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'Migrants are not enemy combatants': Plans to bring in navy to stop Channel crossings spark anger

Leaked plans to use the navy to intercept asylum seekers crossing the Channel have been condemned.

asylum seekers

Navy officials are said to be "trepidatious" about getting involved in the Channel activity. Image: Ray Jones/Defence Imagery

The government plans to task the Royal Navy with stopping asylum seekers crossing the Channel to the UK, according to reports.

No final decision has been made on how the operation will work, the BBC reports, but it could give Navy officials power to coordinate Border Force, the coastguard and customs to monitor or intercept small boats carrying people seeking safety.

“Migrants are not enemy combatants,” a Migrants’ Rights Network spokesperson said in response to the news.

“A hostile, military response to people in desperate need is callous and needlessly aggressive.”

The plans, which could put the navy in charge of leading widely-condemned “pushback” tactics returning small boats to France, could be put in place within weeks. 

Bail for Immigration Detainees – which provides free legal support to people held in detention – tweeted: “The prime minister, cornered and wounded, is lashing out to save his skin.

“Is there anything more inhumane and directly retraumatising than sending in the military to prevent people fleeing conflict and persecution from coming to the UK?”

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The Sunday Times reported the plans form part of Operation Red Meat – a string of policies to get Tory backbenchers back on-side with Boris Johnson following their revolt in the wake of lockdown party revelations. Around 35 MPs are thought to have submitted letters of no confidence in the prime minister, 19 short of the number required for a vote on his leadership.

Tobis Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chair of the defence select committee, said the “rushed” plans would be a “massive distraction” for the navy.

“This isn’t what our navy should be doing,” he added.

There is “trepidation” among military officials about participating in the controversial operation, the BBC reported.

Around 270 people crossed the Channel from France in 10 small boats on Thursday last week, according to Home Office figures.

The Royal Navy taking charge of operations in the Channel would stop ships such as Border Force and fisheries “being co-ordinated separately”, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said.

Ministers were aiming to “go after the illegal smugglers who are putting these people’s lives at risk,” he told Sky News. 

When told the criminals would not be the among the asylum seekers travelling across the Channel by boat, he said: “Well, they’re the ones we want.” 

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, highlighted that two navy vessels were brought in to patrol the Channel in 2019, intercepting no boats and costing £780,000.

“They need to explain what is different in these latest plans,” she said. “

“They’ve announced pushback [plans] they’ve now admitted won’t work and keep re-announcing offshore processing even though no other country has agreed to it and it was incredibly costly and damaging when tried in Australia.

“This looks like Boris Johnson is using the situation to chase headlines to distract from the total mess he is in as a result of rule-breaking parties in No.10.”

A government spokesperson said “unacceptable” numbers of people were crossing the Channel and that all options to stop them were being explored.

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