(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the announcement that the Royal Navy will join NATO forces in the interception and return of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean.
The scale of the migration challenge requires NATO, the European Union and other countries across Europe to work together to address both its symptoms—the constant flow of migrants and the conditions we see them face—and the causes in Syria and beyond. We must also work with local civilian authorities to tackle the gangs that profit from smuggling migrants.
The United Kingdom has already been engaged for several months, with the Home Office ship VOS Grace deployed in the region since November with a detachment of Border Force officers.
On 11 February, NATO Defence Ministers took the decision to deploy NATO ships, better to enable Turkish and Greek coastguards to intercept the migrant boats and disrupt the smugglers’ business model. Standing NATO maritime group 2 arrived in the region within 48 hours of that decision and has been conducting initial reconnaissance and surveillance of illegal crossings since then.
The NATO Secretary-General outlined in a statement yesterday evening that discussions between NATO, Turkey and Greece have agreed that NATO vessels can now operate in Greek and Turkish territorial waters.
We have, therefore, decided that the UK contribution is to send Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay and a maritime Wildcat helicopter to the Aegean. Their roles will be to support the NATO monitoring and surveillance task. They will work alongside three Border Force boats: the VOS Grace, the cutter Protector, which is on its way to the region, and a further cutter, which is expected to start operations later this month. Together they will support the Turkish and Greek coastguards and the EU Frontex mission.
The Prime Minister is attending today’s EU-Turkey summit on migration. Contributing to the EU and NATO missions to counter smuggling is only part of the Government’s wider approach to tackling the root causes of irregular migration. The United Kingdom is leading the way in tackling those issues at their source, providing significant amounts of aid to assist in stabilising troubled regions and lessening the need for people to leave. In the meantime, the Royal Navy deployment is an important part of the international effort to assist the Turkish and Greek authorities in reducing this criminal and dangerous people trafficking.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and, in particular, for coming to the Chamber to make the statement. He describes a series of tactics, many of which will find broad support in this House, but it seems to me that, taken together, they do not add up to a strategy. Today’s press refers to a “war against people traffickers”. If we are to win that war, we need to cut off from the people traffickers the supply of those who are desperate enough to pay to use them. Of course, in the longer term that means getting peace in their countries of origin, but in the short to medium term, surely it means a series of safe and legal routes into Europe, the expansion of the refugee family scheme and the introduction of humanitarian visas.
What will happen to those seeking refuge who are intercepted in the Aegean? Will they be taken back to Turkey? Does that not run contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, which is at the centre of international refugee law?
What will be done to keep under review the widely questioned status of Turkey as a “safe country” to which people can be returned? Is the Defence Secretary aware of the reports from Human Rights Watch describing people being sent from Turkey back to Syria? What impact do the Government think that action will have on the flow of refugees elsewhere? The Secretary of State will, I am sure, be aware that last year 35,000 people came to Europe through Russia. What will be the impact on that land route if the sea route is to be closed down? What will that mean for the deployment of resources elsewhere in the Mediterranean, in particular assisting those travelling from Libya to Italy? The Secretary of State will be aware that the coastguard cutters were deployed on that route last year. Will they be available to help those who get into difficulty on that route, on which there have been many more deaths by drowning than there have been on the route through the Aegean sea?
If this is to be a war against people trafficking, I fear that, as with all wars, there will be innocent victims. The innocent victims, it seems to me, will be those who are desperate enough to undertake the journeys across the Aegean, across the land routes and across other parts of the Mediterranean. Will the Secretary of State assure me and the House that those people will be uppermost in the Government’s consideration?
