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EU: Asylum Seekers

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy regarding possible proposals for co-ordination from other European Union member states regarding the rescue of Middle East and African asylum seekers in Europe.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject at this particular juncture, notwithstanding the fact that the Interior Ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg yesterday finished without a definitive conclusion about what is to be done about this highly complex matter. I imagine, therefore, that the European Council will be following this up next week and the week after. I am particularly grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Bates—the Minister in charge of this debate today—has come to address us at the end. I welcome anything he can say that will give us guidance on what happened in Luxembourg yesterday and what looks likely to be the position in the future. This is an extremely worrying and very important matter.

I am equally glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is the Opposition spokesman. He is the well-known chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group and very knowledgeable on this subject. It is a very important subject because there is a drastic danger of a lack of a proper humanitarian response now because of the pressures, which are understandable. It is easy for people to dismiss those pressures—the fears of people in recession and austerity in different countries about their own jobs, families and livelihoods when they think that people are going to come into a country too easily without going through the proper immigration process—but they are entirely understandable.

I was very pleased indeed at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when the Chancellor George Osborne—answering because the Prime Minister was abroad dealing with the other negotiations on Europe—and the right honourable gentleman Hilary Benn exchanged views. Mr Benn said,

“as more and more people gather in Libya to try to cross the Mediterranean, HMS Bulwark is doing an extraordinary job in rescuing frightened people. But we learned yesterday that its deployment is under active review”.

In response, Mr Osborne gave an assurance to Mr Benn that despite the fact that we have withdrawn support from Mare Nostrum—a very controversial and unwelcome decision, in my view—a continuing priority would be given to this. I was particularly glad that he said that,

“I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue to play our full part in the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean … Taking people out of the water and rescuing them is essential—we are a humanitarian nation and we need to deal with those issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/15; col. 312.]

But it seems worrying that HMS “Bulwark”, which came home only recently and has done a marvellous job rescuing quite a large number of people in a short time, is suddenly now to be taken off for some kind of maintenance. I would like an explanation of that.

Be that as it may, it remains very heartening that in this country a majority of the population questioned in polls and private polls say that they are in favour of us rescuing some of these very unfortunate people, according to a fair share to be worked out in the European Union. It did not help at all that the British Government gave the impression, before and after the election, that they did not want any of these people to come here—any at all. That then made it impossible for the other member states to do anything other than respond to their hard-line, right-wing, anti-immigrant and sometimes racialist parties which were saying that they were also going to be difficult about it.

By the way, I happen to know the Italian ambassador in London, Signor Terracciano—an outstanding ambassador. I deliberately embarrassed him when I met him the week before last by saying that I would very eccentrically be tempted, with other colleagues in this place, to propose that the Italian navy and the Guardia Costiera—the coastguard—should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. I believe that since early 2014 the Italians alone have rescued 190,000 people, which is a fantastic achievement. That needs to be in the background when discussing this miserable matter. If the European Union, one of the wealthiest parts of the world, with 500 million people, cannot take in a relatively small number of genuine refugees—they must be genuine and they are, as far as I can tell, coming out of misery and some dying in the process—that is a very sad state of affairs. There is a danger—which I do not want—of Britain being a bad member of the EU club on this as on other matters. We have far too many opt-outs already, and we should be playing our full part in this and dealing with the other states.

In the mean time, the northern Italian states, bearing in mind their political complexions, are being very difficult about having too many migrants, as they put it. Greece is dealing with its own problem of survival and staying in the eurozone, if it can. If the mighty European Union cannot help a small country such as Greece, that is a matter of shame, in my view. However, that is a different subject. Greece is now having to cope with people arriving on its islands. The numbers are not too large at the moment; none the less, they need help. I pay tribute to the Red Cross for its work both on the Greek islands and in the Italian rescue effort. Since then, there has been an attempt to bring about an agreed European Union solution, but we need to make sure that this is done properly and with great care.

This is a change of subject as it is a reference to immigrants in general. I was very impressed by my good friend Ken Clarke. Before Christmas, when there was a furore about there being too many immigrants and so on in this country, which I think is totally exaggerated and based on fantasy rather than fact, he said, “What’s all this fuss about immigrants? They make British society more exciting”. That is a pretty provocative remark to make when there is so much tension and there are so many reactionary views on this subject, but I entirely agree with him and understand what he means.

