Plans to put the military in charge of tackling the number of boats crossing the Channel have been called into question.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to take over command of the operation from the Border Force, reportedly within weeks, in a move signed off by the Prime Minister.
Critics branded the plan “pathetic”, “cruel and inhumane”, while others raised concerns over how it could divert the Royal Navy away from other priorities.
Labour accused Boris Johnson of trying to “distract from the total mess he is in” amid reports of Covid law-breaking parties at Number 10.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Commons she had “commissioned the MoD as a crucial operational partner to protect our Channel against illegal migration”.
Although the MoD confirmed the Government is exploring “every avenue” to prevent more crossings and the Home Office said it was introducing “necessary long-term changes”, little further information has been provided and questions have gone unanswered.
Downing Street refused to comment on “speculation” about the plans but said all options were being pursued.
Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, told MoD staff during a call on Monday afternoon that the plans were still under discussion but may involve leadership, planning and co-ordination of operations, the PA news agency understands.
Asked how the proposals are any different to previous attempts to tackle the crisis, Ms Patel told MPs: “I think the British public will also support the Government that we should do everything possible to protect our borders and that is why a blended approach is absolutely vital.”
A spokesman for the MoD said: “Unacceptable numbers of people continue to make the dangerous Channel crossings and last November’s tragic deaths serve as the strongest reminder of the need to stop them.”
“The Government is exploring every avenue to prevent further crossings and details of how that can be achieved will be made known in due course,” the spokesman said.
The Home Office added: “The UK armed forces already work closely with Border Force in these operations, providing expertise and assets as part of our processes in the Channel. It is right that we pursue all options to prevent illegal crossings and protect life at sea.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour would support any “sensible” measures to save lives in the Channel but expressed doubts about the sincerity behind plans, adding: “This looks like Boris Johnson is using the situation to chase headlines to distract from the total mess he is in as a result of rule-breaking parties in Number 10.”
SNP shadow home affairs spokesman Stuart McDonald told the Commons the plans were “pathetic”, “inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy”.
Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, said a military response is “not just disproportionate, it’s inhumane.”
Commons Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood told Sky the plans were “rushed” and warned they could be a “massive distraction” for the navy.
Labour peer and former Royal Navy chief Lord West told BBC Radio 4’s the World At One programme that tasking the military with tackling small boat crossings would prevent deaths but not alleviate the migration crisis.
The Times reported plans are being drawn up to send migrants to countries such as Ghana and Rwanda for processing and resettlement, but this has not been confirmed.
Ms Patel said the Government was considering “all options” in moving asylum processing centres offshore, while the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “not helpful” to discuss ongoing negotiations with countries.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said using the military to “repel” those who seek sanctuary in the UK and looking to “expel” them offshore is “cruel and inhumane”, adding: “It’s a desperate move by a Government that isn’t able to find solutions that will ensure an orderly, manageable and fair asylum system.”
More migrants were brought ashore over the weekend after a Sudanese man in his 20s died while trying to reach the UK, French authorities said on Friday.
His death comes less than two months after at least 27 people died when their boat sank off the coast of France in November.
More than 770 people have made the dangerous journey across the Channel in small boats so far this year, following a record-breaking year in 2021 when at least 28,000 arrived in the UK.