There are, of course, already innocent victims of that people trafficking. Several hundred have drowned this winter, and several thousand drowned last year. It is in all our interests to reduce the number of people who attempt the dangerous crossing. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we have to work at cutting off the supply much further back. We have done that through our contribution to the reconstruction of Syria and our aid programmes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and much further south in east and west Africa. On the creation of safe routes, I am not convinced that establishing some routes as safer than others will do anything to reduce the flow. On the contrary, we need to increase the capacity of, in particular, the Turkish authorities and the Turkish coastguard to intercept the boats before they set off on that very dangerous crossing.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about interception. The position is that if a boat in distress can be intercepted in Turkish waters by the Turkish authorities —perhaps alerted by the helicopters that are now deploying from the international force—there is a greater chance that the Turkish coastguard will be able to return that boat to the Turkish side. If such a boat is intercepted in international or Greek waters, it is more likely to be taken to one of the Greek reception points. So far as the effect on the alternative route that opened up last summer from Libya to Italy is concerned, HMS Enterprise is still on station in the Tyrrhenian sea and only yesterday rescued around 100 people. It is important to begin to establish a policy of return, so that there is less incentive for migrants to attempt those extremely dangerous crossings and less incentive for criminal gangs to make money out of their doing so.
If it is now established European Union and UK policy that illegal migrants should be returned, why are not the instructions to the personnel on our boats simply to take people back to where they have come from if they do not have legal papers or if they are not genuine asylum seekers?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Brussels today discussing the entire issue of returns with European Union and other countries that are attending that meeting. It is unlikely that RFA Mounts Bay will be involved in rescuing people from boats in distress. Of course, the law of the sea places that obligation on her, but she will be further off the coast. It is more likely that a helicopter will be able to identify boats closer to shore in immediate distress that can be picked up by the Turkish or the Greek authorities and returned under their law.
I am sure that the thoughts and gratitude of the whole House are with the men and women aboard RFA Mounts Bay as they join the NATO deployment in the Aegean sea. Once again, the crisis demonstrates how the British armed forces play a crucial role, not only in securing our domestic security but in contributing to peace and stability across the world.
People trafficking is the world’s second largest form of organised crime, generating billions from the misery and suffering of some of the planet’s most desperate people. There is a real urgency not only to deterring and bringing to justice the people responsible, but also to deterring the victims from undertaking the perilous journey. Although we welcome the role that RFA Mounts Bay will play, it is a small contribution to a gigantic crisis. That may be a reminder of the fact that the Royal Navy’s surface fleet has been reduced by a sixth since 2010.
Does the Secretary of State feel that our naval resources are too stretched to play a larger role in this operation? Does he believe that, rather than protecting UK seas, the three Border Force vessels are in the Aegean because of the reduction in naval capacity caused by the 2010 strategic defence and security review? To that end, what more can he tell us about when the national shipbuilding strategy will report, and how quickly does he think the new class of lighter frigates to replace the Type 23s will be available to the Navy?
The fact that NATO has joined what was previously an EU role further demonstrates the extent to which our role in the EU enhances our global security. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that leaving the EU may bring refugee camps to the streets of Britain, and what more can he tell us about the ways in which he believes the EU helps us to keep Britons safe?
Once again, we salute British servicemen and women who are making the world safer and fairer. The Government must make sure that we have a strategy in place to ensure that—in the air, at sea and on the land—Britain can always answer the call.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me reciprocate by sending our good wishes to Captain Taylor and the crew of Mounts Bay, the 200 Royal Marines embarked on her and the helicopter squadron accompanying her.
So far as sufficiency is concerned, there are five NATO ships on station at the moment—a German ship, which is the flagship of the group, a Greek ship, a Canadian ship, an Italian ship and a Turkish ship—and ours makes that six ships spread out across the Aegean. Of course, there are 22 other members of NATO, and I hope that they will consider what contribution they can make. Mounts Bay is a substantial ship and, with a helicopter platform, it can contribute significantly to the surveillance, particularly of the middle part of the Aegean. We envisage that Mounts Bay will operate mainly in waters just west of Chios.