Coming back to the refugees, it was very interesting that a German spokesman specifically in charge of the whole crisis said in Berlin the other day, “We actually welcome a lot of the genuine refugees from Syria coming to us because of their skills and qualifications”. Germany’s generosity on numbers, followed by Sweden—a small country and also very generous—makes the numbers that we are proposing to accept a matter of shame for us. Once again, the Government need to apologise for having left the Mare Nostrum set-up, and I ask them to give us a proper answer about what they are going to do in the future to get back on track with the collective European Union effort.

That is the key point. Once member states start taking their own individual lines, refusing to deal with the others and saying, “We’re going to be the bad member of the club. We disagree with this”, the European Union comes under the usual pressures from its members’ own electorates—understandably—and the situation slides down into chaos, with nationalism, chauvinism and all the things that we do not want to see in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. The whole purpose of the European Union is that it is not only humanitarian but inter-national, inter-nation and inter-all the communities of the national, sovereign member states working together. We must get back to that. The United Kingdom has a lot of ground to make up to get back to that position, having trailed behind on so many issues recently, not least the rather bizarre negotiations that are now taking place on changing some of the terms of our membership. It remains to be seen what will be done about that.

The Guardian of 16 June contained the disturbing headline:

“EU states bicker over migrant quotas as thousands keep crossing Mediterranean”.

Of course, it is very difficult for them to get an agreement. Paragraph two of the article says:

“Brussels is struggling to effect a new quota system for sharing refugees, with EU interior ministers due to meet today—

as I said, that was yesterday—

“in Luxembourg … But with tens of thousands pouring across the Mediterranean mainly into Italy, Rome appears outraged at the European infighting and is threatening to retaliate”.

This puts Signor Renzi and his Government in an impossible position. Britain started that process, I am sad to say. It was the first country to say that it did not want to take anybody, and has taken just a small number. That led to the rot setting in regarding the co-operation in this field that is necessary.

The article goes on to say:

“East European states reject the commission proposals, Britain and Denmark are opting out of them, the Germans support them, France and Spain are lukewarm, and Italy is furious that it may be left to deal with the tens of thousands arriving on its southern shores. If no equitable deal is struck to share the refugee burden, warned Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, Rome would start issuing the migrants with temporary visas allowing them to travel elsewhere in Europe and would stop receiving the hundreds of boats arriving from Libya”.

Issuing those visas would be contrary to the Schengen rules and procedures, and that, too, would be a bad mistake for Italy to make. We need to make sure that this is all done in concert, with people working together and restoring the solidarity of the European Union when it deals with crises, and we need to make sure that the United Kingdom reverts to being a good and positive member of the European Union once more.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate.

The key phrase he used was “small number”. That is simply not true: we are not talking about small numbers; we are talking about 3 million or 4 million refugees from the present conflict in the Middle East, and potentially millions more—probably half a million—waiting on the Libyan coast to be removed. The situation is wholly unsustainable as it is. It is not surprising that the members of the EU have rejected the EU quota proposals, because they are pure tokenism, pure gesture politics. If we talk about tens of thousands, or 100,000 or 200,000 in total, we are not beginning to scratch the surface. Let us look a little wider and a little more realistically at what has really happened.

The problem is that we have set up a system—absolutely rightly, as we have a moral and international obligation—to rescue people in peril at sea. People are put into small dinghies with outboard motors and enough petrol to get out to sea, and then, following a mobile phone call, HMS “Bulwark” or somebody rescues them. It would be more logical to send HMS “Bulwark” to Tripoli to transfer them. That is not the solution. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we have to break the link between getting on a boat and getting residence in Europe.

I strongly propose that we set up a new holding area somewhere in north Africa. Various countries have been mentioned, including Tunisia and Egypt. I favour Libya, which is already a failing state. We should not just set up a holding area but think a bit more widely and set up something that could one day itself become a state. I would call it Refugia, for want of a better name. It is not an EU problem; it is a UN problem, a world problem. We would need a UN mandate in the form of a Security Council resolution. The Security Council is the fastest legislature in the world; its resolutions have the force of international law. It would have to be negotiated with the appropriate country in north Africa. We would set it up and then it would need military help for its establishment, protection and guarding. That would probably best be done by NATO, again under UN auspices.

