Ship linked to migrants patrol leaves harbour as police question two

Detectives are continuing to question two men arrested on suspicion of arranging the illegal movement of migrants into the UK.

A National Crime Agency spokeswoman said a 33-year-old Iranian national and a 24-year-old British man were arrested in Manchester on Wednesday evening. They remain in police custody.

It comes as HMS Mersey, which was reported to be on standby to patrol the English Channel in response to concerns about refugees crossing the Channel, left Portsmouth Harbour on the south coast on Thursday afternoon.

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
HMS Mersey leaves Portsmouth Harbour (Steve Parsons/PA)

HMS Mersey, an offshore patrol vessel, was described by a Ministry of Defence source on Wednesday as “available and ready” following a request by Home Secretary Sajid Javid to use Royal Navy strength.

It is believed HMS Mersey left on Thursday afternoon to carry out scheduled fishing patrols.

A second vessel, river-class Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Tyne, also left the harbour on Thursday.

A defence spokesman declined to comment on operational matters.

Sending HMS Mersey to patrol the Channel would represent a significant escalation of Britain’s response to the migration issue after Mr Javid earlier this week announced the redeployment of two Border Force cutters from the Mediterranean.

On Wednesday Mr Javid was criticised for questioning whether migrants using small boats to make risky journeys across the English Channel are genuine asylum seekers.

He also suggested those picked up by UK authorities faced having asylum requests denied as a deterrent to prevent others undertaking the same dangerous journey.

The Home Secretary defended describing it as a “major incident”.

He told reporters 539 people had attempted to cross the Strait in 2018, with 80% making the journey in the last three months of the year.

Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who has visited migrant camps in Calais, accused Mr Javid of normalising “anti-refugee rhetoric online”.

Channel crossings by migrants since Christmas Day
(PA Graphics)

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Mr Javid was right to say that the UK’s “proud tradition” of granting asylum is not abused.

While on a visit to Malaysia, Mr Hunt was asked if he shared Mr Javid’s suggestion that those attempting the crossing may not be genuine asylum seekers.

“I think the Home Secretary is right to say that, as a country that is very proud of our tradition of granting asylum to people who need it, we also want to make sure that isn’t abused,” he said.

“But our priority right now is the safety of people in the Channel; to discourage people from making this very dangerous crossing, but to make sure that everyone that does is kept safe.”

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
Onlookers watch as HMS Mersey leaves Portsmouth (Steve Parsons / PA)