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Migrant Crossings: Role of the Military

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 18 January.

“Unacceptable numbers of people continue to make these dangerous channel crossings, and last November’s tragic deaths serve as the strongest reminder of the need to stop them. The Government have been exploring every avenue to prevent further crossings and have now appointed the Ministry of Defence to take operational primacy for cross-channel countermigration operations. That will mean a much larger and more visible role for the Royal Navy in operational planning, asset co-ordination and operational delivery.

As the Home Secretary explained during Home Office Questions yesterday, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence have worked closely on countering the small boats challenge through the military aid to civilian authorities process. Throughout the last 12 months Defence has provided a range of support, including the provision of surveillance aircraft, additional accommodation and planning expertise, and has assisted in the delivery of trials for novel tactics to help Border Force and the Home Office better interdict and deter migrant vessels.

Details of how Defence will deliver and maintain the primacy of cross-channel countermigration operations are currently being worked through. The Government’s objective is that no one should arrive illegally in the United Kingdom on their own terms, and all vessels transporting illegal migrants across the channel must therefore be intercepted before or as they land. Defence is committed to delivering that step change. Details of how it will be achieved will be made known in due course, but the House can be reassured that the MoD is working hand in hand with the Home Secretary and her department to achieve this goal while ensuring the safety of all individuals involved and protecting other Defence priority output.”

My Lords, following the failure of the Government to deal with record numbers of migrants crossing the channel and, rightly, the abandonment of policies such as wave machines and sonic booms, the Navy has been called in. What is the plan? Where are the ships that the Navy will use coming from? Can the Minister also clarify whether the awful policy of pushback is still government policy? The Minister in the other place said only on Monday that pushback remains an option, as has the Home Secretary, but the MoD apparently says that it is not. Who is in control? What is the policy? Although a naval ship might not be used, what about a Border Force vessel? This is a real crisis involving real people, with only a confused policy coming from the Government. It is time that they got a grip.

I am very proud to stand at this Dispatch Box once again on behalf of the MoD to say that, once again, the MoD is going to contribute to dealing with a crisis that has perplexed not just the Government and the Opposition but the public: the danger being encountered by migrants who seek to come to this country and have been enduring appalling experiences while trying to cross the channel. That is why the MoD’s primary role will be to ensure that all vessels transporting illegal migrants across the channel are intercepted before or as they land, preventing the uncontrolled arrival of migrants on UK shores. The Armed Forces will not be engaged in turnaround tactics.

My Lords, the Minister was asked if she could say where the ships were coming from. Could she answer that question and say whether the MoD will be funding this new activity or whether the Home Office will pick up the tab, and whether there are not also diplomatic routes to try to ensure that, instead of stopping boats landing, the boats never leave the departing shores?

The noble Baroness makes an important series of points. She is right, for example, that the Home Office and the FCDO will continue the primary discussion with France on the diplomatic front. I reassure her that Defence has a very strong relationship with France, and we regularly speak to our counterparts on matters of mutual interest. Funding will be required for this, and the Ministry of Defence is currently computing costs with a view to informing discussions with the Treasury. On the assets, we are dealing with a domestic situation in largely indigenous waters, and therefore the capabilities that Defence makes available for this task will be assets already permanently assigned and committed to operations in home waters, including offshore patrol vessels, P2000s and RHIBs.

My Lords, it is very unlikely that the migration effort by people wanting to come to this country will cease. I must therefore ask the Minister how long the Ministry of Defence expects to be committed to this task. Is it indefinite or for a set period?

I say to the noble and gallant Lord that the overall responsibility for dealing with immigration is cross-government. In so far as the MoD’s operational role is concerned, it will retain primacy of operational control until public confidence is restored and the number of individuals attempting to enter the UK through this route is brought under manageable levels.

Forgive me, my Lords, I am not clear from my noble friend’s Answer as to whether or not this task will be subject to MACA rules. If it is, can she reassure me that for once the MoD will remember to send the bill, as it does not always do so? Could she clarify exactly where this task sits in the order of priority of defence tasks?