There have been many examples in history of democratic states emerging from temporary arrangements where other countries have a mandate to run some territory. This happened after the First World War with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Syria, Iraq, Palestine and the rest. After the Second World War, Germany and Japan were run by other countries and eventually emerged as fully democratic states.

I suggest, therefore, that we have a holding area which people could be returned to or take refuge in and be properly assessed. Some may well be admitted to countries as economic migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The main challenge, however, is to do it on a scale that meets the problem, which is enormous. The problem is caused largely by the growth of political Islam, a basically fascist organisation that is having a profoundly destabilising effect on the world. We must have a solution that is relative and relevant to the size of the problem.

My Lords, this is a human problem. The huddled masses are desperate individuals striving to escape civil war or to improve their own lives and those of their families. Some camps in north Africa will not solve that aspiration. We should not demonise migrants as if they were like a plague of locusts seeking to reach our shores. There is limited mutual trust and co-operation in the EU as the scale of migration increases, and co-ordination is clearly necessary. The Italian Prime Minister must have told Mr Cameron that it is hardly moral for us to rescue migrants, transfer responsibility for them to Italy and then perhaps in the same breath ask for Italian help on EU reform.

The questions include: can we distinguish those fleeing civil war from those whose sole or main reason is economic? What about those fleeing the environmental pressure of desertification or tyrannical government? How do we deter people setting out in the first place and deal humanely with those within our borders, including unaccompanied minors? It is difficult enough to deal with the symptoms and more difficult to deal with the causes.

On the causes, we can consider what can we do by aid or capacity-building or even, dare I say, by providing markets in Europe for agricultural products, but a comprehensive solution can never be found, as the US has found on its border with Mexico with the aspirations of those who see the good life in el Norte. Many wealth disparities will remain. Poverty will remain. The population explosion, particularly in the Sahel, will drive more migrants, and the Syrian tragedy will be with us for some time.

So far as the symptoms are concerned, dealing with downstream symptoms is marginally less difficult. We can hit the traffickers and their networks in source and transit countries and in the EU, but the trade is lucrative and there are many vested interests in north Africa. We can identify, capture and destroy vehicles, but there are formidable legal problems, and Russia will veto any Security Council resolution. Tackling piracy in the Gulf of Aden shows the versatility of traffickers. We can seek to deter migrants and perhaps establish camps, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, but who can deliver? Libya is now in total chaos, with key parts of the coast in the hands of ISIL. Will we have to provide military personnel to guard the camps? Will permission be given?

I make my final reflection with some hesitation as it can easily be misused. There is a security dimension. At a NATO conference in Rome in April, a new concept was discussed: a new form of hybrid warfare labelled “refugee warfare”. An example is the tactic of infiltration into target cities in Iraq and Syria practised by ISIL. Nine French people have been suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq and that phenomenon could be imported, so I shall ask three questions. Is this new risk factor taken seriously by the European Union? If so, what steps is the European Union taking to co-ordinate a response? What liaison is there with NATO on the subject? We must remember that these are people in need, but we must also recognise that the endeavours of the European Union are likely to lead at best only to a partial reduction in the number of migrants.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes for this debate. A commentator at Carnegie Europe recently said:

“The refugee crisis is just a part of a complex and massive public policy failure by the EU and its member states in the field of migration”.

It is hard to disagree. The symptoms are highly visible. The most obvious are the tragic deaths at sea, Hungary’s plan to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Serbia and migrants breaking into lorries at Calais. On that point, will the Minister say why those lorries are still not in secure lorry parks? We also see that the so-called European common asylum system is dysfunctional. It is not working. Can the record be improved in the short term through ideas such as the hot-spot approach of having EASO—the European Asylum Support Office—FRONTEX and Europol working on the ground with front-line states, or any other ideas for increasing reception-processing capacity?

In any case, the problem needs to be tackled much farther back in the chain. I am glad that efforts, not least in this House, to keep the UK a participant in Europol, Eurojust and a range of policing and criminal justice measures, succeeded. Will the Minister tell us what EU action is being taken, and what law enforcement action the UK is involved in against criminal gangs and smuggling networks? I think we all agree that action needs to be taken at source on the root causes. In the long term, tackling the sources of conflict, poverty and war will bear fruit. The UNHCR has today said that 60 million people are currently displaced by war. I am very glad that Parliament committed to a 0.7% target for international aid. That is not only altruistic, it is also self-interest. But this is a longer-term strategy and does not deal with the immediate crisis.