In so far as the shipbuilding strategy is relevant, we are developing the strategy in the light of the SDSR, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and we hope to complete it later this year. On his attempt to bring NATO and European Union membership into this, let me make this clear to him: the mission in the sea between Libya and Italy is a European Union mission, because in dealing with the new Libyan Government, it may need the legal authorities that the European Union can add; the group deployed in the Aegean is a NATO mission, because it of course involves a ship of the Turkish navy and is largely dealing with migrants from Turkey, which is a member of NATO. That perfectly illustrates that we need to be members of both NATO and the European Union, and that being members of both gives us the best of both worlds.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and, indeed, the Royal Navy for its commitment to this mission, which demonstrates that we have an important role to play in European defence and security. By making it clear that this is a NATO mission, he underlines the point that NATO provides the security of our continent, not the European Union, as the Government seek to pretend.
This is a NATO mission—it was proposed by Germany, which is leading this particular standing maritime group—but the equally important mission in the Tyrrhenian sea, between Sicily and Libya, is a European Union mission. There are other examples of European Union missions—in Bosnia, and off the horn of Africa—that have been equally effective in saving lives.
We welcome the decision by the UK Government to join NATO in trying to tackle the truly awful levels of human trafficking in the Mediterranean. However, we believe that this has to be a two-pronged approach—one that involves stopping the trafficking, but also involves rescuing and resettling the refugees. May I put on the record my thanks to the people of Bute in my constituency, who have shown such support and compassion to the refugees who have arrived in their community, and may I pay tribute to the Scottish Government, who have given our refugees the best possible chance to integrate as fully as possible? As the crisis worsens, the need for the UK Government to commit to take 3,000 unaccompanied vulnerable and displaced children becomes an ever more urgent priority. Further to that and looking at the bigger picture, when will the Secretary of State update the House, as he promised he would do, on the Government’s military strategy in Syria?
On the first point, I welcome the contribution Scotland is making. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to know that some of the Royal Marines on board Mounts Bay are from Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland. I am glad that he welcomes the mission.
On refugees, the hon. Gentleman will know that we have committed to take refugees from the camps in Syria and to take unaccompanied children that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identifies further west in Europe. We have played a leading part in that, as we did in the reconstruction conference on the future of Syria.
So far as military operations in Syria are concerned, we regularly update the information on the Ministry of Defence website. I am very happy to answer any additional questions the hon. Gentleman has.[Official Report, 9 March 2016, Vol. 607, c. 4MC.]
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the role of the Navy. Many hands do, indeed, make light work. Forgive me for being over-simplistic, but I would like to understand whether our latest offering is purely about moving bodies back to coastlines, or whether it integrates somehow with the resettlement of refugees and the chaos that our European neighbours find themselves in.
The primary purpose of the mission is to provide monitoring, surveillance and reconnaissance of the migration route across the Aegean, which will better enable the Turkish and Greek coastguards to intercept the boats and disrupt the business model of the criminal traffickers. When they can intercept the boats in either Turkish or Greek waters, they are better able to rescue those on board before they get too far out to sea in the more dangerous areas.
Obviously, preventing people from risking their lives by making such a dangerous journey is the right thing for the EU and NATO to try to do. However, 13,000 people who have already arrived in Greece are at the Macedonian border in terrible wet, damp and cold conditions, including children with bronchitis. The Secretary of State has said that the British Government will not take any of them. Where does he think those 13,000 people should go?
The British Government are taking refugees from Syria, as we have made clear, and some of them have arrived here in the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is urging his European counterparts to get to grips with the problem of those who have arrived inside the Schengen area and to take steps to ensure that they are not shuttled from one fence to the next. Europe has to adopt a more sensible policy.[Official Report, 9 March 2016, Vol. 607, c. 4MC.]
May I ask my right hon. Friend about the rules for interception? For instance, what would happen if the people on these makeshift craft refused to get on board a royal naval vessel or, indeed, if the people traffickers opened fire on our sailors or marines?
It was certainly our experience last year that migrants in boats that were sinking or in distress very much welcomed the presence of the Royal Navy and were very eager to get on board the ships that we had deployed, because they knew that they would be safe. The traffickers appear to take very great care not to be on the vessels and have them launched by those who are being smuggled. Where they can be identified—this is where the monitoring and surveillance can assist—they can be charged and prosecuted, as they are being in parts of Turkey.
