Navy and RAF will be deployed to fight migrant trafficking crisis in the Channel

Britain’s Armed Forces were activated by Boris Johnson last night to tackle the migrant crisis in the Channel.

The Ministry of Defence will take control of the operation within weeks, after the Prime Minister signed off a dramatic change in tactics.

Royal Navy vessels and RAF support are expected to be deployed on patrol in UK territorial waters as part of a policy blitz dubbed Operation Red Meat that Mr Johnson hopes will turn the tide of Tory disquiet.

For the first time, the UK Border Force will be placed under a military chain of command in the fight against people traffickers.

Officials hope the involvement of the Armed Forces will have a significant ‘deterrent effect’.

Government sources pledged the move would result in ‘demonstrable change’ in the Channel crisis, which last year saw a record 28,300 migrants reach the UK from northern France. 

Royal Navy vessels and RAF support are expected to be deployed on patrol in UK territorial waters in a bid to tackle the migrant crisis in the Channel

A group of migrants pictured using an inflatable dinghy to make the journey across the Channel to reach the UK in November

Operation Red Meat: Taking back control 

‘Operation Red Meat’ is expected to include:

  • A No 10 workplace ‘booze ban’ to end the drinking culture that led to party row. Boris Johnson is drafting rules for Downing Street staff that will limit alcohol to being served only at official functions. 
  • Clearout of No 10 staff caught up in party row. Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary who emailed the ‘bring your own booze’ invite for the Downing Street garden party in the first lockdown, and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, are among those seen at risk.
  • Two-year BBC licence fee freeze to help ease household bills. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is expected to confirm that the cost of an annual licence will remain at £159 until 2024.
  • Drive to bring down NHS waiting lists. The number of people on a hospital waiting list in England hit six million for the first time, figures showed last week. In December, nearly 27 per cent of patients at A&E waited more than four hours to be seen – a record high. 
  • Extra money for jobs and skills training to help those out of work and further reduce the number of jobseekers. The unemployment rate fell to 4.2 per cent in the three months to the end of October, down from 4.3 per cent in the three months to the end of September.
  • Get rid of Plan B Covid restrictions, such as the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport and vaccine passports for large events on January 26. 
  • Publication of the Levelling Up white paper. The document, which is being prepared by Michael Gove, will set out the Government’s strategy to improve lives in neglected towns. It is expected to come in the first week of February.
  • As announced last night, the military will be drafted in to tackle illegal immigration in the Channel. Defence chiefs will take charge of efforts to stop the dangerous crossings that have reached record levels this year. Royal Navy boats could be sent to reinforce Border Force’s fleet.

Tory MPs welcomed the move last night. It was the first major announcement as Mr Johnson seeks to get his premiership back on track in the wake of the ‘Partygate’ scandals that have rocked his government.

‘The command of Border Force, which oversees incidents in the Channel, will move over to the Ministry of Defence,’ a Whitehall source said.

‘This will take place by the end of the month or early February. Within a couple of weeks there will be a demonstrable change in how the Channel operation takes place. It makes a lot of sense.’

Home Secretary Priti Patel first requested military involvement in summer 2020, when the numbers crossing from France stood at just a few thousand a year.

Last night a Home Office source said: ‘We’ve been pushing for it for so long, but there has been massive reluctance to act in other parts of government. 

‘Priti has been asking for military defence of UK territorial waters since August 2020 and after months and months of wrangling in Whitehall the PM has agreed with her that we need a change in operational posture.’

Asked whether it could mean military assets deployed in the Channel, a Whitehall source said: ‘That is ultimately a question for the military, but yes it probably does, and it will certainly mean many more military personnel becoming involved.’

November saw 27 migrants, including women and children, drown on the French side of the Channel in the worst tragedy since the start of the crisis. They were among at least 39 people to have lost their lives trying to make the crossing in 2021.

On Friday a Sudanese man in his 20s became the first migrant so far this year to lose his life attempting to reach the UK.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said: ‘Everyone knows the Royal Navy rules the waves. This sends a clear message how serious Britain is about putting a stop to these dangerous crossings.

‘Too many lives have been lost in recent months and this crisis has gone on too long.’

The latest move indicates declining confidence in the UK Border Force within the upper echelons of the Home Office.

Earlier this month a trade union which represents 80 per cent of Border Force staff threatened strike action over Miss Patel’s proposals to turn back migrants.

The Public and Commercial Services Union described that part of the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently going through Parliament, as ‘morally reprehensible’.

Military involvement in the Channel will open up the prospect of so-called ‘pushback’ tactics, as set out in the Bill, being carried out by the Navy rather than Border Force.

‘The trade union threat to strike has certainly helped push the involvement of the military up the agenda,’ one Whitehall source said. 

It will also free up Border Force officials to concentrate on measures pledged under the Government’s New Plan for Immigration, such as a twin-track asylum system and new processing centres.

The Home Office will also carry out a review of the ‘powers and capabilities’ of Border Force and Immigration Enforcement officers.

MoD officials are understood to want HM Coastguard to come under their remit in the Channel. The role played by the RNLI, a charity, is yet to be finalised.

Military deployments in the Channel are currently limited to surveillance equipment.

A nerve centre at Lydd airport in Kent, 25 miles south-west of Dover, controls Army ‘Watchkeeper’ drones which hunt down migrant boats with high-definition optical sensors and infrared cameras.

The £6million Watchkeepers, which have a 36ft wingspan, are operated by 47th Regiment Royal Artillery. They can remain airborne for up to 14 hours.

In 2019, HMS Mersey was positioned in the Dover Strait temporarily under a deal between then Home Secretary Sajid Javid and the MoD. 

The 260ft offshore patrol vessel was deployed while two Border Force cutters, Seeker and Protector, were brought back from the Mediterranean in the early days of the Channel crisis.

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