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Factsheet: Maritime primacy

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On 14 April 2022, the Prime Minister officially announced that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will take operational command of responding to small boat crossings in the English Channel as part of a cross-government effort to tackle illegal migration, which will step up boat detection and help crackdown on criminal ‘pilots’.

Alongside this action, which will help to disrupt the business model of people-smuggling gangs, the military, including Royal Navy officers and assets will work side by side in partnership with Border Force officers with a single joint command structure in place.

This will happen with immediate effect and will bolster Border Force teams with expert military personnel and provide additional maritime vessels and aerial surveillance, including a Wildcat helicopter. The change will be backed up by £50million in new funding, which over time will deliver new boats and surveillance assets.

Migrants who cross the Channel will go through initial checks at Western Jet Foil, Dover before being transferred to a new processing site at Manston, Kent for further checks.

Small boat arrivals will be intercepted before or as soon as they land on coast, processed efficiently and, where their claim is deemed inadmissible, they may be removed to a safe third country. For more information, go to the Migration and Economic Development Partnership factsheet.

Strengthening collaboration between the Border Force and Defence, this will significantly enhance the ability to detect boats and ensure control of UK borders. One important part of the new approach is increasing Border Force capacity to gather evidence for criminal investigations, ensuring more people-smugglers who trade in these life-threatening journeys can be referred for prosecution and brought to justice. This move forms part of the government’s wider plan to tackle illegal migration through the New Plan for Immigration, ramp up cross-government action to prevent dangerous small boats crossings and ultimately save lives.

 Why is the MoD taking over primacy in the Channel?

  • We are extremely concerned about the safety of those people who attempt to cross the English Channel in small boats. Last year there were three times as many crossings in 2021 compared to 2020, and we witnessed the tragic loss of lives at sea - this is absolutely unacceptable and a tragedy for those involved.
  • The UK government has been exploring every avenue to prevent further crossings. Defence has supported the Home Office over the last two years and worked closely on strengthening the approach to tackling illegal immigration. Defence is now stepping up that support by taking primacy of the government’s operational response. The Armed Forces have the knowledge, equipment and expertise to supplement Border Force assets, expertise and experience to optimise this response.
  • This approach matches that taken by our international partners, where the Navy take operational control of waters.
  • In the face of severe pressures on the asylum system, it’s right that we make maximum use of government resources to tackle the crisis, which includes the MoD’s expertise in command, control and coordination of operational responses.

How will this work in practice? 

  • Sitting under a new Joint Inter Agency Task Force (JIATF), defence will take command of all assets responding to illegal channel crossings, including Border Force vessels and the operational elements of the Clandestine Channel Threat Command. A single joint command structure, will integrate maritime operations in the English Channel to monitor, prevent, intercept and respond to crossing attempts and address the mounting risk of further fatalities at sea.
  • This structure will be led by Commodore John Craig, and Defence’s contribution to managing small boat crossings will be overseen by Lt Gen Ian Cave, Commander Standing Joint Command.
  • This will bolster the already existing engagement between MoD, Border Force and other agencies such as the French authorities, which have been addressing an unprecedented surge in small boat crossings.
  • The military will provide operational oversight and coordination of maritime operations. Together with staff from Home Office, Border Force Maritime Command and Clandestine Channel Threat Command (operations), they will deliver the government’s objectives of protecting safety of life sea whilst ensuring control of the UK’s borders.

What will Home Office’s involvement be?

  • The Home Office will retain overall responsibility for the security of the UK border and illegal migration policy, including the plan to fix the UK’s asylum and immigration system. Border Force will support the response to small boat crossings where needed in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, alongside other maritime threats.
  • It will remain responsible for counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and other illicit threats in UK territorial waters, including goods and other forms of clandestine arrivals.
  • Border Force and Immigration Enforcement will lead on all aspects of immigration crime relating to the UK Border, including working with NCA and regional police to identify, investigate and convict the organised criminal gangs fuelling people smuggling via these dangerous routes.

Who will lead on gathering / issuing data for small boat crossings?

  • The MoD will take the lead on issuing numbers of small boat crossings. The MoD will update on this approach as soon as possible.
  • All queries on military primacy should be directed to the Ministry of Defence. For wider queries on illegal migration including the New Plan for Immigration and the asylum system, the Home Office should be contacted.

Will the Home Office still publish quarterly small boat statistics?

  • Yes. The Home Office now include data on small boat crossings, including age, nationality and gender of people arriving as part of migration statistics published on GOV.UK. MoD Statistical leads will feed into this working closely with the Home Office’s Statistical leads.
  • The latest publication can be found here: Irregular migration to the UK, year ending December 2021.

Crackdown on criminal ‘pilots’

  • Serious and organised criminal gangs use dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings to make significant cash profits for their illegal enterprises.
  • Their criminal networks are spread across Europe, moving people - with no care for their health or welfare - from country to country.
  • It is only right that the UK government pursues every avenue available to put an end to these crossings and save lives.
  • The needless crossings take up significant Home Office, coastguard and RNLI resource and seriously hampers the government’s ability to help refugees come to the UK via safe and legal routes.
  • We are launching a renewed crackdown on despicable people smugglers. Under measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament, every small boat incident will be examined to determine who has been piloting the boat.
  • Every event, where we have any evidence to identify a pilot, will be the subject of an investigation.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service has been working collaboratively with investigative partners like Immigration Enforcement to ensure they’re aware of the evidence needed to reach its legal test. Each case will be decided on its own merit and decisions on prosecution will be made independently, applying the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

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