I reassure my noble friend that a keen eye will be kept on funding. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the MoD is currently computing costs to inform discussions with the Treasury—and, yes, we will certainly make sure that bills presented are paid. We are satisfied that this deployment does not in any way impinge on or prejudice our ability to carry out our broader MoD responsibilities on behalf of the nation.

My Lords, the Answer suggests to me that the Government have not thought this through. It makes all sorts of vague comments like

“are currently being worked through”


“will be made known in due course”.

Has this even been discussed with the French authorities? Without co-operation with the French, we are not going to get anywhere. Lastly, the Answer keeps talking about “illegal” people. If they are refugees or claiming to be so then they are not illegal; they are people who have an entitlement to claim asylum status.

I thank the noble Lord. I have endeavoured to refer to them as “migrants” because that is what they are. The MoD’s role is to assist the Government’s broader objectives in approaching immigration policy by dealing with this particular aspect in the channel, which has caused such concern and has been such a source of heart-breaking tragedy and worry to the migrants themselves. The noble Lord asked whether this plan had been thought through. Obviously, the detail has to be worked out but it is very positive that the MoD is gladly taking on this role, and Defence Ministers have committed to providing a Statement to both Houses once the plans for implementing defence primacy have been thoroughly worked through and refined.

My Lords, has the Minister had a chance to look at the implications for her department’s actions under UNCLOS, the law of the sea, and will she assure us that we will always conform to it? Will she return to the debate that was held in your Lordships’ House two weeks ago today on behalf of Cross-Bench Peers that drew attention to the over 80 million refugees and displaced people in the world today, and to the calls from throughout the House to look not just at the pull factors but at the push factors and to co-ordinate cross-department activity and international activity in getting to the root cause?

I reassure the noble Lord that, whatever the MoD does in its primacy of operational control, discharge of that duty will absolutely be done in compliance with international laws and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The noble Lord is quite right that there is a much broader picture here that is shared by countries across the world, and he is correct to identify it as a need to be addressed in the hope that we can stop migrants setting off on perilous journeys in the first place.

My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, not right that until agreement is reached with the French to take them back, it does not really matter who picks them out of the water?

What is important is that we have in place a plan to try to mitigate and prevent the misery that has been enduring, which I think has been upsetting to everyone. That is what this initiative is about.

My Lords, I can understand the impact on Daily Mail readers of the news that the Navy has taken charge, but I am not sure how many refugees seeking asylum in the UK read the Daily Mail. So what practical difference will we see—or, more importantly, will they see—in deterring refugees from crossing the channel in small boats?

The involvement of the Navy is primarily to ensure that the dangers that have confronted migrants setting out on this hazardous course can be assuaged or even prevented from arising altogether. That is why the modus operandi will be one of interception and escort; the Navy will be responsible for bringing migrants to UK shores in a safe and controlled manner. That will prevent uncontrolled or undocumented arrivals.

My Lords, Tobias Ellwood, the well-respected chair of the Defence Committee in the other place, has called these proposals “rushed” and a “massive distraction” for the military, but of course it is a massive distraction for the electorate as well. Does the Minister understand the fear that proposals to deploy the military against desperate refugees causes in refugee and migrant communities who are already here? This smacks not of the dog whistle but of the foghorn.

I totally disagree. This is a positive intervention to, as I said earlier, assuage and prevent tragedy and make a positive contribution to helping the plight in which the migrants find themselves.

My Lords, just before Christmas the French Government closed their borders to British citizens, seeming to be able to do so legally. Can the Minister explain to the British public how they can do that, yet we seem not to be able to stop migrants illegally coming into our country?

As I said earlier, the broader issues of immigration policy are a matter for the Home Office and the FCDO, and the issues that the noble Baroness mentions are something that they are actively pursuing. The role of the MoD in respect of this immediate requirement, which I think is a positive participation and involvement, is to try to ensure that migrants who set out on these hazardous journeys are supported to safety in a controlled manner.