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Mediterranean: Refugees and Migrants

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking with Mediterranean states and other relevant organisations to address the problems of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

My Lords, the Government are working closely with other EU member states to address this distressing situation. It is important to find solutions that tackle the root causes. We are, therefore, focusing our efforts on enhancing co-operation with source and transit countries, including strengthening protection in the region and disrupting the activities of traffickers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that since this issue was last raised in your Lordships’ House, it has become clearly unacceptable to allow some people to drown to deter others from risking their lives at sea? In this situation, will the Government seek to get safe sea lanes agreed between Africa and Europe? Will they mobilise all possible technology—for example, drones, radar and satellites—to supplement the work of rescue ships? In the long run, will they work to get interviewing done in Africa before migrants and refugees leave?

The noble Lord asked about surveillance. We are part of the general effort, through Eurosur, which is the surveillance component of Frontex. We have offered to provide additional services if they are called upon. Eurosur is doing a lot of work in that area through drones, exactly as the noble Lord suggests. Through our partnerships in-country, particularly in Syria, we are trying to head this off at source by making people aware of the Syrian resettlement programme and other UNHCR resettlement programmes, of which our Government are a part.

My Lords, the country in the front line in dealing with this problem is Italy. In so far as many of the people crossing the Mediterranean are intending to come to the United Kingdom, what support are we giving the Italian Government to deal with the problem?

Yes, it is the Italian Government, as well as the Spanish and the front-line Mediterranean states, including Greece. They are part of the Schengen arrangement. The Frontex programme and organisation is behind them. We have said that we will offer support as required. We have already assigned one liaison officer and the Home Secretary is meeting with her Italian counterpart. She has said that if they need additions, we are prepared to look at that.

My Lords, the whole House will recognise that my noble friend is doing a manful job defending a completely untenable position. May I change tack a little? Why does the Government’s policy seem to be to support measures that can have only one result—to drown more refugees in the Mediterranean—rather than a policy whose aim is to lock up more people traffickers? Only one has ever been arrested—in Egypt, which is one of the main departure countries. Does my noble friend remember a few years ago when Her Majesty’s Government used all the resources at their disposal, including Special Forces, to rid the Caribbean of drug smugglers? Why can we not do the same thing to rid the Mediterranean of people traffickers?

My noble friend hits the nail on the head. We need to tackle the traffickers who are exploiting this situation by placing vulnerable people in unseaworthy vessels and setting them afloat in exchange for €2,000 or €3,000 a head. That is absolutely morally outrageous. They are responsible for the deaths. That is why the National Crime Agency is working with Frontex and other organisations to bring them to justice. The legislation that your Lordships’ House passed in the Serious Crime Bill, and will pass in the Modern Slavery Bill, will help in that effort.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Syrian resettlement programme. Will he tell your Lordships’ House how many people have been resettled under that programme?

I do not have the exact numbers today but we accept that they are small. However, the numbers for the general gateway resettlement programme are around 750 to 1,000. That is a pinprick. However, this Government have a proud record of being the second largest donor of bilateral aid to Syria, giving £700 million to try to tackle the problem at source so that Syrians do not have to travel.

Why does my noble friend believe that so many of these refugees decide to come to this country, rather than staying in Italy, France or Spain when they arrive in Europe?

I suppose the short answer is that you would have to ask them why that is. I am sure that there are a number of draws in this country; we all agree that it is a wonderful country. The problem is that those people who are seeking asylum have the responsibility to claim that asylum in the first country they reach, which in this case is often a Mediterranean country.

My Lords, this is an extremely serious issue. The whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising it today and for first raising it in a Written Question. I agree with the noble Lord that this issue should be tackled at source in the countries affected and that they should look to tackle people trafficking and the reasons why people want to leave their homes. However, last week, I asked the noble Lord—the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised this as well—whether the Government really believe that this needless loss of life, with people drowning in the Mediterranean, will ever act as a deterrent to the criminals trafficking people or to those desperate enough to get into small boats and leave. He failed to answer the question then. Will he answer me now?

I have tried to answer it. These are very early figures but there is some evidence from Frontex, in a briefing that we received in the past 48 hours, that the trend is turning. We should remember that the relevant figure went up from 70,000 per year to 150,000 and that the number of deaths went up from 700 to 3,000. We think that there are between 300,000 and 600,000 people in Libya waiting to make a crossing. The indications are that the numbers fell in October. There could be other reasons for that and we are following the situation closely. This is something we take very seriously indeed and are trying to abate.

My Lords, does not this Question illustrate the wisdom of the Government in dedicating a larger proportion of GDP to international development than any other developed nation and in recognising that we need to support countries following conflict, and prevent them entering conflict, to avoid the terrible suffering that we are now seeing in the Mediterranean?

I am grateful to the noble Earl for his question. I am incredibly proud to be part of a Government of a country that is the first major economy to honour its 0.7% pledge and to provide £11.46 billion in aid to the most vulnerable and conflict-torn countries in the world. That is a record we all ought to be proud of.