Government accused of having ‘no plan’ to reduce Channel crossings as Ghana denies offshoring talks

Plans to draft military in to tackle small boat arrivals branded ‘desperate’ by MPs

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 18 January 2022 18:45 GMT
The Ghanaian government said it did ‘not intend to consider’ plans to host a UK asylum processing hub on its land
The Ghanaian government said it did ‘not intend to consider’ plans to host a UK asylum processing hub on its land (PA Wire)

The government has been accused of having “no plan” to curb Channel crossings as it emerged that reports ministers were in talks with Ghana about creating an offshore processing hub in the country were false.

Plans for the military to be put in charge of tackling the number of boats crossing the Channel were meanwhile attacked as “desperate”, with Tory MPs saying the move would fail to curb the number of people reaching UK shores and be an inappropriate use of military resources.

The Times reported on Monday that plans were being drawn up to send UK asylum seekers to countries such as Ghana and Rwanda as part of home secretary Priti Patel’s plans for “offshore processing”, and that the military would take over operations in the Channel, in an effort to save Boris Johnson’s premiership.

They were reportedly part of a series of policy announcements – dubbed Operation Red Meat – in an attempt to appease furious Conservative MPs who have been deluged with angry emails from constituents.

However, the alleged plans for an offshore processing site to be placed in Ghana were shot down on Tuesday when the Ghanaian government denied the claims, saying in a statement that it had “not engaged with the UK on any such plan and does not intend to consider any such operation in future”. Rwanda is yet to respond to a request for comment.

The Ghanaian government refuted any claims it was willing to take in UK asylum seekers (screen grab)

It is not the first time other countries have had to deny claims in the British press that the UK government is planning to offshore asylum seekers on their land.

Albania swiftly denied reports in November that the Home Office was planning to fly asylum seekers to the country, with the Albanian ambassador saying this would “would never happen” because it would be “against international law”. Gibraltar and Scotland have also denied claims that they were in discussions with Britain about holding asylum seekers.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused the government of “making things up for the sake of headlines” in a “desperate attempt to distract people from the prime minister’s mess”, adding that it is “an embarrassment to our country and disrespectful to Ghana”.

“To suggest they were in discussions with Ghana about offshore processing, only for it to be so comprehensively denied and ruled out by Ghana, makes ministers look like total charlatans,” she said.

“Time and again the Home Office has been told that offshore processing is incredibly costly, impractical and damaging and it’s clear none of the countries they have approached have agreed. Yet instead of doing the serious hard work to tackle criminal gangs and prevent dangerous small boat crossings they just make things up to get headlines.”

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, confirmed in the House of Commons on Tuesday that his department had been appointed to take “operational primacy” for cross-Channel counter migration operations, saying its focus would be to ensure that “nobody should arrive illegally in the UK on their own terms” and that all small boats must be intercepted before arriving.

The majority of asylum seekers travelling on small boats are believed to already be intercepted by Border Force before landing in Britain.

Cross-party MPs questioned how the plan would help to reduce the number of people crossing the Channel, with some arguing that it would in fact increase numbers.

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne said: “Didn’t Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean teach us that increased efficiency of interception leads to an increased no of attempted crossings? This policy will have the reverse effect of that intended.”

Mr Wallace said there was a “key difference” with Operation Sophia – an EU military operation that attempted to curb the number of people crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 – as to what happened to migrants once they landed in Europe, but he did not explain this difference.

Fellow Tory Sir Edward Leigh asked the minister: “What is the point in appointing a royal naval admiral to help Border Force to be a more efficient taxi service, so that the migrants know they will be taken to the UK[…]?”

Shadow defence secretary John Healey meanwhile accused the government of being “desperate”, adding: “Desperate to distract attention from accusations about the Prime Minister lying and partying in Downing Street, desperate to prop up a home secretary utterly failing for two years as the number of cross-Channel migrants has tripled.

“The military are there to protect the nation, not to protect Tory ministers.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant said: “Nothing has changed. There’s no plan. The government has completely failed to tackle what is a real issue […] and the people who bear the brunt of this danger are those who are being illegally trafficked themselves.”

Tory MP and chair of the Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood questioned why the Royal Navy was being drawn in when it was “not an acute emergency”.

“This tactic may on the face of it look popular, with 28,000 migrants crossing every year – but it is not the strategy that will solve the movement of migrants,” he said.

“We need to break up those [smuggling] gangs and help to restore governance and stability in the places those people are fleeing from [...] Until these fires are put out at source we will never reduce the numbers. We need a broader strategy that simply deploying the Navy to the Channel will never be the answer for.”

Mr Wallace said he believed the use of the Royal Navy “could” reduce the number of migrants arriving on UK shores “as part of a wider system that is under development”, adding that military intervention was not “in and of itself the answer to this challenge”.

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