UK warship will be used to ‘board, seize and divert’ refugee boats

The Guardian
HMS Richmond is to take part in ‘more aggressive’ phase two of EU naval operation off coast of Libya
Alan Travis Home affairs editor

HMS Richmond would be used to board and seize vessels in the southern Mediterranean, said the Ministry of Defence. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
HMS Richmond would be used to board and seize vessels in the southern Mediterranean, said the Ministry of Defence. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

A Royal Navy frigate is to be sent to take part in a blockade-style naval operation aimed at “boarding, seizing and diverting” refugee boats in the Mediterranean, the Ministry of Defense has said.

The British warship HMS Richmond is to take part in a “more aggressive” phase two of a European Union naval operation operating off the coast of Libya aimed at ending the people-smuggling trade across the Mediterranean.

British defense and foreign ministers gave their informal approval to the EU plan at meetings in Brussels last week, after being told by the Italian admiral in charge of the naval force that 16 boats used by the smugglers could have been seized or destroyed in recent weeks if the new phase had been in force.

HMS Richmond, which has surveillance technology enabling it to operate across a wide area, is likely to be sent to the waters off Libya, where it will be stationed at least 12 miles off the coast. Although it will be able to rescue refugees it comes across, the Ministry of Defense said its primary role would be to board and seize vessels in the southern Mediterranean.

It is presumed that the warship will be taking part in an operation designed to deter and divert smugglers’ boats from reaching European shores. HMS Enterprise, a small survey ship, has been involved in the first phase of the operation gathering intelligence and tracking the movement of the refugee boats used by the smugglers across the sea.

The home secretary, Theresa May, is to update the Commons on Wednesday on the British approach taken at the EU’s interior ministers meeting on Monday, when the UK opted out of plans to relocate 160,000 refugees in Europe. She will also tell MPs on the latest progress on preparations to settle 4,000 Syrian refugees in Britain.

The Royal Navy frigate is the first British contribution to an EU naval “force generation” conference being held on Wednesday. It is unclear what exactly the warships will be expected to do when they board a refugee boat but rules of engagement for this more aggressive phase are being drawn up.

The European naval operation is modeled on the EU’s only other joint naval force, which was used to blockade pirates operating off the Somali coast.

An EU naval force statement on Monday said: “This important transition will enable the EU naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean to conduct boarding, search, seizure and diversion on the high seas of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking, within international law.”

The defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said of the decision to send HMS Richmond: “The vital work of HMS Bulwark, HMS Enterprise and our Merlin helicopters shows the UK’s commitment to tackling the refugee crisis at source. The Royal Navy has rescued thousands of people from peril but we’ve been clear we have to tackle the gangs behind this, which is why it’s important the mission moves to the next phase.”

HMS Richmond is being sent to join the Mediterranean anti-smugglers operation for an initial two months, the immigration minister, James Brokenshire, has told peers.

He said that those smugglers found on board boats intercepted by the Royal Navy warship would be taken to the nearest European port to face prosecution.

The minister said that the third phase of the EU naval operation, which involves going after the boats in waters off the immediate coast of Libya, would need the backing of the Libyan authorities and a United Nations resolution.