English Channel migrant crossings: Why is the UK sending in the navy?

A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Salvamento Maritimo sea search and rescue agency on September 8, 2018.
6 min read
25 January, 2022
Analysis: The UK has announced it will hand over all operations in the English Channel to the Royal Navy in an attempt to deter migrants from crossing. But experts warn that these tactics violate international law and will have little success.

Wave machines, mile-long nets, sonic cannons, and armoured jet skis. These are among the preposterous but genuine outcomes of Home Office brainstorming on ways to deter small boats attempting to cross the channel between Britain and France.  

While many never made it into serious policy proposals, and are in flagrant contravention of international law, some of them have stuck. The climate of panic triggered by the trebling numbers of successful sea crossings in 2021 has galvanised the Conservative Party into action.

Just weeks before 27 people tragically died in the English channel when their boat sank in freezing conditions last November, the UK Border Agency teams were using militarised jet skis and training staff to spin small boats around and lead them back into French waters. 

Constituting a breach of well-established international principles of non-refoulement - compelling states to take in those fleeing persecution - the legal footing for such dangerous tactics is highly dubious.  

"The climate of panic triggered by the trebling numbers of successful sea crossings in 2021 has galvanised the Conservative Party into action"

These efforts were also criticised by high-profile naval figures for exacerbating the already high risk of capsizing overloaded, unsteady boats and putting further lives at risk. While they’ve been practised by Home Office officials, the tactics are yet to be deployed in UK waters.

But last week, amidst ongoing scandals of lockdown parties at the top of government, the UK Home Office announced high-profile plans to change tack again, and hand central control of channel crossing operations to the Royal Navy.

This may be a well-timed play to appease disgruntled right-wing voters unhappy with Boris Johnson, but what will the proposals mean in practice? How do they fit in with the deeply controversial Nationality and Borders bill currently going through Parliament? And will channel crossings continue to rise nonetheless?

A migrant carries her children after being rescued while crossing the English Channel at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021. [Getty]
A migrant carries her children after being rescued while crossing the English Channel at a beach in Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England, on 24 November 2021. [Getty]

The military takeover 

The recent plans are heavy on the headline but, as is typical for the current government, light on detail. It appears that under the current proposal, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is set to take over all controls from the UK Border Force agency as well as other parts of the Home Office response.

When announcing the plans to the House of Commons, Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested that the military could be involved in actively “pushing back” boats in the channel, a highly controversial tactic that she has long supported.

“Means are being tested, technology is being used, but also the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested,” she said.

The use of this tactic has been consistently denied by military officials, with unnamed sources from inside the Ministry of Defence repudiating it and saying “it’s not in our ethics”.

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Even on its own terms, central naval control is unlikely to deliver the results the government dearly wants to show its voter base. Some military grandees even fear that it could have the reverse effect as asylum seekers may feel safer attempting Channel crossings knowing the Royal Navy is in charge.

The former head of the Royal Navy and member of the House of Lords, Lord West of Spithead,  said to BBC Radio 4, “I don’t think it makes any difference really to the problem of more [asylum seekers] coming across, because if I was a people trafficker, I would say to them all, ‘Get in your little boat and go out there, the Royal Navy is now in control of all the shipping that is looking out for you.’”

Nationality and Borders Bill 

Alongside militarising the UK’s principle sea border, another buttress to the government’s plan to limit migration is the Nationality and Borders bill, which would introduce wholescale reform of the immigration system.

Most crucially for those attempting to cross the Channel in small boats, the bill - currently being debated in the House of Lords - seeks to criminalise any attempt to enter the UK without a visa, effectively providing grounds to deport all migrants who arrive by sea without assessing their claims for asylum.

"Another buttress to the government's plan to limit migration is the Nationality and Borders bill, which would introduce wholescale reform of the immigration system"

Since the bill was first announced in Parliament, it has been met with huge criticism from migrant rights groups, legal experts, and trade unions.

A new legal opinion published by international law firm Leigh Day describes the bill as “exorbitant, ill defined and unconstitutional”. The 41-page document, commissioned by the Good Law Project working with Cage and Media Diversified, argues that the bill is weaponising citizenship, and would have the effect of “extinguishing the relationship between the individual and the state”.

In a statement, Muhammad Rabbani, managing director of Cage, described the bill as a “brazen assault on human rights” that “must be challenged”.

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What's behind the rise, and will deterrents work?

Risky boat crossings trebled year on year from 2020 to 2021 - from 8,417 to 28,381 according to the Home Office - and continue to rise in 2022. However, these numbers alone serve to polemicise what is a more complex and changing picture.

According to the Home Office’s own statistics, last year actually saw a 4% decrease in overall asylum claims. So while attempts to arrive in the UK by boat were on the rise over that period, other methods - such as road or air crossings - saw massive drops.

These drops came as traditional crossing points were tightened by measures designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, forcing migrants to take riskier routes to reach the UK.

One activist based in Calais, who agreed to speak to The New Arab on condition of anonymity, said “Given what many migrants have been through, the threshold for deterrence is going to have to be pretty high.”

“Conditions for undocumented migrants in France are terrible, and over a decade of racist Hostile Environment policies in the UK haven’t deterred people - so why should this? People are prepared to die to reach safety. Why else would they cross?” the activist said.

"The increased visibility and optics of migration across the sea has led to bellicose word-wielding from the Tory party and silent hand-wringing from Labour, who hope the problem will somehow go away"

What happens next? 

Leaving the EU has brought the violence of Europe’s southern sea border closer to home. But instead of dying in the Mediterranean, asylum seekers are now washing ashore in Folkestone.

In reality, the UK’s asylum application rate per capita is less than half the European average (it ranks 17th when compared to E.U. nations), but immigration issues are still used as a powerful political weapon.

The increased visibility and optics of migration across the sea has led to bellicose word-wielding from the Tory party and silent hand-wringing from Labour, who hope the problem will somehow go away.

In the absence of leading politicians - of any stripe - making the moral and economic case for more humane migration policies in the UK, policies that ape Australia’s punitive immigration system will continue to fill the political vacuum, and win votes at the ballot box.

Whether they will provide a lasting solution to consistent increases in migration and movement is a separate question.

Austin Cooper is a freelance writer for The New Arab, specialising in Libyan politics and new migration trends. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AustinPatrickC