I believe that we cannot see trapping people in Libya as a viable plan. They would be subject to all sorts of human rights abuses. We need safe and legal alternative routes for displaced and vulnerable people in need of protection to reach Europe. The UNHCR target is to ask the EU to have 20,000 people a year settled through resettlement by 2020. The alternative is to issue humanitarian or asylum visas in the home country. The UK is resettling only 750 refugees a year through the gateway protection programme and has resettled only 187 Syrian refugees. I cannot believe that the public would object to these people being directly resettled. Will the Government give more support to an EU resettlement scheme than they are able or willing to give to an EU relocation scheme for people who have already arrived in the EU? Will they at least give intellectual support, even as a non-participant, to the development of a rational, coherent EU policy on legal migration, given that the EU as a whole—if not this country—is in demographic decline?

My Lords, like other noble Lords I shall speak briefly about the long-term and the short-term questions. Surely, the gravity of the situation is underlined by the speeches we have already heard during the debate, but by the statistics as well. Some 3,500 people have already been fished from the sea dead, with 1,800 corpses reclaimed in this year alone.

On Monday, I raised the situation in Eritrea. Last year, Eritrea and Syria accounted for 46% of all those fleeing over the Mediterranean. As the noble Baroness said, we have to tackle this problem at source but that is a long-term issue. What do we do in the mean time? I find it impossible to justify the 187 places for resettlement in the UK, as was just referred to, against Germany’s 30,000, the Lebanon’s 1.2 million, Turkey’s 1.8 million and Jordan’s 600,000. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will respond to the comments made by Sir Peter Sutherland, the United Nations special representative of the Secretary-General, who at the weekend rebuked us for not taking our “fair share” of refugees. I hope he will say whether he has considered the requests of the Refugee Council to consider legal avenues for refugees, such as humanitarian or asylum visas, and to look at ways to reunite families. I also wonder whether we have consulted with other Commonwealth countries about a more coherent international response. So yes, the European Union should be involved but the Commonwealth and the international community of the United Nations clearly should be involved as well.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 June, the Government said that “the vast majority” of Mediterranean migrants “are not asylum seekers” to give some justification for our not taking part in the EU quota system, but that is simply not so. Are we seriously saying that the UNHCR is wrong in insisting that those escaping from Eritrea or Syria are not internationally recognised refugees? Those escaping from Eritrea are leaving a country which was designated by a United Nations commission of inquiry only a week ago as a country likely to be susceptible to crimes against humanity. Let us contemplate the fate of the Yazidis, the Assyrian Christians and those who have been abducted by ISIS in Libya as they have tried to escape and were beheaded, with another group having been abducted in the last few days alone.

In April, along with 12 other Peers drawn from across the divide, I signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph. We argued that creating internationally policed safe havens—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in north Africa and the Middle East—would reduce dangerous sailings. Asylum applications could be assessed and repatriation organised where appropriate. We said that it was an urgent priority. It still is. The Government said that such safe havens would create magnets to encourage more people to flee from war, persecution or grinding poverty. But what is the alternative strategy? What exactly is our policy? Should we tell them to stay and be killed, raped, or persecuted; tell them that they can illegally board boats that will be blown out of the sea; tell them that if they reach Italy or Greece we will then slam our doors on them; or tell them we have no internationally agreed strategy for dealing with the immediate crisis or for resolving the conflicts which have driven them from their homes in the first place? That is not moral or legal and it is not worthy of our nation.

