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Refugee Situation in the Mediterranean

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this important debate on the crisis in the Mediterranean, which is a significant cause of anxiety for Governments and people across Europe, as victims continue dying on a daily basis and countries such as Greece and Italy reach breaking point under the pressure.

The figures are shocking. More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean from north Africa to mainland Europe in the past 23 weeks. The total figure for 2015 may reach 200,000. Of those, about 56,000 have reached Italy, 48,000 have arrived in Greece, 920 in Spain and just under 100 in Malta. On the Greek island of Kos, 7,500 migrants have joined a population of just 30,000. Hundreds are now sleeping on the streets, struggling to access food and water.

I will lay out 10 points that I believe are necessary measures the United Kingdom should take to address the situation.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; I asked his permission to intervene on him. Some 2,000 refugees have died trying to get across the Mediterranean in the past year, and that figure is 20 times higher than that in 2014. Does he agree that it is time for Europe, the European Union and European countries to work together with those in north Africa and the middle east to address the issue? If they do not, it would be impossible for a single country to do so itself.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and, as I develop my speech, I think he will be pleased with the strategy I set out. He said that 2,000 have died in the past year. In fact, in the past six months, 1,725 people have drowned making this perilous journey, and there must be others who have died in small, unrecorded boats that have capsized. The figure is likely to exceed 3,000 by the end of this year.

Often travelling in crafts that are completely unseaworthy, these innocent men, women and children pay up to €7,000 to make the journey to Libya. Mr Speaker, your own distinguished chaplain, the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, made a passionate plea on the “Daily Politics” last week about the staggering humanitarian catastrophe on Europe’s doorstep.

This is part of a much wider issue. According to a report published by Amnesty International just yesterday, the neglect of conflicts around the world has led to the worst displacement crisis since the second world war. The report shows that millions of refugees—4 million from Syria alone—have been condemned to a life of misery, and hundreds of thousands of people are trying to reach the EU for a better life.

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on bringing this issue to the House? As he rightly points out, we are facing the worst refugee crisis since the war. Does he share my concern regarding today’s reports about the withdrawal of HMS Bulwark from the Mediterranean theatre, and will he join me in thanking the service personnel who have done a phenomenal job in very difficult circumstances?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the work done by those who serve on HMS Bulwark, and I will come to a specific point concerning what I hope the Government will do when that project comes to an end on 5 July.

The situation in Libya is a critical factor. Libya is a failed state just over an hour and half’s flight time from Rome. Constant conflict between multiple factions has left it largely ungoverned. It has few ports and poor infrastructure. Yesterday I spoke to the Italian ambassador, Pasquale Terracciano, who told me that 92% of migrants crossing the Mediterranean leave from Libya. The refugees travelling from Libya consist largely of victims of war and conflict in Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia. Last Monday in Schloss Elmau, leaders of the G7 called on Libya’s leaders to form a Government of national accord. However, calling for a political solution is not enough, and the reconciliation process faces numerous obstacles. We urgently need to support the UN mission to bring parties in Libya to the conference table.

One obstacle is the prevalence of criminal gangs in Libya, which play a large part in trafficking migrants from their points of origin into the Mediterranean. These vicious groups have made millions on the back of the drowned victims. Over the past Christmas period alone, traffickers made an estimated €3 million from packing between 300 and 400 people on to old, doomed ships, on some occasions forcing them on to the vessels at gunpoint. This was vividly demonstrated on 2 January, when 360 Syrian refugees, including 70 children, were rescued after the Ezadeen, a livestock freighter, was left adrift in freezing conditions.

Some of the groups profiting from this situation include international terrorist organisations such as ISIS, which recently captured territory in the city of Sirte. Intelligence from Italy shows that trafficking has become a significant revenue stream for terrorist organisations to fund their activities. Terminating these trafficking rings is vital. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are providing practical support to train Libyan security forces, disarm the militias and re-establish the rule of law?

Many of our EU partners believe that direct military action against the trafficking rings is necessary. The current plans are stalled in the UN Security Council, as the remnants of the Libyan Government have rejected proposals to take military action in Libyan territorial waters. However, there is no obstacle to taking firmer action in international waters under the EU’s common security and defence policy. The Italian Government believe that such an operation would be similar to the international action against Somali pirates, and they are right. The Government should provide direct support for more aggressive measures against the traffickers in international waters.

