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Britain Won't Support Future Operations To Prevent Migrants Drowning In The Mediterranean

The Foreign Office's decision not to help was met with outrage from charities and political commentators.

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Foreign Office ministers have announced that Britain will no longer support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

According to The Telegraph:

Lady Anelay, who set out Britain's position in a recent House of Lords written answer, said search and rescue operations acted as "an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths".

Since last October, the Italian navy has carried out a €9-million-a-month operation called Mare Nostrum ("our sea"), which has apparently saved the lives of 150,000 people. The project was started after a pair of tragedies near the island of Lampedusa that led to the deaths of over 500 people.

This operation is being replaced by a joint EU "border protection" scheme codenamed Triton to which Britain will only be sending one immigration officer to gather intelligence.

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The government defended its position.

In her written answer, Lady Anelay wrote:

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.

And a statement later released by the Home Office said:

Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean … [are] encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.

But campaigners are furious. Amnesty International attacked the decision in a blog post:

It would be too kind to say the UK government's strategy to deal with people attempting to reach Europe, which focuses on "border management", misses the point. Turning our backs on drowning people is indefensible, unforgivable even. ...

The UK should be pressing for a Europe-wide system which allows people to access protection safely; and in the meantime, contributing to a rescue operation that saves lives, instead of justifying leaving people to drown.

And the British Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, told the Guardian:

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.

Eritrean people hold candles during a memorial gathering to mark the first anniversary of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.
Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

Eritrean people hold candles during a memorial gathering to mark the first anniversary of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.

Pope Francis meets relatives of victims and survivors of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.
AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho

Pope Francis meets relatives of victims and survivors of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.

The decision even sparked a furious reaction among certain sections of the right-wing press. In The Telegraph, Dan Hodges wrote:

If you step back, you'll soon see the flaws in the Government's "let's drown some refugees to save some refugees" policy. There may well be a "pull" factor motivating some of these refugees. But I would guess there is also possibly a "push factor" at play here as well.

I'm not sure about you, but if I were planning to load my children, my parents and my grandparents onto some rickety raft with a view to sailing it 1,500 miles across the shark-infested waters of the Mediterranean, I'd have to have a pretty good reason. And it would have to be better than a forlorn hope a random Italian coastguard cutter might spot me and haul me aboard.

[The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS] would be a good reason... I'd get on a boat to get away from them, regardless of who I thought might or might be waiting to pick me up. And over the coming months – as the bodies of the "Drown A Refugee To Save A Refugee" program continue to wash up on the coastal resorts of Europe – we'll have ample evidence that plenty of other people will take any risk to escape them as well.

According to the BBC, Triton "has six ships, two planes and one helicopter at its disposal. Equipment has been pledged by countries including France, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and non-EU member Iceland."

The British government's decision not to be involved was described as "cynical" by Tony Bunyan of Statewatch.

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