I welcome this deployment. As the Secretary of State knows, 1 million migrants entered the EU last year, 885,000 of them through Greece. Last week, Europol told us that 90% of those who have entered have come as a result of assistance from criminal gangs. We are in this place because of the failure of the EU, and in particular Frontex, to deal properly with those gangs, and there has been no alternative to the business model that the traffickers are adopting. Does he agree that Turkey is the critical country, and the issue is to stop the boats leaving in the first place? Key to that is giving Turkey the resources that the EU promised—€3 billion—to get it to assist with this difficult problem.
I agree with almost all that. It is important that the European Union follows through on its commitment of financial help for Turkey, and we must build up the capacity of the Turkish coastguard. I hope that this deployment will build up a picture of the information and intelligence that the Turkish coastguard needs, so that it can start to intercept vessels before they leave Turkish waters. Those vessels can then be returned to Turkey, and that will be the clearest possible signal to people who are paying large sums of money that the journey will be futile, and they will be discouraged from making it.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that Turkey is doing enough at the moment to help? Tens of thousands of plastic dinghies are being imported by Turkey from China to allow this trade to continue, and similarly, phoney lifejackets are being sold in Izmir. Why are the Turkish Government not doing something about that?
Of course the Turkish Government can do more, but so can other Governments, such as the Greek Government. There is a lack of capacity in both Greece and Turkey to deal with what is now migration on a substantial scale. We all need to help, and the European Union must get a grip of its migration policy. Turkey will need help, but it must also be more robust in dealing with migration routes. This Government have decided that we too, with the largest Navy in Europe, ought to help where we can.
I welcome this deployment and wish RFA Mounts Bay and her crew all the best. What is the legal status of immigrants if they are picked up by Mounts Bay, and particularly if they claim asylum? We faced that issue when we were in office and there were operations off the coast of Somalia.
The legal position is that people cannot claim asylum on board Mounts Bay if it is not in UK territorial waters, so that is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman might think. We are working with other Governments to develop a policy that will ensure that those who are picked up in international waters can be returned to Turkey. At present, those who are picked up in Turkish waters by the Turkish coastguard can be taken back to Turkey, but as I have said, if they are picked up in Greek or international waters—the boundary there is complex and indeed disputed around the islands of the eastern Aegean—at the moment they will be taken to a place of safety in Greece.
Given that this is an extremely lucrative trade for people smugglers and that, as the Minister says, Turkey does not have the capacity to do this on its own, how can we be sure that this is not a revolving door involving migrants who are being taken back to Turkey, allowed to stay there a while, and then get back on boats again to try their luck several times?
The best assurance that I can give my hon. Friend is that we are determined to try to help Turkey to break that business model, by ensuring that those who smuggle and send women or unaccompanied children on insecure boats for what may be a short but still a very dangerous sea crossing, can be identified, charged and prosecuted through the Turkish courts, so that we eventually discourage the flow from the beginning.
From Mare Nostrum in 2014, which we failed to finance properly, to the Frontex operations, there is a singular lack of strategy and sense of urgency. The deployment of Mounts Bay was actually announced two months ago, and I am not really clear on what it is doing that had not already been previously announced. On a very specific point, may I invite the Secretary of State to put in writing his understanding of the legal position of anybody picked up by Mounts Bay? Frankly, my understanding is closer to that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) than it is to the position the Secretary of State has just enunciated.
The deployment of Mounts Bay was announced late last night following the agreement reached between NATO, Greece and Turkey by the Secretary-General, so the right hon. Lady is not right on that. It is not the aim of Mounts Bay to pick up large numbers of migrants—she will be further offshore than that. As I say, the objective is for her to be able to deploy her helicopter, help the rest of the NATO standing group, the Turkish and Greek coastguards and the Frontex operation to build up a proper picture of where migrants are setting off from and to help them to be intercepted before they get into international waters. I am very happy to write to her about the legal point she raises.
