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Royal Navy Turns Down Migrant "Push Back" Mission in English Channel

river class patrol vessel
Under the Home Office's proposal, Royal Navy patrol vessels would have joined the UK Border Force in a "push back" effort (Royal Navy file image)

Published Feb 2, 2022 10:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Navy has fully ruled out the possibility of engaging in a "push back" effort to deter migrant vessels in the English Channel. 

In August 2020, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel called for the Royal Navy to assist with an attempt to stem the rising number of migrant crossings. "I am working to make this route unviable," she said in a statement at the time. "This involves: 1) stopping the boats leaving France in the first place; 2) intercepting boats and returning those attempting to make a crossing." The UK Ministry of Defense pledged to look at how it could "most effectively assist" the Home Office, but did not deploy forces for the effort in 2020 or 2021.

In recent weeks, Royal Navy sources have quietly told the British press that they are not interested in the pushback effort. “I’m not sure pushback would work; it’s not part of our ethics,” one source from the service told The Guardian. 

In comments before Parliament on Wednesday, Patel said that despite the rumors, the service's decision was not yet final. “The work isn’t complete so it’s totally inappropriate for me to comment on operational planning on what either the navy or Border Force will be doing,” she said. 

However, in a follow-up message Wednesday night, the UK Ministry of Defence made clear that the decision had indeed been made. "The Royal Navy and the Royal Marines will not be using push back tactics in the English Channel, although a military commander will retain the existing ability to instruct Border Force to use them when appropriate," the ministry said in a Twitter post. 

Maritime migration to the UK spiked in 2021, and more than 28,000 people crossed the English Channel in small craft in an attempt to reach Britain over the course of the year. On November 12, a record 1,185 migrants crossed on a single day; the previous record of 853 had just been set on November 3. The high rate of arrivals has been a persistent source of political difficulty for the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Patel has repeatedly pledged to bring the numbers down. 

Human rights NGOs (and the French government) suggest that the circumstances are also challenging for the migrants themselves. Hundreds have had to be rescued by the UK Border Force, French patrol boats, the UK's volunteer-run RNLI lifesaving organization, and by passing merchant vessels. Not all of the migrants have survived: on November 24, a collision between a container ship and an inflatable raft claimed the lives of at least 27 people.