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Mediterranean: Refugees and Migrants

Volume 756: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to restore migrant search and rescue facilities in the Mediterranean.

My Lords, the UK has had no involvement in Mare Nostrum, the Italian search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Given that search and rescue is a competence of individual member states, the Government have no plans to call for the restoration or replacement of Mare Nostrum. Instead, we will continue to work with the EU and with countries of origin and transit to address the causes of illegal migration and combat people smugglers and traffickers.

Does the Minister agree with Amnesty International, which says that stopping search and rescue in the Mediterranean is causing the loss of thousands of lives? How many men, women and children need to drown before the Government change their policy?

I reiterate that we are talking about the Italian Government. It is their decision, which they have taken. We all share a concern about the situation and the safety of people in the Mediterranean. We need to take a long, hard look at the organised crime gangs who are trafficking people, pushing them out to sea with very little protection, in unseaworthy vessels, and giving them the telephone number of the Italian coastguard. That is the regrettable and appalling thing about this whole situation.

Do the Government appreciate that it is likely to take months, and even years, to stop the traffickers, to prevent violence both by states and by Islamists, and to provide work for migrants in their countries of origin? Does this not make it essential to have search and rescue now?

There is a two-pronged approach to this. First, there is Operation Triton, which the Italians started on 1 November; it is different but will tackle a lot of that. Secondly, there is the work that we are doing with our EU partners under the Rabat process and the Khartoum process, trying to tackle and head off the migration in the first place.

My Lords, it is surely immoral not to rescue those in peril of drowning if we have the capability to do so. Yet at the same time we need a coherent and ordered immigration policy, and cannot offer an open door to anyone who reaches our shores. Has an effort been made to tackle this matter at source by reaching deals with the riparian countries on the south of the Mediterranean, to pay them to destroy the ships and prosecute the traffickers? At least then we can try to deal with this matter at source.

I agree with the noble Lord that it would indeed be immoral and, of course, not to help someone in distress would be in contravention of our obligations under the UN convention on safety of life at sea. The Khartoum and Rabat processes, to which I referred, and the EU mobility partnerships that we have with Tunisia and Morocco, are trying to tackle exactly the issue that he raises.

My Lords, does my noble friend note the comment made by the UN special rapporteur on migrant rights that it is appalling to bank on a rise in the number in people who drown acting as a deterrent? Does he think that the EU views a steep rise in the number of people killed with complacency, if not with satisfaction, because more people are drowning and acting as a deterrent?

It is certainly not the case to say that the Government have been passive on this. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary had meetings with her Italian counterparts last month, and will meet them again this month. We have extended our offers of support and of course we have looked at the countries from which most of these migrants are coming, namely Syria and Ethiopia. We are putting large sums of money—£700 million in the first instance, £360 million in the second—to try and help people to give themselves a proper life at home.

My Lords, there is a long-standing commitment that mariners have always had to look after mariners in peril at sea, as the Minister says. It is very difficult to see how those in the vicinity can do anything other than help them, whether the ship happened to be British, Italian or whatever. For those who are actually based down there, surely—by UN law—they actually have to give assistance.

Absolutely, and there is no change. The obligations are there for any military ships or vessels in the vicinity. They know what they have to do in terms of contacting the maritime rescue co-ordination centre and they will be directed to take those people to a safe port or to have those people passed into safe hands.

Can the Minister recollect that last Thursday he gave me a very forthright answer to a question as to what the attitude of the commander of a British naval vessel would be if he was aware that there was a refugee ship in peril within range of his ship? I was told indeed that he would most certainly lend all assistance in accordance with the law of the sea and the highest traditions of the Royal Navy. In the light of that most honest answer, what is the point of giving any impression on the part of the Government that we are gibbing in relation to search and rescue?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we need to be clear. There is a grave information message we need to get out here that of course there is no change in our humanitarian obligation. The only thing which is changing is that we are putting more money and resource behind it, but those obligations from a humanitarian point of view remain, in the proud tradition of this country and of seafarers.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister mentioned the increase in refugees from, for example, countries such as Syria. In statements that I have seen, Ministers have said that we encourage those people to stay in their own country. The surrounding countries have taken millions and millions of refugees. Turkey took 250,000 Syrian refugees in one week, more than the EU has done in four years. Is it not time that we stepped up to the plate and set an example, and not let people drown in this way?

That is so, and we have introduced the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which is taking some of those—not enough—but of course the EU can do more. We are donating additional funds into that area but there needs to be more done to tackle the instability which is the cause of migration in the first place.