The UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is under fire for a controversial plan to involve the navy in an attempt to prevent migrants and refugees from making desperate bids to cross the English Channel and claim asylum.
Patel said on Sunday that she had formally requested help from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and had appointed an ex-royal marine, Dan O'Mahoney, to work with the French government as a "clandestine channel threat commander" to try to reduce the number of small boat crossings.
Although naval war ships have not yet been drafted in, O’Mahoney will be looking at "stronger enforcement measures, adopting interceptions at sea, and the direct return of boats," the government press release said.
Patel said that the number of small boat crossings — essentially people attempting to travel from the French port of Calais in row boats and dinghies — was "appalling." She insisted that her department was working to make the crossing even more "unviable" than it already is and arrest the people smugglers who facilitate the crossings.
But her statements have been met with dismay from aid workers and charities working with refugees, as well as criticism from sources from inside the MoD itself. Critics say military action could be illegal — and might lead to an increase in migrant fatalities.
It also comes at a time when migrants and refugees are more vulnerable than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to the PA News Agency, and reported on Aug. 7, a MoD source said involving the navy was "impractical and unnecessary," adding that "it is a completely inappropriate and disproportionate approach to take."
"We don't resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings," the source said.
In addition, Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme director, described the plan as "unlawful, reckless, and dangerous" in a press statement, stressing that it is "wholly legitimate for people to seek asylum in this country."
He added: "What is needed is cooperation with France to share responsibility for providing a place of safety, including the UK government reuniting families and enabling more people to travel safely to make asylum claims in this country."
"But while ministers beat their chests, the real and immediate needs of women, men, and children fleeing war and persecution are being ignored," he said.
More than 4,000 migrants have now reached the UK in 2020 by crossing the English Channel, according to the latest reports, including families with young children. The situation hit the headlines last week when 235 people travelling in 17 boats — a record in a single day — were intercepted on the dangerous journey on Aug. 7.
In total, 35,099 applications for asylum were made in the UK in the year to March 2020. However, this pales in comparison to some of our closest neighbours. In France, 154,620 registrations for asylum were made in 2019 — while Germany received 111,094 first-time applications for asylum in 2019, down from a peak of 890,000 in 2015.
The majority of people who attempt this route through Europe are fleeing violent conflict from places like Syria, where a civil war is ongoing, as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, and Sudan, according to the non-profit food distribution charity Care4Calais.
Claire Moseley, who runs Care4Calais, told the Guardian in an interview that the people she works with come from the "worst places to live in the world" at the moment.
"Every day I talk to people who have been tortured – they are covered in scars," she said.
She added that she is often asked why refugees don’t just settle in mainland Europe where they first arrive — she says that they do.
"France has four times as many asylum seekers as the UK, and Germany even more," she explained. "Why shouldn’t they try to reach the UK? For some, that is where they have family; others can’t get protection anywhere else."
In response to questions about whether the navy will be brought in to stop migrants crossing the water from France, a Home Office spokesperson told HuffPost that the Home Office had "submitted a Military Aid to Civilian Authorities request" as part of its role in the situation with the English Channel.
"Home Office staff have been working closely with MoD colleagues over the weekend in order to assess what military expertise and capability can be provided," the spokesperson said.