The Khartoum process, a commitment between the EU, north African countries and countries in the horn of Africa to co-operate in tackling people trafficking, appears to have had little impact. The project has been watered down and is a slow solution to a critical problem. We need an inclusive process that includes all those parties, but it needs to be tougher, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. Countries such as Tunisia and Algeria have to be vested with greater authority and resources to deal with this problem. The Tunisian ambassador, Nabil Ammar, has provided me with information showing that his country’s security forces stopped 191 illegal migration attempts this year, detaining a total of 1,265 people. They cannot maintain these efforts without our support.

What we need is a permanent taskforce, meeting on a 24/7 basis, with the authority to work with Frontex, to replace the Khartoum process entirely. It must include the key north African and southern Mediterranean countries. Through this taskforce, or otherwise, we must ensure that our north African neighbours receive adequate resources, as they face an increasingly significant humanitarian and security problem.

To relieve the stress on Italian, Greek and Spanish authorities, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, has called for migration centres to be established in Tunisia and Egypt. These centres would allow migrants to make asylum applications that are processed remotely outside Europe, preventing the migrants from risking their lives in the Mediterranean. The Government should review their current position against these centres, which present a legal alternative to refugees risking their lives in the Mediterranean.

My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. Does he agree that any arrangements must take account especially of child migrants, who are particularly vulnerable?

I commend my hon. Friend for calling for a debate on this subject at last week’s business questions. I am glad we are able to have the debate today. Yes, we must take special care of the children who are put at risk because of what is happening in the Mediterranean. She is absolutely right.

Operation Triton is the Frontex rescue mission that replaced Mare Nostrum. It has failed to live up to expectations. Operating at a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum, which saved 150,000 people in 2014, Triton was clearly overstretched, as the number of migrants making the journey to Italy increased by 30%. Sadly, and predictably, the number of deaths rose ninefold under Triton in the period leading up to May. That was tragically demonstrated between 16 and 20 April, when five ships containing around 2,000 migrants sank—1,200 people, including children, died. Triton’s resources were simply unable to cope with such a tragedy.

The subsequent emergency summit on 23 April tripled Triton’s budget to €120 million and expanded its patrol area. Better late than never. Federico Fossi of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believes that that increase in resources has demonstrated results, and 6,000 people were rescued between 6 and 7 June. Before the emergency summit, aid organisations feared that the death toll would otherwise reach the tens of thousands.

I want to join the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) and others in commending the British Government for dispatching HMS Bulwark to the area, and our servicemen and women for performing heroic tasks. Can the Minister today confirm that when Bulwark’s tour of duty ends on 5 July it will be adequately replaced by an equivalent mission? We must ensure that the rescue mission maintains these improved resources and learn our lesson that we simply cannot manage this problem with a small and poorly financed operation.

One proposed solution to the problem is quotas, which the Home Secretary discussed today with her EU counterparts in Luxembourg. However, as envisaged, quotas would be beset with complications, as any formal announcement may give the green light to the traffickers to send more ships. Particularly while those gangs are operating, mandatory resettlement will not completely solve the problem—a position held by France and Spain. But it is clear to me that burden sharing between Schengen countries is on the agenda.

I endorse everything that my right hon. Friend has said. Does he recall the urgent question in the closing days of the previous Parliament, when the Government were warned that any change in the sea rescue mission would endanger lives? Is it not absolutely vital that every effort is always made to rescue people, whatever the result of their application for refugee status might be? The rescue of human beings must be the first priority of any civilised society.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should try to make arrangements to stop the boats leaving in the first place, but once they are out in the Mediterranean we have a duty to try to save lives.

On the question of quotas and the Schengen area, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, irrespective of hard and fast numbers, it is vital that the United Kingdom takes its fair share of people who are seeking refuge from north Africa?

Ultimately, I think that we will have to do that anyway, because once the migrants get to Calais it is too late, as I will say later. We have to be part of the solution to the problem.

Although quotas are not the complete answer, we have to work on that as a solution. The resources and political capital required to address migration into Europe cannot come only from the affected countries. Italy and Greece have been warning us of the problem for years, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has described the EU’s response as being “largely insufficient”. He was being polite. Italy and Greece, which are coping with thousands of people in places such as Lampedusa, are under severe strain. The crisis is costing the Italian Government around €800 million a year, and the EU contributes only €60 million in assistance. Today the Italian Government shocked the EU by threatening to shred Schengen, stating that they would consider sending migrants to other EU countries without their Governments’ permission. They have given the EU a wake-up call. The pressure is simply too much for Italy and Greece to handle. The Prime Minister is meeting Prime Minister Renzi in Milan tomorrow, and the issue must be top of the agenda in Anglo-Italian relations. If nothing else, the Government should provide deeper assistance. The EU could use its diplomatic strength to assist in the repatriation of individuals to places such as Mali and Senegal, which is a major challenge. Repatriation agreements are more effective if they are arranged by the EU rather than bilaterally.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I put it to him that there are two interlinked refugee crises. The Syrian crisis is distinct in that it involves a major political crisis, not necessarily economic migration, so there is a necessity for Europe, and Britain in particular, to take a mandatory quota of Syrian refugees.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we have an obligation to do so. Perhaps when the Minister winds up he will tell the House the number of Syrian refugees that we have taken to date. We have agreed to do that, so it would be good to have an update on that figure.

