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Refugees and Migrants: Search and Rescue

Volume 756: debated on Thursday 30 October 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement given earlier this morning by my right honourable friend James Brokenshire in another place.

“The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those who genuinely need it. We work closely with our European neighbours to provide assistance to those fleeing from fear or persecution and deter those whose criminal actions stand in the way of providing effective help.

The scenes we have witnessed in the Mediterranean in recent months, with people risking their lives to reach Europe, are deeply distressing. The UNHCR estimates that more than 3,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean already this year, compared to some 700 deaths in the whole of last year. When people are risking life and limb—not just their own but those of their loved ones, too—it is clear that they are caught in a desperate situation. No one underestimates the sincerity of their plight. It demands an equally sincere approach from the Governments of the European nations—and that is what it has been getting.

Since Italy launched its Mare Nostrum operation in October 2013, there has been an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration across the Mediterranean and a fourfold increase in the deaths of those making that perilous journey. The operation has been drawn closer and closer to the Libyan shore as traffickers have taken advantage of the situation by placing more vulnerable people in unseaworthy boats on the basis that they will be rescued and taken to Italy. But many are not rescued, which is why we believe that the operation is having the unintended consequence of placing more lives at risk and why EU member states have unanimously agreed that the operation should be promptly phased out.

It is of course vital that this phasing out is well managed and well publicised to mitigate the risk of further deaths. It is vital that we continue to take action to provide real help to those who genuinely need it. We have made clear our view that the sustainable answer to the current situation in the Mediterranean is to enhance operational co-operation within the EU, work with countries of origin and transit to tackle the causes of illegal immigration and the organised gangs that facilitate it, and enhance support for protection in north and east Africa for those in need.

We have agreed to a request from FRONTEX—the EU’s border management agency—to deploy a debriefing expert in support of the FRONTEX Operation Triton, off the southern Italian coast. This operation is not designed to replace Mare Nostrum but will instead patrol closer to EU borders. We stand ready to consider any further request for UK support for the new FRONTEX operation. The UK is among those member states offering substantial numbers of resettlement places for refugees from outside the EU, working closely with UNHCR. There were more than 4,000 places between 2008 and 2013. In close partnership with other member states, we are developing a strong programme of work to tackle the causes of migration from the Horn of Africa, including through investment in regional protection programmes.

It is not in the interests of anyone—most especially those genuinely fleeing persecution—if European countries have an uncontrolled and ineffective approach to immigration and asylum. It is not in the interests of anyone if the criminal gangs who exploit the fear and suffering of vulnerable people, endangering human lives for cold, hard cash, are allowed to continue their despicable work unimpeded. It is not in the interests of anyone if we fail to adapt to a situation which encourages more and more people to make that dangerous journey across the seas. That is why member states across the EU have unanimously agreed to act: to defend our borders, crack down on crime, and protect those who so desperately need our protection”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer. He is right to identify that 3,000 people have died this year but he did not identify that 150,000 men, women and children have been rescued and their lives saved. Many of them were misled by unscrupulous criminals. Many others are being trafficked into Europe for slavery and prostitution. It is a serious and terrible humanitarian problem. We understand that it is difficult, but concerted international action is essential to bear down on these criminal gangs and try to stop families undertaking such dangerous journeys.

While the criminals may be aware—as the Minister said—of the phasing in of these changes, there is no evidence that desperate families or trafficked victims will be. Leaving them to drown instead is shocking and inhumane. It is not the British way of doing things. Does the Minister really believe that this needless loss of life will ever act as a deterrent to criminals and desperate people? How many will drown before the Government reconsider this policy?

I very much understand the passions and sentiments that these horrific reports will arouse in all people who have any sense of humanitarian care or concern. Of course, the reality is that this is for the Italian Government. They are the ones who set up the operation, which started last October, and they are the ones who say that they will now phase it out. It is not something in which the UK Government are involved on a day-to-day basis. The Italian Government introduced this as a deeply humanitarian gesture, and made the point that they would rescue anyone, wherever they were in territorial waters. The number of those making the perilous journey then went up from 60,000 last year to 150,000 this year, and that situation is being exploited by the gangs which we all seek to stop. The Italian Government have therefore taken the decision to phase it out. The decision was not taken by the UK Government.

My Lords, it pains me to say to my noble friends that this is a discreditable policy, whatever words are used to describe it. We do not find it difficult to disagree with the European Union on all sorts of other matters, but do we have to lay our hand to a European policy whose central proposition is that the best way to discourage people from seeking a better life is to leave them to drown in the Mediterranean? This is inhuman, it is discreditable and it may well be contrary to our duties under international law to do everything we can to save those in peril on the sea.

