UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation
Refugees and human rights organisations react with anger as minister says saving people encourages others to risk voyage
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014 20.52 GMT
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Migrants in the Mediterranean
The official Italian operation, Mare Nostrum, which is due to end this week, has contributed over the past past 12 months to the rescue of an estimated 150,000 people. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA
Britain will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, claiming they simply encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing, Foreign Office ministers have quietly announced.
Refugee and human rights organisations reacted with anger to the official British refusal to support a sustained European search and rescue operation to prevent further mass migrant drownings, saying it would contribute to more people dying needlessly on Europe’s doorstep.
The British refusal comes as the official Italian sea and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, is due to end this week after contributing over the past 12 months to the rescue of an estimated 150,000 people since the Lampedusa tragedies in which 500 migrants died in October 2013.
The Italian operation will now end without a similar European search and rescue operation to replace it. The Italian authorities have said their operation, which involves a significant part of the Italian navy, is unsustainable. Despite its best efforts, more than 2,500 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.
Instead of the Italian operation, a limited joint EU “border protection” operation, codenamed Triton and managed by Frontex, the European border agency, is to be launched on 1 November. Crucially, it will not include search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, just patrols within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
Human rights organisations have raised fears that more migrants and refugees will die in their attempt to reach Europe from the north African coast. The hard-pressed Italian navy will be left to mount what search and rescue operations it can. The new European operation will have only a third of the resources of the Italian operation that is being phased out.
British policy was quietly spelled out in a recent House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” she said, 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”.
Anelay said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants 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.”
The Home Office told the Guardian the government was not taking part in Operation Triton at present beyond providing one “debriefer” – a single immigration officer – to gather intelligence about the migrants who continue to make the dangerous journey to Italy.
Other EU countries have responded to the call for help with two fixed-wing aircraft and three patrol vessels.
It is understood that Britain does not rule out providing further support later for an operation it says will be limited to “border management”. As it does not involve search and rescue missions it will not be covered by British government policy which regards the rescue of desperate migrants as only encouraging others to make the hazardous journey.
The home secretary, Theresa May, was among justice and home affairs ministers who agreed earlier this month to the ending of the Italian search and rescue operation and to deploying Operation Triton without delay in order to “reinforce border surveillance in the waters close to the Italian shores”.
European interior ministers acknowledged that the situation in the Mediterranean was of the greatest concern “as there are indications that the current trend will continue and the situation even risks deteriorating further”.
As well as deploying “Task Force Mediterranean”, which includes two fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and three patrol vessels in Operation Triton, 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.
May told the Commons the meeting had agreed “the prompt withdrawal of the Mare Nostrum operation … and for all member states to comply fully with their obligations under EU migration and asylum [policies].”
Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, the commander in charge of the Italian naval squadron involved in Mare Nostrum, is expected to spell out on Tuesday the impact of its cancellation.
The British Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, responding to the Foreign Office refusal to take part in future search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean 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.”
Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, which documents European justice and home affairs policies, added: “The government’s justification for not participating in Triton is cynical and an abdication of responsibility by saying that not helping to rescue people fleeing from war, persecution and poverty who are likely to perish is an acceptable way to discourage immigration.”
Amnesty International wrote to the home secretary last month criticising the woeful response from European countries to the unacceptable scale of the loss of life from the influx of refugees and migrants on boats across the Mediterranean.