When Boris Johnson promised “moderate and compassionate” conservatism before last year’s general election, I doubt even he thought this might encompass sending the armed forces to chase terrified children across the English Channel.
But this is 2020, a year that won’t be remembered for things going to plan. And so we are treated to the sight of Priti Patel, in a brief pause from shouting at ice cream, travelling to Dover with her personal film crew to frown at the sea while RAF aircraft roar overhead. Meanwhile, Royal Navy warships are preparing to join the search for dinghies carrying migrants on desperate cross-Channel dashes. Their mission: to turn back those in peril on the sea.
I find this extremely jarring, because until 2018 I served in the RAF – including on humanitarian operations in the Caribbean during 2017’s devastating hurricane season, where I flew with then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson on a tour of the region. At the time, the armed forces’ role was to send UK aid and reconstruction support to people traumatised by a disaster beyond their comprehension.
Now, those same armed forces are being ordered to turn traumatised people back from seeking British help. I was proud to do my part in the Caribbean. I shudder to imagine how I’d feel if I were asked to join the cross-Channel mission, which seems to me to be an exercise in inhumanity.
British governments love to shout about lofty humanitarian ideals: a staunch commitment to human rights, a desire to use power for good, support for the underdog, and so on. When those values need to be championed, the armed forces are often in the vanguard. Since 2010, British military personnel have delivered aid on operations in the Pacific, the Caribbean, Africa, Indonesia and the Middle East – not to mention providing disaster relief here in the UK, in response to floods and wildfires.
Britain can be justly proud of its military in those situations. And the military’s can-do approach certainly lends a morale boost to politicians desperate to be seen as consequential on the world stage: while serving in the RAF’s headquarters, I often heard the exasperated quip that prime ministers tend to tell defence planners, “the solution is the RAF; now find me the problem”.
But if the forces excel at delivering international aid, their role is grossly out of proportion with the scale of the “threat” we face from bedraggled families risking life and limb to reach Margate. No one doubts that the cross-Channel issue needs to be tackled, but a sense of perspective might be handy. Patel seems to be serious about sending warships to confront dinghies, an approach described as “completely potty” by one MOD source.
We’re not dealing with an invasion force; we’re dealing with desperate people using their bare hands to bail out flimsy and overcrowded boats – victims of war, famine and criminal gangs, sold a vision of a bright future in the UK. This is a political and policing problem, not a military one.
What is needed is a vigorous international effort to tackle the people traffickers who drive the appalling cross-Channel trade in human misery, backed with an effective surveillance system designed to deter people from attempting the lethal crossing. Years of Conservative promises to deliver precisely these solutions have done little to stem the flow.
The UK Border Force has been reduced to using drones to monitor the Channel, after Theresa May’s home office scrapped a crewed air surveillance contract in 2016. And a new UK-French counter-trafficking task force, announced in July, is only the latest in a series of supposedly game-changing efforts to tackle the trafficking gangs. More than 4,000 migrants have made the crossing this year. Who but a fantasist could imagine the government is about to get a grip on the problem?
Faced with this record of failure, and a voting base whose love of British decency seems to end at the White Cliffs, perhaps it’s no surprise the government is rushing to send in the armed forces. Big planes and brave sailors might please Johnson’s supporters, but all I see is a wasteful campaign to advertise the government’s heartlessness.
Andy Wasley is a freelance journalist and former Royal Air Force officer
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