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MS5 - Channel Crossings

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Mr Speaker,

With your permission I would make a brief statement to the House regarding ongoing events in the English Channel.

Nearly 5,000 illegal migrants have crossed the English Channel from France in order to claim asylum in the United Kingdom this year. In doing so they risk their own lives and the lives of others, put funding into the hands of people smugglers who are often organised criminals involved in other nefarious dealings, undermine the integrity of the UK border and attempt to enter the United Kingdom illegally.

The Government’s position is abundantly clear: migrants travelling from France are not fleeing persecution or indeed any tangible threat. They are already residing in a safe country. Thus at the moment of their departing across the Channel, they become in effect economic migrants: and their attempts to enter the UK illegally should be resisted.

This morning, the Home Office received intelligence that as many as forty small boats were preparing to cross the channel in the most significant crossing yet this year. After meeting with Cabinet colleagues and securing the cooperation of the Ministry of Defence, the government ordered the Commander UK Strike Force to implement new tactics as part of Operation Isotrope. From today, orders have been given that boats attempting to cross the Channel illegally can be intercepted and pushed back by the Royal Navy.

Today, loudhailers and water hoses - as well as physical blocking techniques - were used to prevent the crossing of a total of 27 small vessels. All 27, each carrying 20 or 30 migrants, were turned around in international waters and escorted back to the boundary with French waters.

This action is nothing more or less than what the British public expects. For too long the security of our borders has been under threat by persistent small boat crossings. And there is a humanitarian consideration here too: for as long as the migrants and the people smugglers know they have a chance of success, they will continue to attempt a crossing which leads too many to their deaths. By taking a firm approach and ensuring the failure of crossing attempts, we can disincentivise further such attempts and spread the word throughout Calais that the treacherous voyage across the Channel is no longer a viable route to claiming asylum in the UK.

I am confident that our actions today are fully compliant with Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights; there was no expulsion of migrants, as the boats were turned before they reached British seas. And I am also confident that we are compliant with the principle of non-refoulement, given that Britain and the international community regard France as a safe country where individuals are not in danger of facing persecution.

Mr Speaker, the British people have cried out time and time again for strong borders and for the government to put an end to the Channel crossings crisis. This government is delivering on those priorities. The Royal Navy will continue to conduct pushback operations, and I anticipate the same high level of success in the future that we have seen today. The government is delivering the right way forward: and Britain is feeling the benefit.

I commend this statement to the House.


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Mr Speaker,

I thank the Right Honourable Home Secretary for her statement, and for demonstrating that someone can take complete pride in admitting failure. She says in her own statement that “the British people have cried out time and again for strong borders” and for a solution to migrant Channel crossings. 

And she points out that this Government has failed. 

Part of the selling point of Brexit was the ability to take control of our borders and to address issues related to migrants coming to the United Kingdom while fleeing desperate circumstances. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on flashy deterrent measures: more and faster patrol boats for Border Force, expanding hiring of Border Force officers, direct payments to France to boost security, and now payments to Rwanda for asylum processing. And the Home Secretary admits that none of those have worked to actually stop crossings.

Far from coming up with new solutions, the Home Secretary has begged for the Royal Navy to take over- after they said in February this year that they would not be participating in pushback operations, and on Twitter no less. The Home Secretary begged for the Royal Navy to use techniques that they stated to Parliament were inappropriate to the circumstances and contrary to the mission and reputation of brave sailors that are trained to save lives and keep this country safe. 

Labour agrees that there needs to be a solution to the issue of migrant crossings. It is a complex issue that requires solutions rooted in compassion and reason rather than brute force like the Home Secretary has proudly hailed. And if this Government wants to discuss reasoned, compassionate, and effective measures, Labour stands ready to assist in resolving an issue that is of concern to millions.

But instead of looking for those solutions, the Home Secretary begged to have sailors of the Royal Navy, in armed and armored patrol boats, use force and the implied threat of violence to turn away men, women, and children fleeing desperate circumstances, and in the busiest commercial shipping lane in the world. 

Rather than asking Royal Navy sailors to do their job to assist vessels in distress and protect life- something that these sailors train for- the Home Secretary begged to have these sailors ordered to go against years of training and centuries of tradition and reputation as a force for good. 

Her own statement confirms this. Not only did the Royal Navy use loudspeakers, but water hoses and physical contact with vessels to turn them away. Tactics that the Ministry of Defence recommended against in this very House because of the danger to life and that were inappropriate. But nevertheless, the Home Secretary begged for them to be used because she could not solve the problem. 

I hope, Mr Speaker, that the Home Secretary will clarify the rules of engagement that the Royal Navy is now using. Or perhaps since it is no longer something she is handling, I hope that the Defence Secretary will answer to that. Because we are nearing a point with these tactics- particularly with high-pressure water and with physical contact between boats- where an armored Royal Navy patrol boat could cause injury or loss of life to men, women, and children that are trying to cross the Channel in an overloaded dinghy. 

Will the Home Secretary outline the rules of engagement that the Royal Navy is using in stopping migrant boats? What other means would be used if the tactics we saw today didn't result in turning boats back?

Did the Home Secretary assess whether their tactics- particularly the use of water cannons and physical contact- put lives, particularly those of children, at risk given that this is in the busiest shipping lane in the world?

We are in a danger zone where a child, coming from a warzone with her parents, having sold off everything in a chance to escape, and the first thing they see of the United Kingdom is a vessel with an automatic cannon ramming into them or spraying them with high-pressure hoses in an effort to get them to turn back. 

I know that the sailors of the Royal Navy will do everything in their power to protect life and to help people. I’m afraid, though, that the Government has ordered them- at the Home Secretary’s pleading- to act differently. 

It is beyond doubt that the duty to rescue and save lives at sea is one of the oldest and best-established principles of customary international law of the sea. It is a duty that dates back centuries and has been further enshrined in numerous international treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. The Royal Navy has done this honourably for centuries. 

And did the Home Secretary seek any legal advice from her own department, or from the Ministry of Defence, that the orders made- and the “success” that is being trumped- complies with these very real laws and treaties? I know that she is convinced enough to tell the French that nothing untoward happened, but was this the result of legal advice?

I know the Home Secretary spoke to the European Convention on Human Rights and was saved by a technicality, but these other conventions and treaties hold just as much weight.

But lastly, I am concerned that we are also in a danger zone where this failure to address the issue directly, and just adopting a stance that looks strong, is the most we’ll see from this Government which has had years to get control of our borders- like they promised- and that has little to show for the time and money spent for it. 

We need a better solution. We need one that works. That’s what people of this country want, as the Home Secretary rightly points out. And in this statement, the Home Secretary admits she is unable to offer it. 

Devon Milne MP

MP for Aberdeen North (2015 - ) | Scottish National Party


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