When I visited the points of embarkation and arrival, I spoke to migrants and refugees. I found them to be extremely well informed and responsive to clear signals when Governments actually give them. The migrants I spoke to were under the very strong impression that they were extremely unlikely to be turned around in the Mediterranean and returned to Turkey. On the experience of the migrants I spoke to, my right hon. Friend would surely agree it is essential that Europe is brave, intercepts as many crafts as possible and returns them to Turkey. News of that would be heard by migrants, refugees and the people smugglers, and they would take note of it. It is the only sure way to deter the trade.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Signals are picked up very quickly and very clearly by large numbers of young men further down the chain in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and, as we have seen on the Libyan coastline, further south in Africa itself. What has not happened so far is any policy of returns—nobody has actually been sent back. We need to start with those who are intercepted in Turkish waters and send them back to Turkey, so that we start to stem the flow.
On Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting members of the Oasis Cardiff centre in my constituency and the Cardiff and Vale Sanctuary Support group. They do amazing work in supporting people who have made hazardous journeys in horrendous circumstances. I also met the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, the former Member for Eddisbury, who raised concerns about the widening instability in the Lake Chad region and across the Sahel, which is another driving factor in forcing people to make such hazardous journeys. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that enough global and regional attention is being applied to that instability and those conflicts, as well as to those in Syria and Iraq?
The hon. Gentleman is right. When I visited HMS Bulwark last summer just a few weeks after she had begun operations in the Mediterranean, she had already picked up some 20 to 25 different nationalities from east Africa and west Africa. That is why it is important to help to tackle this problem much further back at source, and to do what we can to stabilise the regions, grow their economies and give young men there every incentive to stay and build a life there rather than to set out on these very hazardous journeys. We are contributing substantially to development in Africa, both in the east and the west, and we have latterly announced new peacekeeping missions to South Sudan and to Somalia.
I welcome this deployment. Does capability exist on the Royal Navy ship to gather evidence—in particular, on the seaworthiness of the boats—and statements from people who are picked up, so they can be used in future prosecutions to tackle the criminal gangs who traffic them?
Yes, Mounts Bay and our other units deployed there are well able to gather the information to which my hon. Friend refers. The key is that it be brought together and to the attention of the Turkish authorities so that they can start to bear down more heavily on these operations, nail the masterminds behind these criminal gangs, get them charged and prosecuted and start to reduce the flow.
I appreciate that Mounts Bay will be on an observation and deterrence mission, but the chances are it will be involved in picking up migrants. What personnel will be there from the Home Office and what training will be given to staff in working with vulnerable, isolated children and vulnerable adults who might well be picked up but whom we do not want returned into the hands of people traffickers?
Those deployed on the Border Force cutters have that kind of training, but Mounts Bay is a much larger ship—16,000 tonnes—and will be operating in deeper waters to the west of Chios, so it is less likely, although not impossible, that it will be picking up large numbers of migrants; it is its helicopter that we hope will be identifying boats in distress, much closer to the shore, and working closely with the two respective coastguards.
EU Navfor concentrates on Somalian piracy but claims in its mandate to provide support to other EU missions. Will the Secretary of State explain why it has not been able to meet this tasking without NATO support and when he expects EU Navfor to expand to the point where it is capable of deploying British naval power without NATO?
Maritime standing group 2 operates in the eastern Mediterranean, and so is the logical group to deploy to the Aegean, and happens also to comprise a Greek and a Turkish ship, which is equally important when operating in Aegean waters, as well as a Canadian, a German and an Italian vessel. In this instance, therefore, the NATO group was ideally placed. As my hon. Friend says, however, EU Navfor, commanded from Northwood, is bearing down on piracy in the horn of Africa. It has been a very successful mission, and it is an EU mission because if we are to enable the pirates to be prosecuted in third countries, we need the legal instruments available to the EU that would not, for example, be available to NATO. That is another illustration of how it is useful to be members of both the EU and the alliance.
