrope, appears deliberately ironic. An ‘isotropic’ preference, derived from the Greek words isos (equal) and tropos (manner or way) is one that has uniformity in all orientations, having no directional preference. However, the direction of travel from the point of view of those trying to cross the Channel is all-important – they are risking their lives in the hope of being helped forward rather than turned back. 

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