FEATURE | Migrant challenges for Europe’s maritime security forces

Photo: Richard Symonds
Photo: Richard Symonds – UKBF vessel Searcher

There is mounting concern in the UK over the nation’s ability to secure its maritime borders. The Christmas holiday period saw some 100 irregular migrants (IR), many of them reportedly Iranian, arrive in small boats, having set out from France.

Crossing the English Channel, particularly at night in winter, in such craft, is very dangerous, as the Channel is the world’s most congested international shipping lane, and is frequently subject to rough sea conditions. Many of the IRs furthermore, were suffering from hypothermia by the time they reached UK.

Many of the IRs, who had reportedly paid large sums to criminal gangs in France to facilitate their passages to UK, were apprehended by UK-based civilian rescue craft, and vessels of the well-equipped Douane – the French customs service – which has search and rescue responsibilities. Some made it into UK harbours undetected.

HMC Eagle. Photo: Acabisha

Some maritime security commentators, and politicians, are arguing strongly that the current situation highlights the inability of the UK Border Force (UKBF) to protect the nation’s coastline. The UKBF currently has just nine patrol vessels, five of which were acquired second hand. There are five large patrol vessels: four Damen Patrol 4217s, and one ex-Finnish Border Guard Tellka class; backed up by four 18-metre, 34-knot, waterjet-powered cabin RHIBs, for coastal and harbour patrol – all are former North Sea oil industry emergency response craft, built by Delta ARRC, and were purchased by the UKBF in 2016

Two of the large patrol vessels, the Damen Valiant, and the Tellka-class Protector, are currently assigned to Aegean Sea patrol duties, as part of a joint European force.

It is anticipated that the current meagre UKBF assets will shortly be backed up by three UK Royal Navy OPVs, which were recently saved from disposal, and will be manned largely by naval reservists.

Meanwhile, IM activity in the Mediterranean has been greatly reduced by radical enforcement and political action, but has not ceased. An average of about 2,300 IMs per week have crossed from the North African coast, mainly to Spain, in 2018.

Worryingly for the European authorities, recent weeks have seen a surge of activity in what is generally a quiet time of year, and at least two non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue ships have reappeared in the Mediterranean. Up to 14 NGO ships were operating in the sea during 2017. They were widely seen as a major “pull factor”, for prospective IMs, therefore their activities were curtailed by legal and political pressure, particularly from the Italians.

The scene would therefore seem to be set for a very busy summer for Europe’s maritime security forces.