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s announcement. Does he foresee the need for an additional deployment of Royal Navy ships in the Mediterranean to assist those already there, including the two Border Force cutters? In respect of those two cutters, what assessment has been made of the impact on policing our own waters, which is obviously of equal importance to people living in the UK?
We will certainly keep our deployment under review. As I said, we have Mounts Bay now and the three Border Force cutters in the Aegean, as well as HMS Enterprise in the Tyrrhenian sea helping to police the route between Libya and Sicily. We can do that and still fulfil our other standing commitments, to which the hon. Gentleman might be referring, in both the Gulf and home waters. The Border Force cutters have the assistance of military personnel on board, supplementing the Border Force, and Royal Marines to add force protection.
Chancellor Merkel’s unilateral and ill-advised announcement that Germany’s borders were open and that everyone was welcome hugely compounded the migration problem by creating a huge pull factor. What assurances has my right hon. Friend had from the German Chancellor that she will not repeat that mistake, and what EU laws allowed her to make a decision in the first place that ultimately caused a lot of misery and cost an awful lot of lives?
The German Chancellor is in Brussels today, engaging with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a search for better control of migration policy. So far as the legal basis for what is happening inside Europe at the moment is concerned, it is of course the Schengen area, of which we are not part. We still retain control of our own borders, but that does not absolve us of the humanitarian responsibility to help where we can, and it does not absolve us as one of the larger countries in Europe from continuing to call on European countries to get some grip on the migration crisis.
With more refugees being sent back to Turkey, I must ask the Secretary of State again the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael): what protection is in place for the refugees going back to Turkey to ensure that they will not be sent back to Syria; and is the Secretary of State confident that Turkey is a country to which refugees can be safely returned?
We certainly abide by our international obligations under the refugee convention, which means that we could not return any individual to a country where they might be in danger of persecution or inhuman treatment. That is why, as I said, those picked up in international waters or in Greek waters will not be returned to Turkey in the first instance. There are discussions going on with the Turkish Government to be sure that anyone who is returned to Turkey from outside Turkish waters can be dealt with safely.
In associating myself with the tributes paid to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and Border Force personnel, does the Secretary of State agree that it is not just they who we should thank, but their loved ones and families whom they leave at home and who want the separation to be as short as possible? What further support can we provide on the intelligence and policing front to go after the linchpins of these criminal gangs that prey on human weakness and people’s desperation?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the hidden heroes—the families who stand behind our servicemen and women and who cannot know, of course, because it is the nature of service life, when unexpected deployments are likely to arise. Quite often, they will not know just how long they are expected to last. On my hon. Friend’s point about intelligence, there is increasing co-operation on counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing with the authorities in Turkey. Turkey itself has been subject to terrorist attacks from Daesh, and has every interest in co-operating with us.
My right hon. Friend has fielded many questions on the terrible situation off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean, but it has also been pointed out that there is a migration challenge from north Africa across the Mediterranean. Will he say what steps the Italian naval forces and coastguard are taking to enhance their ability to intercept refugee boats?
My hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to the other route, which opened up significantly last summer and is beginning to open up again as the seas moderate. It is a longer route and a much more dangerous one. In answer to his specific point, the Italians are bearing the brunt of the naval effort south of Sicily. They have the most ships there and they are committed to continuing to develop the reception centres and the processing of the migrants that are rescued and taken to Sicily.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Royal Navy deployment shows the importance of the Type 26 global combat ship programme, not least because these frigates will have the flexibility to embark a Chinook, for example, and play a really important role in future humanitarian efforts—not least, of course, because David Brown Gear Systems in Lockwood in my constituency, which my right hon. Friend has visited, is in the supply chain?
I recall my visit to David Brown and seeing the gearing systems already being designed and produced. My hon. Friend is right about the usefulness of the forthcoming Type 26 frigates. What is important above all in this particular operation, of course, is the ability of the ship to carry a helicopter, and that is what Mounts Bay will bring. However, I note my hon. Friend’s point about the future development of the Type 26 design.
