On Monday the British government announced it would be drafting in members of the armed forces to help control the situation in the Channel, as migrants continue to cross despite cold temperatures and winter weather.
After more than 28,000 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK in 2021, and more continue to arrive in 2022, the British government has announced it is drafting in the military in an attempt to limit small boat arrivals.
The new policy was confirmed by Britain's Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Priti Patel in Parliament (House of Commons) on Monday, January 17. Patel said that the government had "commissioned the Ministry of Defense (MOD) as a crucial operational partner, to protect our Channel against illegal migration." According to reports by the BBC, the military involvement "could begin within weeks."
The move to involve other government departments, other than the Home Office, for which Patel is minister, has been explained by some political analysts in the UK and opposition MPs as a distraction measure, to direct reporters towards news other than that of the scandals surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson and allegations of having broken COVID lockdown rules multiple times.
Military is 'latest tool in government's arsenal'
Patel says that the move is just the latest tool in the government’s arsenal and something she has been requesting since 2020. She said that in her opinion, "no department can resolve the complex issue of Channel crossings on its own. It is also right, having called for MOD involvement, that we now bring the whole machinery of government, the ultimate utility, together to ensure that we work collectively to protect our borders."
During the debate, printed on Hansard, a fellow Conservative MP, Philip Davies, suggested that the quickest way to stop the "dangerous" crossings was to "simply turn the boats back and escort them back into French waters." Davies said he believed it "would not take long for the word to get around that these crossings were futile."
Pushbacks as policy?
The Home Secretary answered him that this "is the policy of this Government." She said that the Border Force had been commissioned to do that, and along with the MOD they would be "doing exactly that." She added that ways of doing that had already been "tested and technology is being used, and the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested, with the basis to do that."
Pushing back boats in the Channel has been repeatedly criticized by rights groups as well as the French government. The use of pushbacks are against EU and international law and were condemned just last week by the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.
Border Force officers, via the trade unions that represent many of them, have said that they will not push back boats. The MOD has also said that they will not directly be involved in any possible pushbacks, but are rather there to support the Border Force.
Patel was also questioned about possible plans to have asylum seekers processed offshore in countries such as Gambia.
In response, Patel said that the government is "considering all options for outsourcing processing and for removing people with no legal basis to be in our country." Patel added that she was continuing to "discuss this with a range of countries," but refused to say which they might be, saying that "didn’t matter."
Opposition criticizes high costs and ineffective policy
Another source at the MOD told the BBC that there was some "trepidation" about the military getting involved in such a complex issue. Some ministers, however, disagree with the strategy. Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood, who is also chairman of the Defense Select Committee, criticized the plans as "rushed" and said they could be a "massive distraction" for the military when it had far more pressing issues to deal with, not least Russia’s build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border and China's policies.
On the Labour Party’s website, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper stated that the government had already brought in the navy to patrol the Channel in 2019. According to her, the two vessels used had failed to intercept any migrant boats and had cost the government 780,000 pounds, about €932,000.
The government, according to Cooper, "failed to do the serious, practical work with France that is needed to stop lives being lost and criminal gangs profiting from dangerous Channel crossings." Cooper said the government needed to explain what the difference would be with this latest round of military involvement.
'Militarization won't work'
Cooper added that the government’s policies, like offshore processing, pushbacks mid-Channel, condemned by experts as too dangerous, as well as illegal, (and presumably would practically involve British military ships straying into French waters without permission -- thus potentially causing diplomatic tension at the very least) had been proved "time and again" not to work.
Cooper called upon the Prime Minister, who says he is personally taking control of the strategy in the Channel, to explain whether this latest decision "means he has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and the Border Force or whether this is really about the crisis of confidence in him."
The Chief Executive of the Refugee Council in Britain, Enver Solomon, called the government’s drafting in of the military "desperate desperate measures from a Prime Minister fighting to survive." He said the government was "unable to find any solutions that will create a fair, humane and effective asylum system."
Solomon concluded that "militarization won’t work. People who have lost everything need compassion and humanity."