My Lords, let me move on from what people have said. I do not think that it matters very much whether we call them refugees, asylum seekers, or whatever. A lot of people want to migrate from where they are to where the economic prosperity is. That is not just a problem of Europe, where people are coming across from Africa or the Middle East; it is a global problem. There is the Rohingya problem; they are leaving Myanmar and ending up in Indonesia and Malaysia without any guarantee that they will be settled. If this is a global problem, it needs a global solution. It has to be tackled by the UN Security Council and the G20, because this flow of migrants will not cease. Even if we now share them equally and fairly, there will be the next share of a next wave of migrants because the world is very unstable, in both Africa and the Middle East, and people want to better their lives. They want to go where the prosperity is. The European Union should use its powers, especially the UK and France as Security Council members, to ask the United Nations to help us reach a global solution. There are countries that are sparsely populated—for example, Mongolia has only 2 million people. It could take 8 million and go up to 10 million. We should give them an economic incentive to accept refugees, because they are relatively less crowded countries. We have the problem that many people want to come here. It is a global and long-term problem that needs a global and long-term solution. The way we should do it is to make arrangements for people to be safely moved to countries that have agreed to accept them, and the countries that have agreed to accept them will get suitable aid. We can work on the short-term problems of adjustment, because these people are going to cost us a lot of money anyway, so we may as well transfer that money to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, Outer Mongolia and Mongolia and so on. We can look at the map of horrendously sparsely populated regions. Even Australia has only about 20 million people—less than Mumbai—so you can imagine how sparsely populated Australia is. I know that Australia makes a lot of trouble about this issue. But we need to sit down and think of solutions in which the entire world takes part in solving this problem. It is not just a European problem, although it happens to be European because Europe is nearer to North Africa. But that is no reason why Europe should bear the burden of all these problems. I suggest that the Minister goes off and proposes this scheme, and maybe the Prime Minister can take a lead and we can get a global solution.

My Lords, Britain generally has a very good record on helping asylum seekers. I suddenly realised this morning that I am the only survivor of a three-man Cabinet committee which eventually persuaded the Government to accept the entry of Kenyan Asians who were being persecuted under Mr Amin. I must say that it was an extremely successful exercise because they have integrated in an extraordinary way. However, our record is not without some flaws. It was quite late that I discovered that, when war broke out in 1939, not only were Jewish refugees arrested and interned but the Treasury confiscated any assets that they had. It was decades later before I managed to persuade Margaret Beckett, who was very good on this, to get the Treasury to do something to try to repay the heirs and successors of those who had suffered in this way.

It is very important indeed that we maintain our good record on asylum seekers, but we have to face the fact that we now have an enormous problem compared with any previous situation that one can recall. It is not simply individual asylum seekers who are being persecuted, or identifiable groups, but a whole tranche of people who are being persecuted because war is taking place on their territory, and they are nowadays better able to move than they were before.

I am a little puzzled as to why this is a Home Office matter and why my noble friend is replying, since many aspects of it are clearly international. I am sure that he can assure us that there is adequate co-operation between departments. Essentially, the Home Secretary sought to set out a programme. The question I have is: are we making any progress whatsoever on the various proposals that she made? She said first that,

“separating the current essential search and rescue work from the process of gaining permission to stay”,

in the UK is essential. We should then seek to establish a safe landing area where we can separate economic migrants from genuine refugees. Have we made any progress in international negotiations in getting that done?

The crucial problem that we face is that the more we do to try to help the desperate people in danger in the Mediterranean, the more we are likely to encourage them to come. We have to face this crucial problem. If they thought that, although they would be rescued, that does not mean that they then have free access to achieve the travel that they were trying to carry out; that is another matter. The two things are very much linked. It has to be: what do we do with those who are not genuine refugees and what do we do as far as that is concerned?

I have to say to my noble friend that I am not the least bit clear, given the Home Office’s policy, what orders are given to our naval ships and so on as to where they should disembark the people who they rescue. There seems to be some contradiction as far as that is concerned.

Overall, the policy that the Government are putting forward is right. We must try to support it. There are a number of other ways that we can help. In particular, we need to take stronger action against traffickers. Have we managed to arrest any traffickers? Have any of them been prosecuted? What penalties have been imposed on them? One’s impression is that that this has been a totally futile exercise and that there does not seem to have been any attempt whatever, when traffickers accompany or begin to accompany and then desert those who seek to travel, to segregate traffickers from the remaining people in the boats.

These are immensely difficult problems. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating the debate, but it is clearly so important that we ought to have a debate on the Floor of the House at a very early date.

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for giving us the opportunity to debate this vital subject, I join with him unreservedly in saying that the Italians should have the widest possible and most strongly expressed tribute from us all for the magnificent part that they have played on behalf of Europe and us all in the situation that confronts us.

