The Navy’s worldwide reputation could be seriously damaged by becoming a taxi service for migrants across the Channel, a former Royal Navy commander has told MPs.
Tom Sharpe, who served for 26 years in the Navy, said images of Royal Navy ships bringing migrants into Dover under white ensign flags would cause widespread “reputational damage” to the service.
He warned there was a “real danger” that putting the military in charge of combatting the surge in migrants could encourage more to cross the Channel as there was no agreement to return them to France and it was “inconceivable” the Navy could legally or safely “push back” their dinghies.
“If you fill the Channel with ships, you could make this problem worse because you are making the crossing safer and more attractive,” he told MPs on the Defence Select Committee.
“That’s exactly what happened in the Mediterranean where boats were put to sea with 12.1 miles of petrol and the phone number of the nearest navy ship. When they ran out of fuel, they rang and were taken to safety.”
Asked by former defence minister Mark Francois if this meant the Navy would become a more effective taxi service than the Border Force, Mr Sharpe said: “There’s a reputational impact to this. There’s no question the Navy comms team will be dealing with exactly that.
“For those to whom the arrival in Dover of Navy ships full of migrants and the White Ensign on the back is reputational damage to the Royal Navy, that needs to be considered as part of this.”
The comments came as the Home Office confirmed 183 migrants reached the UK across the Channel on Tuesday, bringing the total number of arrivals this month to 1,302 – over five times the 223 people who made the crossing in January 2021. Ministers have been warned 65,000 could cross the Channel this year.
Military sources have made clear that the Navy is planning to focus on escorting migrants to shore for processing in new migrant hubs and has abandoned plans to push back small boats – a tactic urged by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of the defence staff, has said he believes the plan will ensure “no one gets to the UK on their own terms.”
Call to set up ‘hi-tech surveillance’
Mr Sharpe suggested this could be achieved by setting up a hi-tech surveillance system of 10 sensors between Hastings and Ramsgate that, at a cost of just £3 million, would be able to detect any dinghy, through its integrated radar, thermal imaging, optical cameras and cell phone interception.
With that in place “you’re not playing whac-a-mole any more, to use that expression, which is what I think is happening now”, he said, suggesting using such technology could help with efficiently allocating UK vessels if crossings were under way.
Those that could reach the UK under their own power would then be allowed to do so and be tracked before being picked up on landing. “In my view, that’s a better solution in terms of avoiding becoming a taxi service. It stops the idea of flooding the Channel with ships that might make the problem worse,” he said.
He warned that Ms Patel’s “pushback” plans at sea were illegal and unsafe. “I would be happy if the expression pushback was never used again. I cannot conceive of a situation where you are physically turning these ships back which is either legal or more importantly safe,” he said.
“Turning them around, the practicalities of that and legal implications to me are inconceivable that that is a sensible option.”
MPs were also warned that the Navy had “no spare capacity” and would have to divert ships, surveillance equipment and other resources from other tasks to fulfil its commitment to policing the Channel.