The noble Lord comes to this with huge experience and understanding. However, those obligations which are there under the laws of the sea, maritime law and humanitarian law will remain as obligations on any vessels that actually come across people who are making this journey. The question is how we tackle this increasing trend effectively. This is not for the UK alone; this view was pored over on the basis of evidence, intelligence and information which came to the Justice and Home Affairs Council. All 28 member states agreed—which, as my noble friend suggested, is a pretty rare achievement—that, regrettably, this was having a counterproductive effect.

My Lords, will the Minister kindly answer a specific question, which I am sure all Members of the House would wish to have answered? If the commander of a British warship is cognisant of the fact that there is a refugee ship within reasonable distance of his vessel which is in peril, does he deviate from his course and pass by on the other side, or does he act in accordance with the law of the sea and the highest tradition of the Royal Navy?

The answer is that he gives assistance to that vessel. That is the law; that is the rule; and that will continue to happen. The vessel should be escorted to the nearest safe port and the passengers’ needs addressed. There is an overlying responsibility, particularly where those individuals may have genuine asylum claims which need to be investigated, to then take them to a place where they can be assessed.

My Lords, of course everything must be done to help the countries of origin tackle the criminal gangs which are shipping people across the Mediterranean in dangerous circumstances. However, are we saying that we are happy to be party to a policy which will result in people drowning? Is that not a shameful position for the Government to adopt?

We are certainly not happy with the situation; we are deeply unhappy with it, as is everybody. But how do the Italians begin to address this particular issue when the numbers are increasing? The number of deaths has gone up from 700 to some 3,000—a fourfold increase. If they go up fourfold again next year, does that justify the present policy? These are hugely difficult issues—I do not dismiss that—but the countries of the European Union and the Italian Government are making the best they can of a terrible humanitarian situation.

My Lords, it is clear that we are all deeply worried about this terrible situation. Just last weekend, a family drowned off our own coasts and the horror was felt right across our country. There were serious discussions about whether we needed more people on duty to look after them. There is a deep sense of worry where people put themselves in such danger. I do not think that any of us believe that people are putting their families at risk—sometimes, they are huge, extended families; one was reported earlier this week on television—thinking, “Oh, well, it does not matter if we are likely to drown because we might be saved”. That would seem to me incredible. Surely we need a much more coherent, pan-European strategy underlying the whole question of immigrants and asylum seekers, and we should try to get some agreement on how we can address it. However, I would lament us withdrawing from anything that would help people in such dire circumstances.

I understand the right reverend Prelate’s point. I should make the point again for the benefit of the House that we are not withdrawing from anything; this was something for which the Italian Government had responsibility, and they have decided to phase it out. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that more needs to be done to establish a co-ordinated approach, which was indeed the purpose of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on this specific issue held on 9 and 10 October. One of the outcomes of that meeting was Operation Triton, which we have pledged resources to, in addition to all the other things that we are trying to do to help in the countries from which these people are fleeing for their lives.

My Lords, a lot of these problems arise in certain north African towns, of which Alexandria is one—

Perhaps I might pick up the point that my noble friend the Minister has just made. I understand that in Alexandria, Egypt, which is one of the major ports for trafficking, only one trafficker has been prosecuted in the last five years. Will we give specific assistance to the Government of Egypt, and what Government there is in Libya, to train them on arrest, prosecution and internment of the trafficking gangs?

Indeed. Just this morning, I was with the National Crime Agency, which has teams in particular areas around the world, including in Egypt. They are trying to identify just those types of people, ensuring that they are tackled and that their evil crime is stopped.

Many of these people are coming from towns such as Alexandria; that is where the organisation is. I say to the Minister that, through the European Union, we can offer aid not only in policing those areas but in policing much closer to their shores. It is possible to work out with some of those north African countries ways of stopping this problem closer to shore.

We will be willing to look at all those opportunities. On the subject of aid, this Government are in the lead in providing aid to some of those conflict zones, such as Syria, where we have pledged £700 million already. We recognise that there are two parts to this, and we need to work at both.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the amount of help which the Government are giving to FRONTEX, which he announced in his first reply, is miniscule? Would it not be preferable if the Government gave more support to FRONTEX, which one hopes would then ameliorate a bit the results of this decision? Perhaps the Minister could also say what the Government’s position is on the negotiation of mobility partnerships with countries in the southern Mediterranean. There is already one with Tunisia and one with Morocco. What are we doing to press ahead with those? They are part of the solution, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said.

The noble Lord will of course know very well that FRONTEX is part of the Schengen arrangements for border control. We have our own border control. We are talking about additional aid that we are giving to the Schengen area and to FRONTEX at its request. On the other matter that the noble Lord raised, the reciprocal agreements which might exist in the southern Mediterranean area, I will write to him.