The Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition have withdrawn support for any future search and rescue operations to prevent refugees and migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, claiming that the prospects of being rescued are simply encouraging more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing, Foreign Office ministers have quietly announced.
Refugee and human rights NGO’s have reacted with anger to the official British refusal to support a sustained European search and rescue operation to prevent further mass migrant drowning’s, saying it would contribute to more people dying needlessly on Europe’s doorstep.
Mare Nostrum, the official Italian sea and rescue operation, is due to end this week after contributing over the past 12 months to the rescue of an estimated 150,000 people in the past year since the Lampedusa tragedies which saw 500 refugees drown within sight of the Italian island in October 2013. Despite the Italians best efforts more than 2,500 men women and children are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.
A limited joint EU border protection operation, codenamed Triton and managed by Frontex, the European border agency, is set to replace Mare Nostrum on 1 November, unlike the Italian operation, it will not include search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean instead it will only patrol within 30 miles of the Italian coast. Triton will only have one third of the resources of Mare Nostrum raising fears that more people will drown in their desperate attempt to reach Europe from the north African coast
The British Government policy was quietly revealed in a recent House of Lords written answer to The Guardian, by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay, who said “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” adding that the government believed there was “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. She added “The government believes the most effective way to prevent people attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”
Other EU countries have responded to the call for help with two fixed-wing aircraft and three patrol vessels.
European interior ministers acknowledge that the situation in the Mediterranean was of the greatest concern as there are indications that the current trend will continue and the situation risks further deterioration. Ministers agreed a series of North African measures including finding ways of curtailing the supply of vessels from Tunisia and Egypt used by people smugglers.
The British Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, said: “The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. “People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.
“The answer isn’t to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it’s to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection.”
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the new EU commissioner for migration and home affairs, created quite a stir during his candidacy process, when he announced that, “refugees and migrants should be allowed to apply for asylum or work visas abroad, at EU embassies in non-EU countries.” As he has only just taken up his post the pressure is on him to deliver a solution that gets desperate people out of the water.