07/03/2016 06:46 GMT | Updated 07/03/2016 07:59 GMT

Royal Navy Ship Sent To Tackle Migrant Smugglers Isn't Actually Going To Be 'Turning Back' Boats

David Cameron has announced that a Royal Navy ship will join Nato attempts to tackle smugglers bringing migrants across the Aegean Sea - but he may have misunderstood what the vessel will actually be doing.

The Prime Minister hailed Britain's involvement in the mission: "It’s an opportunity to stop the smugglers and send out a clear message to migrants contemplating journeys to Europe that they will be turned back. That’s why the UK is providing vital military assets to work with our European partners and support this mission."

The front page of The Independent backed up this idea, claiming the RFA Mounts Bay ship was dispatched "to turn back migrants", while the Metro wrote: "Royal Navy ships will be sent to turn back boats".

The Independent's front page

But Cameron's description of the Nato mission's work, which he said would help "smash" trafficking gangs that help migrants cross the Aegean, seems to have been contradicted - by Nato itself - after its Secretary General said the ships won't be turning around, or even intercepting, any boats.

"The purpose of Nato's deployment is not to stop or push back migrant boats," Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Sky News reports that it understands the mission will only carry out "reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance."

"It can share intelligence gathered with the EU border force, Frontex, but crucially, its mandate does not include interdiction - it cannot prohibit migrant boats from crossing from Turkey to Greece," the broadcaster reports.

The RFA Mounts Bay

The operation is aimed at tackling traffickers themselves - which could prove difficult for ships to carry out as they rarely leave the land. Instead, they often cheaper journeys to migrants in exchange for them driving the boats.

Stoltenberg said the aim of the mission that Britain is joining is "to help our allies Greece and Turkey, as well as the European Union, in their efforts to tackle human trafficking and the criminal networks that are fuelling this crisis."

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the RFA Mounts Bay will use an onboard helicopter to provide information for the Turkish coastguard about the routes being used by smuggling gangs, giving the Turkish boats a better chance of intercepting people attempting the perilous crossing to Greece.

The Huffington Post UK contacted Downing Street for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.

The amphibious landing ship, which carries a Wildcat helicopter as well as Royal Marines and medics, is expected to start operations in the coming days, joining naval vessels from Germany, Canada, Turkey and Greece as part of Nato's first intervention in the migrant crisis.

Cameron says he hopes to 'smash' the smugglers

Two Border Force cutters will also join the operation, along with a third boat - the chartered civilian vessel VOS Grace - which is already in the Aegean, the Press Association reports.

Mr Fallon said: "The primary mission is to build up a proper picture of the smuggling routes. Obviously if there are migrants at sea, the law of the sea dictates that the nearest vessel must pick them up. But the first thing is to build up a picture of these routes and to start breaking the smugglers' business model.

"Smugglers are making money out of people drowning now. We've had several hundred drowned this winter, several thousand drowned this year, and what's essential is to work out where this people smuggling is done from and then to get a policy in place of returning people, which in the end will stop people making this very dangerous crossing.

"We have to put a stop to this because otherwise we are going to see more lives lost and more misery."


Mr Fallon said Turkish coastguards and Greek authorities were becoming "overwhelmed" by migrants coming not only from Syria but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan and further afield.

And he said that a key to stemming the flow will be to return more of the migrants to Turkey after their arrival in Europe.

"What's not happened so far anywhere in Europe is that people haven't been returned," he said. "Once they start being returned then there is less prospect of people paying money and smugglers making money out of what is a very dangerous crossing."

Around 1,800 migrants a day arrived in Greece in February, with more than 116,000 migrant arrivals across the Aegean already this year.

Downing Street said that at the EU summit Mr Cameron will call for work on breaking the link between people getting on a boat and being able to settle in Europe by "smashing" trafficking gangs and increasing the rate at which illegal migrants are sent back.

Mr Cameron described the migration crisis as "the greatest challenge facing Europe today".