I commend my right hon. Friend on bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I point out, and ask the Minister to comment on, the fact that in the UK only 187 people have been resettled under the Syrian resettlement programme, compared with 30,000 in Germany and 8,000 in Norway. Whether or not there are mandatory quotas, we should be ashamed, as a country, of the fact that we have accepted only 187 people. There must, surely, be grounds for a full debate on this in the House so that we can settle, or at least make progress on, the question of whether quotas are a pull factor or whether they provide badly needed safety.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election. I believe that she has just started the debate that she recommended, and I am sure that you have heard what she had to say, Mr Speaker. It is important that we debate what has happened in Syria and the number of people that we have taken, and it is important that we get a proper update from the Government on that point.

There is one final point for the House to consider. We must review the implications of our foreign policy far more carefully. We cannot intervene in third-world countries with no post-conflict development strategy, because we will only create more chaos, as we have done in Libya. We can tinker with where and how asylum and immigration cases are processed, but stabilising the political and security situation in north Africa and the conflict zones is the only long-term solution.

We also need to contribute to the economic development of north African and sub-Saharan African countries. When people are prepared to risk their lives—literally to die—for a better life, we cannot sit by and hope that the processes of the European Union will solve the problem. They will not. This Mediterranean madness has only one winner: the criminal gangs that make money. Everyone else loses: the desperate migrants in Lampedusa, Kos, Greece and Spain; the overstretched authorities and residents on the EU southern border; and the thousands of victims who have died in the Mediterranean, which has now become the graveyard of Europe. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and the EU has held summits while people are drowning and the countries of the Maghreb and southern Europe are being overwhelmed. To fail to act now could result in one of the great betrayals of history.

I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing a debate on this important subject. I know that from his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs during the previous Parliament, he has a detailed knowledge of the subject. He has visited places such as Calais and the Greek border to see for himself the pressures that migration creates in various countries. I have listened carefully to the points that he has raised, and in the time available I will try to respond to the issues that he has highlighted.

The right hon. Gentleman clearly underlined the fact that the situation in the Mediterranean is a tragic reminder of the risks that migrants are prepared to take in their attempts to make the perilous journey to Europe, and it is a stark illustration of the exploitation perpetrated by traffickers and organised criminals, who callously put people in harm’s way at sea. Frankly, they could not care whether people live or die. We need to focus on that callousness, that coldness and that complete disregard for human life, and the traffickers who are responsible for it. The loss of life is unacceptable, and I know the whole House is in absolute agreement on that.

Mass migration is one of the key global issues of our times. To put in context the challenge we face, it is currently estimated that about half a million people in Libya are awaiting the opportunity to cross the Mediterranean. There are no easy answers, and none of us should pretend otherwise. We need to look beyond the horizon, looking to the source and transit countries and considering an end-to-end process in dealing with this significant issue, but equally we need to deal with the here and now.

The UK is playing a leading role in the rescue efforts to prevent further deaths. We have sent the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Bulwark, to assist the Italian-led search and rescue mission. We have also deployed two UK Border Force cutters and three Merlin helicopters, in addition to police and military expertise. To date, UK assets have saved over 3,000 lives. No definitive dates have been set for the withdrawal of HMS Bulwark, but I can assure the House that all options are being actively considered.

We will continue to work with European partners to solve the immediate crisis, but these efforts alone will not make the problems go away; we need to treat the root causes and not just deal with the consequences. This can be done only with a comprehensive, long-term solution where we break the link between the people getting on the boats and achieving residence in Europe. This is absolutely key to the solution, as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have underlined in their contributions. Through breaking this link, we will stop people putting themselves in the perilous position that they face in seeking to make that journey across the Mediterranean.

I can see that the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene. I am conscious of time, but I will give way once.

On the withdrawal of HMS Bulwark, the Minister said that all options are being considered. Will he confirm that, regardless of what happens, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will make a full statement to this House?

