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Refugees: Deaths in Mediterranean and Aegean Seas

Volume 771: debated on Monday 11 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their best estimate of the number of refugees who have perished in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas since 1 January 2015.

My Lords, according to UNHCR and IOM figures, 4,388 people tragically died between 1 January 2015 and 1 April 2016. In 2016, up to 1 April, the death toll was 617. Since the crisis began, UK ships have saved more than 17,500 lives. We continue our work to stop migrants falling victim to smuggling and putting their lives at risk.

My Lords, the whole House knows that the Minister is a very decent man, but does he feel any shame at all for the fact that Britain offered no hope of refuge to any one of those who died seeking to escape death? Is it not the case that the figure of drowned and missing now amounts to some 7,000, of which about 60% are said to be women and children? The fig-leaf the Government use to hide their discreditable policy is that to offer hope of refuge to those who risk death in attempting to escape death is to tempt more to come. If 7,000 or so dying has not discouraged them so far, how many will?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in so far as that the figures are shocking. I am sure that the whole House would agree with us on that. We feel that the best way to reduce the deaths is to stop the refugees making the risky journeys by sea. It is important to break the link between getting in a boat and getting to Europe. It is important to tackle the root causes of migration and not respond solely to the consequences.

My Lords, has there been any assessment of the impact the Government’s political and military changes will have on reducing the number of deaths? Will the Government assess how the changes that are proposed, and are now taking place, will impact on those figures?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord refers to the Turkey/EU deal. The initial signs are that the deal is having an effect. The average number of daily arrivals in Greece so far in April is almost half that in March.

My Lords, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 16 refugees, three of them children, have been killed in the past four months as they tried to cross the Turkish border. We know that this Government are ignoring human rights transgressions by trading partners, but are they also turning a blind eye to the killing of refugees by European and Turkish border forces?

My Lords, I am not exactly clear what the noble Baroness is referring to and I do not acknowledge what she is saying. Our response is to help Syrian refugees in host countries in the region by supporting full implementation of the EU/Turkey deal and the maritime operations in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. If there is anything more I can add, I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, although we are all very distressed and saddened at the number of people who have lost their lives, can we not be quietly proud of the number who have been rescued by British ships, mostly of the Royal Navy?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right: the Royal Navy is providing coastguard services as well as intelligence on illegal people traffickers for FRONTEX and has deployed a vessel with helicopter support as well as three Border Force assets. It is also important that NATO and the EU work together.

My Lords, are we prepared for a new focus on Libya, with the new chaos that may arise there as the Aegean route is blocked? What efforts are being made to publicise the new deal between the EU and Turkey as a possible means of deterring people who would risk their lives?

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the work relating to Libya. I think that we are in phase 2A of Operation Sophia, which involves conducting operations on the high seas against smuggling vessels operating outside Libyan territories. So far, 98 smuggling vessels have been destroyed, 61 suspected smugglers have been arrested and more than 11,500 people have been rescued.

My Lords, according to press reports last week, apparently the UK Government have sent eight people to Greece to assist in the arrangements with Turkey. Is that the case, and will the Government send more people? What steps are all departments—particularly the FCO, DfID and the Home Office—taking to ensure that we have a properly co-ordinated approach to this crisis?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord refers to the small team that has been sent to Athens. Basically, at the moment we are assessing where we can help most. I know that it is a small team but it is an expert one. As I said, it is looking to see where we can help most. As regards co-ordination in Whitehall, the Home Office, DfID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office hold regular meetings to co-ordinate efforts, and ministerial-level meetings take place regularly to provide strategic leadership. I should also add that my noble friend Lord Bates, who is now walking in South America, instigated meetings among all Ministers in this House associated with this area to look at how we could improve the ways that we keep the House informed.

My Lords, a few weeks ago this House decided by 306 votes to 204 to accept 3,000 of these unaccompanied child refugees. Could we not take the immediate step of carrying that out and accepting these children, so that 3,000 fewer would be facing the dangers that are present in Europe?

I think the noble Lord refers to the amendment to the Immigration Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. These matters are being considered.

My Lords, should we not take this opportunity of congratulating my noble friend Lord Bates and thanking him for the exemplary way in which he conducted himself on the Front Bench?

My Lords, I could not agree more. He has been of great help to many of us on the Front Bench. I remember once sitting in this position with him whispering answers to me during Question Time. We must also be aware that he is bringing attention to this country’s Walk for Truce, which is a very important thing.

The noble Lord just said that the amendment regarding 3,000 children was “being considered”. That is news to us. Who is considering it and when will we know what the outcome is?