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Mediterranean: Migrant Trafficking

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to support Italy and Greece in their efforts to assist people trafficked across the Mediterranean from north Africa and the Middle East.

My Lords, the best way to support member states under pressure is to break the link between getting on a boat in north Africa and being permitted to settle permanently in the EU. The UK is playing a leading role in EU efforts to tackle the people smugglers, address the upstream drivers of illegal immigration, and explore radical ideas to greatly reduce the likelihood of illegal immigrants being able to remain in the EU.

I thank the Minister for that response. Many noble Lords will know that Llangollen international music festival—

I am delighted at that. Last week, it brought in thousands of people but only one group there had a standing ovation—the group from Nepal. People are sympathising with the terrible destruction that there has been. It shows the basic compassion and care of the British people. Does the Minister really think that the Government are responding to the immigration and the great tragedy evolving in the Middle East and Mediterranean—and the burden is being shared between Greece and Italy more than anybody else—in a way that is equivalent to the compassion and care that British people feel?

The noble Lord is absolutely right in this regard. This country has a proud record of offering asylum to those in need, and we continue to do that through a variety of programmes—but our view is that it is best done through individual programmes such as Gateway, introduced by the party opposite when it was in government, Mandate, and the Syria Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. It is better done at a country level rather than internationally, but we are absolutely unrelenting in wanting to seek a solution to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean.

Did the Minister have a chance to read the debate in your Lordships’ House last Thursday about the biggest displacement of people since World War II? In particular, could he tell us—given the reply that the House received on Thursday—when the interdepartmental ministerial meeting will take place? Will there be on the agenda for that meeting the creation of protection zones for those who are at risk and, particularly, the plight of children, after the request last week by Save the Children that this country should find places for 1,500 at-risk children?

My noble friend Lord Courtown told me about that debate, and I have had an opportunity to read it. I gave a commitment that we would have a cross-departmental ministerial meeting, and that is in process. Certainly, all those issues, particularly looking for radical solutions to this crisis through the UN and the EU, will be very much on the agenda, and I will be happy to report back to the House.

My Lords, does the Minister share the questionable view expressed by the Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, who last week said that the majority of those who seek to make the journey to Europe are economic migrants. Is it not crystal clear, for instance, that desperate Afghans, Eritreans and Syrians who are fleeing violence, conflict, oppression and persecution should definitely not be categorised as economic migrants?

I think that the quotation from my right honourable friend James Brokenshire was particularly about the central Mediterranean, where there were examples of a large number of people coming from sub-Saharan Africa who would not normally be granted asylum. That is not the case—and I am sure we would agree on this—in the eastern Mediterranean, where the vast majority are coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are different causes, and it is a fast-changing problem.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the practical support being given in welcome and support for displaced people by the British community, particularly in Greece, working in partnership with ecumenical colleagues in the country and supported by many churches here, donors and the Anglican communion throughout the world? That work is focused on the Anglican Church in Athens. Will the Minister give an assurance of the Government’s support for that work for these many people in very acute need?

I am very happy to give our support to that. We give our support to the European Asylum Support Office which has locations in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Italy. In fact, we are the largest provider of bilateral assistance to that organisation. What the church is doing is to be applauded. It is absolutely in keeping with the priority we see in providing these vulnerable people with the care they need.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important to concentrate on a long-term, upstream solution rather than purely on short-term solutions?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Part of the issue is to deal with the immediate crisis and stop the deaths that are occurring in the Mediterranean, but there is a bigger part, which is how you build stability within these countries so that people do not have to embark on this perilous journey. That is why we are so proud of our overseas aid budget, which of course is the second largest, in cash terms, in the world.

My Lords, if the Government are serious about breaking the link between being picked up in the water and getting permanent access to live in the EU, which is the phrase the Government always use and which the Minister used today, why do the Government not instruct the Royal Navy that when it picks up these poor people, having saved them, to ship them back to Libya or where they come from? If that requires some negotiation in advance with the powers currently controlling the ports of Libya, why are such negotiations not already in progress?

Because we have an agreement with our EU partners that when people are picked up under international maritime rules they will be taken to reception centres in Lampedusa or Italy. That is the current plan.

Italy is spending £800 million a year on this work and is receiving £60 million a year from the European Union. Should Her Majesty’s Government work with the European Union in order to give Italy and Greece greater support in this work?

I am sure that that is right. We are trying to do that through the European Asylum Support Office. It must be remembered—this is a serious point about how we approach this—that the overseas aid we give is some five times what Italy gives in overseas aid. We need to provide help, but we also need to draw attention to what this country is already doing to address the problems upstream.

Does the Minister agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden? In terms of absorbing the refugees coming across the Mediterranean, the two weakest economies in Europe are having to absorb all these migrants whereas this country, which has very broad shoulders, accepts hardly any.

I do not think it is quite right to say that we do not accept any. We grant asylum to 12,000 migrants a year and have granted asylum to 4,200 from Syria. It is a point, where they come from. We have asked to work with the Italian Government and for them to abide by the Dublin regulations to ensure that there is better fingerprinting and recording of people as they arrive in that country and then we can have a better discussion about how we handle their relocation thereafter.