Similarly—I say this with some joy, as a former Navy Minister—the Navy has behaved with outstanding sensitivity. In watching the interviews the humanity of the people doing the rescuing shines through; it just cannot be suppressed. That is Britain at its best. However, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was right to remind us to have a global perspective on the response to refugee problems. When we look at the burden being carried by Jordan and by Lebanon and see what this is doing to the economy and the pressure that this is putting on local people in their situation, our record, which we love to talk about in terms of our humanity and outward-looking attitude in our past towards refugees, is in danger of being totally eclipsed by the generosity of countries such as those. We had better remind ourselves that we have to live up to our traditions if we are not to be eclipsed by those countries.

What do we do about it? The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was absolutely right: this is just a symptom of an accumulating global problem. What we are faced with now is likely to become child’s play by comparison with what is going to develop. So far as I recollect, we have not yet mentioned this afternoon that climate change is going to accentuate the movement of people. We will have not just conflict and economic pressures but climatic pressures leading to same thing. All this makes it obvious that we have to find international global solutions; we cannot find solutions on our own. By constantly trying to put a finger in the dyke, we are just destroying our chance for influence and leadership in finding international solutions. We are increasingly seen—I do not like saying this, but it is true for any of us who are involved in international affairs—as a mean, defensive, neurotic little country that is concerned only with keeping people out and is not positively engaged and playing a part in finding the solutions that are necessary. That is a tremendous challenge to us all.

I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, allowed himself to digress, as he put it, because whenever we debate subjects such as this we should always have a refrain which we repeat: that if we look at our medicine, our science, our literature, our technology, our industry, our public services and our cultural life, we see that refugees have been a rich investment in the quality, the character and the standing of Britain in our history.

I agree with virtually everything said in this debate. The one thing that worries me is the argument that a pull factor could, undesirably, encourage further people to cross the sea. It seems to me that the overriding responsibility is to pull out of the sea the people who are out there. I do not believe that more people go out because they think there is a chance of being rescued.

This debate does the House great credit, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing it. When the Minister comes to respond to it, I would like him to reflect on Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somerset case of 1772, where it was established in the law of this country that a runaway slave facing persecution or death was free the moment he was on board a British ship. It is wonderful that “Bulwark” is there and I am sure that it is doing wonderful work. Although I am worried to read in the press that it may be about to be withdrawn, I am sure that it will be replaced. But if it is the case that we would not replace “Bulwark” unless the Italians agreed to take entire responsibility for anybody whom the Royal Navy rescued from the sea, it would be completely inconsistent with the spirit of the Mansfield judgment, which is the spirit of this country.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on his debate—we always say that such debates are timely; this time, we really mean it—and I thank all others who have spoken in this too short discussion. It is an extremely difficult issue for the world and in particular for EU countries. It is then made more difficult, as any answer to it is bound up with developments in the Middle East and Africa that we have at present little or no control over.

The Opposition want to support Her Majesty’s Government, working with the EU, to find solutions that both are practical and do not result in more deaths but which are also in line with the British traditions that have been talked about in this debate of generosity and humanity. However, it has to be said, and I am afraid said clearly, that along with the other EU countries the then British coalition Government share the blame for what we, among many others, said in the autumn of last year was the appalling decision to replace the Italian Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation with the EU Triton operation, with vessels no longer searching the wider Mediterranean but confined to 30 miles off the Italian shore. Has there ever been a more catastrophic odyssey, based on the totally mistaken proposition that making rescue much less likely and drowning much more likely would lessen the pull factor as far as desperate people are concerned? Only the terrible losses and deaths in an incident in April made Europe and the United Kingdom Government think again. Now, of course, with HMS “Bulwark” and other vessels and helicopters doing brilliant work as always, and the Triton operation abandoned, thank goodness, more lives are being saved.

Triton spent one-third of the amount that the Italians, who I agree deserve praise, spent on Mare Nostrum. The International Organization for Migration estimates that deaths at sea have risen ninefold since the end of Mare Nostrum. It was a tragic error by us and the EU, and as a Government we should not have supported it. It is deeply ironic to read the language of the Minister in another place, repeated in this House by the Minister on 30 October last, in respect of Mare Nostrum:

“It is of course vital that this phasing out is well managed and well publicised to mitigate the risk of further deaths”.

