Boris Johnson has put the Navy in command of the English Channel, as he defended plans to send some asylum seekers who make the crossing in small boats to Rwanda.
The prime minister conceded on Thursday that he expects plans to fly migrants more than 4,000 miles to the East African country to be challenged in the courts.
But after widespread criticism from opposition MPs and refugee charities he denied the multi-million pound measures are “draconian and lacking in compassion”.
Johnson deflected repeated questions about the fine he has received for breaching his own coronavirus laws as he set out his migration plans in a speech in Kent.
He said the Royal Navy would from Thursday take over “operational command” from Border Force in the Channel to ensure “no boat makes it to the UK undetected”.
An initial £120 million is expected to be given to the Rwandan government under a trial scheme, with Home Secretary Priti Patel striking a deal during a visit to the capital of Kigali.
She said that the “vast majority” of those who arriving in the UK “illegally” will be considered for relocation to Rwanda but declined to share specific details after it was reported it would only apply to male migrants.
Johnson said the agreement is “uncapped” and Rwanda will have the “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead”, including those who have arrived “illegally” since the start of the year.
He pledged £50 million in new funding for boats, aerial surveillance and military personnel to help ensure the measures are a “very considerable deterrent” to crossings.
And he said the individuals who succeed in making it to the UK “will be taken not to hotels at vast public expense” and instead will be housed in Greek-style detention centres, with the first opening “shortly”.
Labour accused the prime minister of trying to distract from the partygate scandal with the “unworkable, unethical and extortionate” migration scheme.
Charities condemned them as “cruel and nasty” plans that will fail to address the issue and cause more “suffering and chaos”, while criticising Rwanda’s human rights track record.
Johnson said the partnership will be “fully compliant with our international legal obligations”, while insisting the country is “one of the safest countries in the world” and is “globally recognised for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants”.
“But nevertheless, we expect this will be challenged in the courts,” Mr Johnson added, as he hit out at what he called a “formidable army of politically-motivated lawyers”.
He said they have “made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government” and have caused the UK to be “seen as a soft touch for illegal migration by some of our partners”.
“So I know this system will not take effect overnight,” Johnson added.
He said were at “risk of stereotyping” and told them “not to think in a blinkered way about Rwanda”.
“Rwanda has totally transformed over the last few decades, it’s a very, very different country from what it was,” he said.
Johnson accepted the measure is not a “magic bullet” that will solve the crossings alone.
But he hopes it will break the business model of the “vile people smugglers” who risk turning the Channel into a “watery graveyard”.
The prime minister also conceded that the controversial “pushback” technique considered against migrant boats would be dangerous except in “extremely limited circumstances”.
He said the government would continue to press Paris and the EU for a “comprehensive returns agreement that would solve this problem” after Brexit.
The first of the stricter reception centres for migrants will reportedly open in the village of Linton-on-Ouse, in North Yorkshire.
It is thought the asylum seekers will be encouraged to relocate and rebuild their lives in Rwanda, rather than the UK, with more information on how the arrangement will work anticipated in the coming days.
British Red Cross executive director Zoe Abrams said the humanitarian network was “profoundly concerned” about the plans to “send traumatised people halfway round the world to Rwanda”.
“The financial and human cost will be considerable; evidence from where offshoring has been implemented elsewhere shows it leads to profound human suffering, plus the bill that taxpayers will be asked to foot is likely to be huge,” she added.
“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel either. People come here for reasons we can all understand, like wanting to be reunited with loved ones, or because they speak the language. Making it harsher may do little to stop them risking their lives.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, urged the government to “immediately rethink its plans”.
“We are appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision to send those seeking sanctuary in our country to Rwanda,” he said.
“Offshoring the UK’s asylum system will do absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK.
“It will do little to deter them from coming to this country, but only lead to more human suffering and chaos – at a huge expense of an estimated £1.4 billion a year.”
But the Home Office questioned the figure, with a source saying it was “ludicrous to suggest costs would be more than the current system”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer called the plans “unworkable”, “extortionate” and an attempt to distract from Johnson being fined for breaching his own coronavirus laws.
The deal with Rwanda comes after other locations touted – including Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar – were rejected, at times angrily by the countries suggested.