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Mediterranean Sea: Rescue Operations

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with European Union Member States and the European Commission about the SOS Méditerranée ship, the “Aquarius”, and associated rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

My Lords, we are aware of recent incidents in the central Mediterranean involving a sailing vessel named “Aquarius”. On Sunday, the ship rescued 629 migrants and there was disagreement about where it should dock. The Spanish Government have now agreed to allow the ship to disembark in Valencia. This resolves the immediate humanitarian situation. In the longer term the UK remains committed to working with its European partners to identify a sustainable solution.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and I should declare my charitable interests as set out in the register, which may be appropriate here. Last summer I visited the ports and camps in Sicily and saw for myself the pressures on Italy as a result of the inadequate response of the other 27 member states of the European Union to the situation that it faces. I am also well aware of the pressure in Libya, where the International Organization for Migration believes that there are now hundreds of thousands of people, both refugees and economic migrants, who are in camps both official and unofficial. In some cases they end up in slave markets, and there are other cases of rape and other forms of abuse. These people have no choice but to get on those boats to cross the Mediterranean. Will the Government, along with their other European partners, urge Italy to reopen its ports to all rescue vehicles pending discussions on a more sustainable solution, one where other countries take their fair share and step up financially and morally?

My Lords, no one could be unmoved by the piteous plight of vulnerable people who are being cruelly exploited by ruthless smugglers and traffickers. It is the case that the UK remains committed to working with its European partners to tackle the shared challenge of illegal migration. For example, we are a major contributor to Operation Sophia, the EU’s counter-illegal migration operation in the Mediterranean, including through naval assets, headquarters staff and support for the Libyan naval coastguard. As the noble Lord will probably be aware, the United Kingdom maintains a close diplomatic relationship with Libya and has been instrumental in assisting the Libyan coastguard service to address some of the more immediate issues around the hazardous journeys being contemplated by migrants.

My Lords, the public perception here is that immigration is a problem largely for the European Union and that if we leave, our immigration problems will be largely resolved. The reality is that over the past 20 years, the majority of immigrants almost every year have come from outside the EU. In Africa the population has doubled in the past 25 years and is likely to double again in 30 years’ time. The pressures to get across the Mediterranean and into Europe are going to be huge, and some migrants will make it to Britain. Given that, whether or not or when we leave the EU, should we not continue to work very closely with our European partners to face this common problem?

I thank the noble Lord for his question; he makes an important point. It is the case that the United Kingdom anticipates continuing to work closely with partners to address these issues, but perhaps what he has identified is the kernel of the problem, which is to adopt a whole-of-route approach, as the UK has done. We seek to identify problems at source in countries of origin and do whatever we can to assist migrants in making a decision not to undertake a hazardous, and in some cases fatal, journey. The noble Lord is probably aware that Operation Sophia has had successes. It is not a search and rescue mission, but more than 45,000 migrants have been rescued, while more than 500 smuggling vessels have been destroyed. Perhaps more important is the work that the United Kingdom Government have been doing and propose to do with DfID programmes, which will go a long way towards addressing some of the challenging issues that surround migrants in their countries of origin when they make these important and at times tragic decisions to embark on a hazardous journey. The UK is committed to doing what it can to address the issues at source.

My Lords, the Minister may recall the answer she gave me to a question I asked her; she should recall it because it was only last night. We had a lengthy debate on Operation Sophia. I asked her whether we had had discussions specifically on the “Aquarius” with our allies in Europe and she responded that the United Kingdom Government had had such discussions. Perhaps the Minister can tell us precisely what we said to Italy about the current crisis and the fact that it is closing its ports.

My Lords, at my stage in life I am very hesitant to rely on my memory, even of something from 24 hours ago. It might be safer if I looked at Hansard to see precisely what I said. I do not have specific information in my brief, but I undertake to investigate this and write to the noble Lord if more specific information is available.

My Lords, while I strongly welcome what the Minister said about tackling root causes, perhaps I might press her to revisit suggestions made in your Lordships’ House about the creation on the north African coast of internationally guaranteed safe havens where people can live in security, develop livelihoods and build homes, as well as to look at the root cause of human rights violations—egregious ones in many cases—in countries such as Eritrea and Sudan, from which people are fleeing in their hundreds of thousands.

As I said earlier, the United Kingdom is in close communication with Libya and has actively supported measures there to address some of the principal issues confronting migrants. The United Kingdom will continue to review and assess that position. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made a number of interesting suggestions; I will certainly have a further look at them.

My Lords, further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, when did a member of Her Majesty’s Government last go to Libya to discuss these issues on the ground?

I can say to my noble friend that close diplomatic contact with Libya takes place on a regular basis. I do not have precise dates to hand but, as my noble friend will be aware, the United Kingdom Government have worked closely with Libya on a number of issues, not least the Libyan naval coastguard. Indeed, they have not been shy about raising with the senior leadership of the Libyan naval coastguard allegations of mistreatment of migrants, which have caused some concern. We are very persistent in raising such issues if they are brought to our attention.