Those further deaths were well foreseen by noble Lords in this House. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said:

“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?”.—[Official Report, 30/10/14; cols. 1310-11.]

To his credit, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, asked why the Government’s policy seemed to support measures that could have only one result, which would be that more refugees would drown in the Mediterranean, rather than a policy whose aim was to lock up more people traffickers. Can we have an assurance from the Minister today that we will not make that mistake again?

The situation today is very grave. We believe that the Government are to some extent selling our country’s humanitarian tradition and spirit of generosity short by not taking in more Syrian refugees. The figure of 187 is disgracefully small on its own, let alone when compared to our European partners. What are Her Majesty’s Government’s intentions? We appreciate just how sensitive and difficult this issue is and as the Opposition we will support the Government in their new stance whenever we can, but not—I repeat, not—if they sign up to the naive and unthinking proposals that they did last year.

My Lords, this has been a powerful debate and a difficult one to listen to for any Minister with a degree of responsibility for the situation that we find ourselves in. In response to the point made by my noble friend Lord Higgins about why the Home Office is responding to the debate, essentially three departments look after the area. Had the Question been phrased in a slightly different way so that it talked about just the crisis itself, clearly my noble friend Lady Anelay would have responded on behalf of the Foreign Office. Had it been about the situations in the countries which are driving the refugees, my noble friend Lady Verma would have responded on behalf of the Department for International Development. However, it refers to the proposals on asylum currently before the EU, which is a matter that rests with the Home Office. It is also one that the Prime Minister is taking a deep personal interest in as he prepares for the European Council next week.

I undertake to meet with my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lady Verma to share with them the contributions which have been made to this debate, so that we can discuss what more can be done and how we can best serve the House in ensuring that colleagues are kept up to date. The best thing I can probably do with my contribution now, given that time is limited, is to update the Committee on the current situation as we see it and on what is happening. As I go through, I will seek to address some of the points made by noble Lords, although obviously, I may not be able to address all of them.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, said that when you hear your words repeated back to you, it is a real challenge to reflect on what we were saying then and what we are saying now. Clearly, the position has changed. However, the UK Government have a proud record, which we have to build upon. We have resettled more refugees since 2008 than any other EU member state other than Sweden. We contribute more in overseas aid than any of the other major economies of the EU, certainly to Syria in particular, as I will come to later. Of course, the decision that was taken last year to stop Mare Nostrum was taken by EU member states as a whole. We were not the ones pushing or calling for it—it was taken through EU Council meetings and was a unanimous decision.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that this situation is highly complex. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to it as “grave”, and they are both correct. First, we want to continue to do all that we can to save lives. Everything that Britain can do as a moral and upstanding nation to save lives, we will do, and we should be proud of what we are doing.

The Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS “Bulwark”, has directly saved over 3,000 lives since deployment in early May. It is correct that HMS “Bulwark” is being withdrawn for essential maintenance, which I understand is quite normal in a naval context. However, I reiterate what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said yesterday, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, did at the beginning: we will continue to play our full part in search and rescue operations. I also underscore the words of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who talked about sensitivity. When the captain of HMS “Bulwark” was being interviewed, I thought his sensitivity, along with the compassion displayed by naval officers deployed there, was quite outstanding and in the best traditions of our country.

Three Merlin helicopters and two Border Force cutters are also contributing to our efforts, and a number of specialist police officers are at work with their EU counterparts. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to some figures. The latest figures we have are from January this year. There are two crossing areas: the central Mediterranean—

It will be for the Navy to decide the precise vessel and how it will be deployed, and I understand that that decision has not yet been taken. However, the commitment Her Majesty’s Government have made will continue. The mission will continue and will not be disrupted. We will deliver on it. Announcements on that will come forward shortly.

Some 47,000 took the central Mediterranean crossing; of those, 10,000 were from Eritrea, 8,000 from sub-Saharan Africa and 5,000 from Somalia. So far this year, the eastern Mediterranean route was taken by 48,000; 27,000 of those were from Syria, 11,000 from Afghanistan and 3,000 from Pakistan.