I am sure that the House will be kept updated in a number of different ways about the ongoing operations in the Mediterranean. As I have underlined, we are making a difference now with the deployment of assets in the Mediterranean, and we are keeping that deployment under active review.

We need to build stability in Libya and source countries, helping to create livelihoods and reducing the push factors to prevent the flow of people from these countries. We need to make it clear that illegal migrants who are not in genuine need of protection will swiftly be returned to their home countries. We need to tackle the large organised crime gangs and trafficking networks who facilitate and profit from this human misery.

The increased flow of migrants has resulted in a range of pressures across Europe. Asylum numbers have increased significantly in a number of countries—in Germany, for example. As the right hon. Member for Leicester East said, Calais has become an obvious visible sign of migratory pressures close to the UK. Recognising that we needed to do more with our French counterparts to tackle that issue, on 20 September 2014 the Home Secretary and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve set out in a joint declaration a number of commitments to tackle problems at the port of Calais. This included £12 million from the UK Government towards upgrading the port infrastructure at Calais and other juxtaposed ports, and improving security and upgrading technology.

We have made good progress in the implementation of these practical solutions, including completing the first phase of installing new security fencing and a communications campaign from which we have obtained valuable intelligence and insights from migrants. We continue to work closely with the haulage industry, both in the UK and abroad, to ensure that drivers and hauliers are aware of what steps they need to take to secure their vehicles in order to reduce clandestine entry into the UK. We have also listened to hauliers’ experiences. Last week, I spoke to representatives of the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association and I intend to have further discussions about the immediate challenges facing the haulage industry.

We recognise that the problem does not begin in Calais. That is why we are enhancing joint work with France and other European partners to clamp down on the organised crime groups behind people smuggling. We welcome some of the EU’s proposals and we are working with other member states to deal with illegal migration. However, we have already made our position clear on the proposals for the relocation of migrants within the EU. We need to find a long-term solution to the problem that does not increase the pull factors to the EU. The UK Government are clear that they will offer generous funding and practical support to help make that happen. At the European level, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in Luxembourg today for the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting, which includes a strong focus on illegal mass migration. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will attend the European Council meeting in Brussels next week; no doubt the meeting will focus heavily on this issue.

We are taking action against the criminal gangs. We are working closely with Europol to strengthen its operation to tackle organised crime groups involved in smuggling in the Mediterranean sea, focusing on tracking vessels and bringing together intelligence. Through that fusion of intelligence from all sources, we will obtain the best possible picture so that we can take action against the trafficking gangs and vessels being used to transit people across the Mediterranean.

The UK is taking further action as part of a core group of EU member states and African partners, leading the EU Khartoum process—a combination of work by EU member states and African Union states, looking at the source and transit countries and at the people traffickers involved. This horn of Africa initiative focuses on combating people smuggling and trafficking in the region. It will bolster sustainable regional protection for refugees by working with key countries of origin, including Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as transit countries such as Libya and Egypt.

The UK has also been at the forefront of efforts to secure a Security Council resolution to authorise the use of force against smugglers’ vessels. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the common security and defence policy initiative is being taken forward and it is important that there is that intelligence fusion to inform that work.

In the longer term, however, stability and regional development are the only sustainable solution. That is why the UK prioritises aid and our unprecedented programme helps those who are displaced by war and reduces people’s need to flee. We have one of the most generous aid budgets in the world and we are one of very few EU countries to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid and development. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the Syrian crisis, providing £800 million to date. We are heavily involved in efforts to help establish a sustainable unity Government in Libya.

We are also supporting the EU’s proposals for sustainable protection in north and east Africa under EU regional development and protection programmes. We are already participating in the middle east programme. We are increasing our support and protection for those who need it. Reference was made to children earlier in the debate. The UK Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme was launched in January 2014, to provide protection for those, including torture survivors and women and children at risk, who cannot be supported effectively in their region of origin. Some 187 have been resettled in the UK in just over a year, and more arrive each month.

Furthermore, we have granted asylum to more than 4,000 Syrians since the start of the humanitarian crisis there. The UK has already settled more than 6,000 refugees over the past 10 years in direct co-operation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees under the Gateway programme. Practical action, both at EU level and more widely, is what we need to save lives, to tackle the criminal gangs, to find a solution to the chaos in Libya and to offer long-term solutions to enable people to stay in their own countries in peace and dignity.

This is a broad piece of work. The Government are focused on their responsibilities, working with EU partners to deal with this significant problem.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.