I recently spent a day at sea with HMS Portland as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme to learn more about the crucial work of the Royal Navy and the excellent work of our armed forces. Will my right hon. Friend outline the work and the role of the Royal Navy to date in helping to tackle the migration crisis?
The Royal Navy has been engaged in the Libyan route. Last summer, HMS Bulwark was first on the scene, and it has rescued several thousand migrants, whom it has helped to be resettled in Italy. HMS Enterprise is on station there now, continuing that task, and she rescued about 100 migrants yesterday. As I said earlier, Mounts Bay is on station west of Chios in the Aegean. I imagine that it will not be too long before her helicopter is involved in physically saving lives, as the Royal Navy has already done and has done down the centuries.
The Royal Navy deployment that was announced today will turn up the heat on the traffickers and help to keep migrants and asylum seekers safe. Does not our ability to take these steps, alongside our other commitments, underscore why it is right to increase defence spending for each year of this Parliament?
Yes, it does. The Royal Navy itself is the biggest beneficiary of the increase in defence spending that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his July Budget, and of which we gave more details in the strategic defence review. Defence expenditure will start to rise again in three weeks, for the first time for six years, and will continue to rise in every year of the current Parliament. That is because we are putting the public finances that we inherited in order, and because we are running a strong economy.
Thousands of stranded refugees are currently in Idomeni, a small village on the Greek border with Macedonia, awaiting the decision at the EU summit that could determine their fate. It has just been reported that a young boy has been killed after being accidentally electrocuted at the camp. Does the Secretary of State accept that the human cost of this crisis is too high, and that it is clear that much more needs to be done to tackle the problem than simply deploying ships to the Aegean?
Lives have been lost already. Thousands drowned in the Mediterranean last year, and several hundred drowned this winter. However, I hope that the hon. Lady would not decry the contribution that we are making. The Royal Navy saved lives last year, and it will be saving lives this year through the operation that was announced today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his characteristic courtesy in coming to the House in person to answer the urgent question. Is this not a very interesting case study of the difference between the European Union and NATO? NATO manages to get on and save lives in a problematic situation for which the EU must take at least a large share of the blame, and which has been exacerbated by the consequences of Chancellor Merkel’s decision. While NATO is there, actively doing things, the best—the most mealy-mouthed meeting of murmurating Ministers—that can be provided by the European Union does nothing.
My hon. Friend’s views on this matter are fairly well known, and I have to tell him that, sadly, I do not entirely share them. To me it does not really matter, in the end, under whose auspices this mission is organised. The European Union mission is in the sea between Libya and Italy; this happens to be a NATO mission. What is most important, I think, is that the mission takes place and we become involved in saving lives, whatever the auspices under which the mission happens to be organised.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that NATO has had to be called upon to protect the Greek border is further evidence that the European Union is incapable of securing its own borders? Does he also agree that people would be well advised to bear that in mind when they vote in the referendum on 23 June?
My hon. Friend and I might not agree on everything that people should have to bear in mind when it comes to the referendum. Both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, and that is why I think that this mission has a greater chance of success under NATO’s auspices. I hope that other countries will join the mission and, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said earlier, I hope that there will be a successful outcome to the discussions in Brussels today and that the European Union will rise to the challenge of coping with what is a quite extraordinary migration crisis.
Over the past few months, I have met marines and servicemen and women on the ships that have been involved in these rescues, and some of their tales have been absolutely heartbreaking. It is welcome that they are bringing their professionalism to this deployment. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to smash the business model that these criminal gangs profit from, it is vital to break the link between being smuggled to Europe in dangerous unseaworthy boats and being resettled?
I absolutely agree with that. There are clearly people smugglers in Turkey who are making huge amounts of money from this operation and have no care at all about whether those whom they push off in those unstable boats will make it safely to the Greek islands. The sooner we can start to disrupt that evil trade, the better.