We acknowledge that these operations only address the symptoms of a far greater problem. The causes of migration do not start on the Mediterranean; for some it begins when they are forced to leave their home countries because of war or persecution. However, others are economic migrants who have no right to evade the legitimate immigration controls of this country and of the European Union. That is why the Government have always said that the search and rescue operations must only ever be part of a much wider, comprehensive and long-term solution. In recognition of the importance and seriousness of this issue, and the need to address the causes of this extraordinary migration, the Government have been working closely with international partners, both bilaterally and through the EU.

At the G6 meeting on 1 and 2 June, the Home Secretary sought agreement from her European counterparts that we need to tackle the smugglers and traffickers and to address the reasons why people get on boats in the first place. I take on board the reprimand from several noble Lords that so far there seems to be little evidence that we are managing to capture the people who are desperately exploiting these people’s suffering and placing them in such dire harm.

The Home Secretary was also clear that there was an awful lot we agreed on but that the UK cannot support mandatory relocation proposals because these do not, we believe, tackle the underlying issues. We must, instead, break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe. That link continues to play into the hands of the criminal gangs which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred to, so it is vital that those not requiring protection are stopped at the EU’s external border and returned. They cannot be allowed to continue to enter illegally and then move with impunity across Europe. One area of contention here is that we would like to see that when migrants are landed in Italy they are properly registered, fingerprinted and identified so that they can be properly processed and that information can be shared across the EU. We need Governments in the region who we can work with to intercept illegal economic migrants before they reach the EU and to return them to their country of origin.

The Foreign Affairs Council will meet on Monday next week. Just this week, on Monday and Tuesday at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the Home Secretary continued to press European partners for a sustainable response to the crisis. It was clear that longer-term efforts are essential. We need to do more to help the countries where these people come from to reduce push factors, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said. We need to build stability in the region and enable people to have creative livelihoods so they can live secure and fulfilling lives in their home countries. We must also do more at source and in transit countries to pursue the criminal gangs and shut down the trafficking networks that callously trade in human suffering. This was something that we covered in the Serious Crime Act and the Modern Slavery Act, which we passed in the last Session. Increased intelligence gathering is a critical part of what we need to do to destroy their vessels before they are used.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked what we are doing to work with our European partners. The UK is supporting Europol’s joint operation to tackle these gangs, focusing on vessels and subsequent secondary movements. The UK is a long-term supporter of solidarity across the EU in asylum matters, but we are also clear that solidarity is best demonstrated through practical co-operation with those front-line member states whose borders and asylum systems are under pressure. As the Committee will be aware, the Prime Minister yesterday met the Prime Minister of Italy. To underline our commitment to providing real, practical support to EU countries facing real pressures, the Prime Minister has offered to deploy six British officers from the National Crime Agency to Europol’s intelligence cell which aims to disrupt trafficking.

The UK also fully supports the European Asylum Support Office in co-ordinating practical, operational co-operation to address emerging migration pressures. The EU aims to build longer-term capacity in the member states most affected. To make clear our level of commitment, in the last three years the UK has contributed more resource to EASO than any other member state, contributing more than 1,000 expert working days to missions in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus. My noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, talked about this being a UN problem. It is. We recognise that and are working with the UNHCR on this and are seeking to address wider concerns. The situation in Syria is particularly concerning.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the words of chastisement from Sir Peter Sutherland. Given that he is such a senior international statesman, we will look very carefully at what he said and reflect on it. The fact is that 187 refugees have been resettled in the UK under the vulnerable persons programme in just over a year, and more arrive each month. In addition, we need to remember that more than 4,200 Syrians have been granted protection in the UK under our normal asylum rules since the crisis began, and that there has been additional foreign aid.

The situation is rapidly changing and our engagement with international partners continues apace. The Foreign Secretary is expected to discuss the crisis at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, and the Prime Minister will continue to push hard for a sustainable solution at the European Council on 24 and 25 June. I will, of course, be glad to write to update colleagues on the latest developments. I will also, as I have said, discuss this with my colleagues.

There are no easy answers to the tragic situation in the Mediterranean, but the Government remain firm in their belief that the only sustainable response to the scale of the situation is to tackle the root causes of these dangerous journeys and the organised criminal gangs behind them. The UK contribution stands comparison, we believe, to any in the world in that regard.

Sitting suspended.