Colin Brazier: We won't know whether the military can solve the migrant crisis until we try

A record 28,000 crossed the English Channel last year


As we fight fewer wars, we use soldiers more. It’s a paradox. But not a mystery. Our elected leaders hate the sluggishness of Whitehall. They pull levers; nothing happens. Except where the military are concerned.

Can’t get GPs to sort out a rapid roll-out of jabs? Call in the infantry. Troops have always had a role in civil contingency planning, but in recent years this has developed into a kind of governmental mania. It’s not just that when you call in the Army things get done - it’s the optics too.

It looks like you’re taking a political problem seriously. Which is why we increasingly see the announcement of Cobra meetings - once reserved for the dropping of bombs - now called at the drop of a hat. How do our men and women in uniform feel about being deployed to fill sandbags whenever a river looks like bursting its banks? Probably happy to be busy and useful. But their bosses are probably less chuffed.

They took the Queen’s Commission to protect Britain from hostile powers, not to serve in our version of America’s Peace Corps.

So how will our top brass have responded to today's story that the military will be called in to thwart illegal migration across the English Channel? I imagine there were a few salty expletives at the Admiralty. The Royal Navy has spent billions on aircraft carriers to project power in the Pacific.

Are they now about to be told to use some of the world’s most advanced maritime hardware to ward-off dinghies armed with nothing more than an outboard motor. But you can see the attraction for Number Ten.

The most recent polling I could find on this suggested that two thirds of Britons supported the idea of military intervention in the Channel. It would be popular. But would it work?

Of course, a lot would depend on the rules of engagement. Obviously the navy COULD stop a rag-tag flotilla bearing the huddled masses, but what if their actions inadvertently led to casualties? No, this will not be a military campaign in the normal sense. This will be a different mission, for a different kind of threat.

Last year we showed you footage of young men heading up country lanes in Kent, unmolested by the Border Force. They’d landed on a beach and were heading who knows where, bent on who knows what. Drones and helicopters would at least make it easier to track landings.

But the deployment of men and women charged with our defence goes beyond whatever practical surveillance benefits they offer. Presentationally, this might be a game-changer. Not for the migrants.

If you think they’d flee at the sight of a frigate then you haven’t been paying attention. Additional ships and planes and uniforms wouldn’t be a deterrent. If anything, it would mean more hands to bear migrants to safety and a new life in Britain. No, military deployment would be ideological not practical. It would send out a very clear signal.

That the 28,000 migrants who crossed in 2021 - and the many more who will come this year - represent a martial threat. Our armed forces would not be repelling an invasion, but their involvement would nonetheless change the way we look at things.I say that because of the two migrant stories of historical and continental significance which unfolded last year.

One showed us that there is no cap on the numbers willing to cross the English Channel. It’s no longer a seasonal under-taking, dependent on the weather.

But there was another story too, far away from the white cliffs, which changed the calculations politicians make about the nature of border policing. It was the sight, on the frontier of NATO and the EU, of a hostile power - in this case Belarus - using refugees as a weapon.

It made Europeans ask a question. If an enemy thinks migrants harm us, maybe we ought to view them with spectacles that have a less rosy tint. Poland ordered in its army last year. And though the images were condemned as inhumane by the usual suspects, the policy worked. Thousands of migrants gave up, and returned to the middle east.

Military deployment succeeded - on land - in Poland. Could it work at sea, in the English Channel? We won’t know – until we try.