HMS Mersey, migrants and the Royal Navy

After declaring a “major incident” the Home Secretary has formally requested assistance from the MoD to deal with a growing number of migrants attempting to enter the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The right tools for the job?

On 3rd January HMS Mersey left Portsmouth and will be deployed in the Channel. The Home office will pay the MoD the approximately £20,000 per day it costs to operate the ship and she will remain on station until relieved by the two UK Border Force cutters returning from the Mediterranean. It is unclear how long this will take, HMC Seeker is currently alongside in Gibraltar and HMC Protector is in the harbour at Mytilini on the Greek island of Lesbos.

HMS Mersey and HMS Tyne are the only OPVs the RN currently has available. HMS Severn is just beginning the process of being reactivated after being de-stored and in mothballs since decommissioning in 2017. HMS Forth is supposed to go to sea very soon after technical problems delayed her entry into service and she is earmarked to head to the Falklands to relieve HMS Clyde. The new HMS Medway is in Glasgow, having completed her initial sea trials but may need further work before joining the fleet and conducting Operational Sea Training. HMS Tyne also sailed from Portsmouth on 3rd January to conduct the normal fishery protection and UK waters patrols. The decision to retain the Batch 1 OPVs in service is already being vindicated, although there are still far too few vessels available to protect the UK. Only a single vessel left on fishery protection duties to cover 3,230 km2 of territorial waters is clearly inadequate. The UKBF is also under-equipped, in August 2016 the Home Affairs Select Committee reported that “the number of Border Force vessels in operation is worryingly low to cover 7,820 miles of UK coastline”


UKBF cutters have been deployed in the Mediterranean and Aegean for the last 5 years, a policy not without merit. (HMS Mersey was also in the Aegean working with Greek and Turkish coastguards, alerting them to sightings of migrant vessels during 2016) It is intended to help deal with the problem ‘at source’ by reducing the number of migrants entering Europe to begin with. It also demonstrated to Southern European nations that we were not just content to let them deal with the issue without help from the UK, the intended destination of many of the migrants.

The UKBF has a total of 5 cutters, three of which are in UK waters and the Home Office says HMC Vigilant and HMC Searcher are already in the Channel, while HMC Valiant is undergoing maintenance. They have a crew of around 16 and a top speed of about 26 knots. Supplementing the cutters are HMC Active, Alert, Eagle and Nimrod – 4 former Rescue and Recovery Craft that were operated by BP in the North Sea. These fast 18-metre craft were hastily acquired by the UKBF in 2016 and can achieve up to 34 knots in calm seas.

The Home Office also says the RAF will be also involved in the migrant patrol mission, although no details have be given about what assets might be used. The Royal Navy leased several Boeing Scan Eagle UAVs for trails and operational use from June 2014- December 2016 but a shortage of funds did not allow them to be retained in service. Cheap to operate and with long endurance surveillance, UAVs of this type would be ideal for monitoring activity in the Channel.

HMC Searcher

One of the five UK Border Force Cutters – HMC-Searcher

What are HMS Mersey’s orders?

For HMS Mersey, conducting surveillance a few miles away from Portsmouth and in partnership with other UK government agencies is not especially demanding or a big departure from normal OPV duties. Should she be involved in rescuing migrants from small boats and delivering them into UK ports that would be something different and probably attract a storm of controversy. “The Royal Navy is not a taxi service for immigrants” is a frequent compliant and by rescuing people it only encourages the people traffickers to send more people to sea in dangerous boats. There is truth in this, but the authorities have a very thorny problem to deal with and few attractive options. The English Channel divides down the centre, and the agreement with France is that people picked up in British waters are taken to the UK to have their asylum claim processed, while those rescued in French waters are taken back to France.

Those advocating “they should be left to drown” or even “machine-gunned in the water” are proposing we break all international laws and behave with inhumanity on a par with the Nazis. The vast majority of migrants are just ordinary people in the most desperate of circumstances and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. There is a financial cost to this that government has little choice but to accept because people have to be housed and fed, at least until their future determined. If they are genuine asylum seekers then they need to be allowed to live in the UK or Europe, at least temporarily. The majority are probably technically ‘economic migrants’, who may have escaped terrible conditions but unfortunately have no right to live here. The solution to poverty and failed states in Africa and the Middle East cannot be mass migration to Europe.

It is something of a myth that “the Royal Navy rescued a migrant who later committed the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack”. Salman Abedi was in fact already a British citizen when he was evacuated from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, along with many other British nationals by HMS Enterprise in August 2014. It might however, be sensible for the authorities to treat unaccompanied young males arriving without identification as a particular risk and a processing priority.

There are some who question if the RN should be involved at all and perhaps this is more about political posturing and being seen to ‘do something’. The Italians may look at the Home Secretary’s declaration of a “major incident” with a wry smile. Over the past decade, Italy has been the destination for many thousands of migrants crossing from Libya and rescued by naval forces or NGO vessels. HMS Bulwark alone rescued several thousand people from boats in the Mediterranean and delivered them to Italy during operations in June 2015. During the 2018 English Channel ‘migrant crisis’ 539 people attempted to enter the UK illegally using small boats, of which 80% were in the last 3 months. There was a previous ‘migrant panic’ in June 2016 when a handful of people made it across the Channel, while various newspapers blamed the RN and printed all kinds of daft editorials demanding the building of corvette navy.

“Aid to the Civil Power” will always be a role for the armed forces in a crisis but fundamentally policing work should remain a job for civilian agencies. It is reassuring the RN is ready and able to bolster the UK Border force for a short period when needed. This ‘crisis’ has shown there is a shortage of both RN and UKBF patrol assets which needs to be addressed but even if better equipped, neither of these agencies can solve the problem of migration, which is a global issue requiring joined-up international agreements.