Royal Navy warship HMS Richmond to target people smugglers
A Royal Navy warship is being offered to the EU in the fight against people smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea as the operation to target the criminal gangs is stepped up.
HMS Richmond could be sent to the waters of the coast of Libya to stop the human traffickers who are risking the lives of refugees by taking them on the perilous journey to Europe by boat.
More than 2,000 people have died trying to make the crossing so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the crisis must be tackled "at source".
The navy's HMS Enterprise is already stationed in the Mediterranean and the offer of another frigate to go after criminals will be officially made at an EU force generation conference later today.
While HMS Richmond, which has a special surveillance system allowing it to cover vast areas, will be able to help in search and rescue missions, its primary role will be to board and seize vessels in the southern Mediterranean, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
Mr Fallon said: "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.
"We will not stand by and let this smuggling trade escalate; we will confront this criminal activity which risks the lives of innocent people every day."
HMS Enterprise was sent to replace HMS Bulwark, which saved 3,000 lives in the Mediterranean, in July as the EU's naval operation began to move towards a focus on tackling smugglers.
Last month the ship was involved in what the MoD described as the largest operation to take place in a single day of the mission.
When more than 20 vessels with migrants on board issued distress calls HMS Enterprise was able to take aboard 453 of the 4,400 saved off the coast of Libya, as teams from several other European countries also helped with the rescue.
Former Labour security minister and retired senior officer in the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, doubted the impact of the latest move.
"I'm not at all clear exactly what their trying to do, it sounds slightly a bit of a mess," he told BBC Radio 4's Today show.
"What we're doing at the moment by just rescuing people in international waters is we've become part of the package being sold by people smugglers to get people to Europe.
"The only thing (HMS Richmond) has got that others haven't is a thing called ScanEagle, which is a drone which was originally used for hunting for fish and things. It is very useful for the wider area coverage but I do believe we should be much more aggressive in terms of sealing the coast. "
Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said HMS Richmond will be deployed for an initial period of two months.
Suspected people smugglers and traffickers apprehended during the mission will be taken to the nearest European port, he said, adding: "The expectation would be that prosecutorial action would then take place in that country."
Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokeswoman said the European Council was expected to make a decision next month on whether and when to press ahead with operations to "board, search and seize" smugglers' boats on the high seas.
HMS Richmond is suited to this task as it has boarding capabilities, as well as a Lynx helicopter on board, she said.
"We are effectively putting Richmond on the table so that if a subsequent decision is taken to get the operation kick-started, we would deploy it."
Asked whether the ship would simply be ferrying migrants picked up from boats to Italy, the spokeswoman said: "This is about boarding, searching and seizing smugglers' vessels. I don't think I have said once that it is a passenger carrying service, and it is not."