Parliament round-up: UK withdrawal from EU Mediterranean rescue operation

Written by Jon Benton on 5 November 2014 in Special Report
Special Report

 Britain has refused to participate in the Frontex Mediterranean refugee operation, claiming it is "encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing".

The British government recently announced that it will be withdrawing support for EU Mediterranean migrant rescue operations, claiming that the operation simply encourages more migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing.

Joyce Aneley who is the UK's minister of state of the foreign and commonwealth office said, "We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths".

The announcement coincides with the end of the Italian naval rescue operation 'Mare Nostrum' this week. Despite the operation saving more than 150,000 people attempting the crossing from north Africa to Europe across the straights of Sicily, the Italian government is ending the operation due to a lack of international support.

In Mare Nostrum's place, the EU border agency Frontex has assumed responsibility, with the commencement of a smaller naval rescue operation last weekend, 'Triton'. The operation covers the maritime area south of Sicily and the Pelagic islands, as well as the coastal areas around Calabria, southern Italy, and will be supported by EU member states and the commission.

Triton's focus will primarily be on border management as it lacks the resources to effectively carry out search and rescue missions. It was Frontex's request for resources from member states, that sparked the disagreement with the British government.

Reaction from the European parliament was swift:

 

Christian Dan Preda (EPP) is a vice-chair of parliament's human rights subcommittee.

The UK's quiet decision to cancel its role in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean has sparked a lot of controversy in recent days. Even more so since the official Italian sea and rescue operation Mare Nostrum, which rescued an estimated 150,000 people in the Mediterranean (over the past 12 months), ended this week. We also know that the EU border protection operation Triton does not include search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, just patrols near the Italian coast. The timing of UK's decision is therefore unfortunate.

"​We need to come up with an adequate response to the unacceptable loss of life from the influx of migrants in the Mediterranean. We won't solve anything by resorting to a piecemeal approach"​

Beyond that, given the UK's contribution to the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean was in any case rather limited, this decision seems to be politically motivated. The UK's government is trying, once more, to adopt a tough stance on immigration, claiming that these search and rescue operations are actually encouraging illegal immigration. However, people will not stop trying to reach Europe's shores just because these rescue operations will end.

The UK's decision stands at odds with what I perceive to be our imperative when it comes to dealing with the issue of migration in the Mediterranean. If we truly want to avoid other tragedies like the one in Lampedusa one year ago, we urgently need solidarity at European level.

We need to come up with an adequate response to the unacceptable loss of life from the influx of migrants in the Mediterranean. We won't solve anything by resorting to a piecemeal approach.

We need an integrated strategy that encompasses all aspects of this problem ranging from human rights concerns, encouraging legal patterns of migration and last but not least, helping the countries of origin concerned to address the root causes of illegal migration by reducing poverty and preventing conflicts.

 

Claude Moraes (S&D) is chair of parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee.

Each year thousands of migrants die crossing the Mediterranean. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has stated that 3343 have perished trying to reach Italy this year. It is therefore essential that member states support initiatives to address this incredible loss of lives taking place off the shores of Europe on a yearly basis.

"​Thinking that deaths at sea is a deterrent and that rescuing those in distress at sea is a pull factor, is an incredibly inhumane policy for any EU member state to pursue"​​

Yet many member states are not willing to support border patrol projects in southern Europe, such as Triton which was launched on 1 November. However, many concerns surround Triton, since it was initially reported that the project would replace the much applauded Mare Nostrum operation launched after over 300 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa in October last year.

Mare Nostrum has saved over 150,000 people and 330 traffickers have been brought to justice. Triton, however, only has a third of the resources of Mare Nostrum and will only operate on up to 30 miles of the southern Italian coast. None-the-less, many EU governments have refused to assist with Triton and any further search and rescue projects because they believe that such initiatives will encourage more migrants to cross the Mediterranean.

Thinking that deaths at sea is a deterrent and that rescuing those in distress at sea is a pull factor, is an incredibly inhumane policy for any EU member state to pursue. If in Europe, member states are not able to work together to ensure that we don't have a graveyard in the Mediterranean each year, then what is the hope for other areas of the world where resources are much scarcer.

People take the risk of the perilous journey because there is still hope that they will survive the crossing and it is still the best option they have. Migration into the EU must be properly managed with sensible policies but we must refrain from following the discourse that saving lives at sea is a pull factor.

As chair of the European parliament's committee responsible for monitoring Frontex and the other agencies specifically tasked with border management in the Mediterranean, I will be pushing for an inquiry into the policies and resources being utilised by member states in the this region.

 

Petras Auštrevičius (ALDE) is a member of parliament's human rights subcommittee.

As in many EU initiatives, the UK has the right to be in or to be out, formally speaking, but in essence that's mainly a matter of goodwill of every nation to be part of these operations or not. It's not even a question of major financial contributions as far as I understand.

Certainly, I would have welcomed the UK's participation, for the reason that this is a global key player with huge experience and significant capabilities. Regrettably, the choice is to withdraw, and that is difficult to explain given that we hear so much criticism from London regarding the immigration policies of the EU. On the other hand, it is probably easier to criticise something to which you do not belong. Basic human rights and even human lives are put at risk due to short-sighted political games and this I can only regret.

 

Mark Demesmaeker (ECR) is a member of parliament's human rights subcommittee.

It is my firm belief that it is our humanitarian duty to keep on saving as many lives as we possibly can. If not, we are betraying the founding principles of the EU. Turning our backs would be an unforgiveable mistake. We have to show greater European solidarity, and share the burden better.

"The walls we are trying to build will never be high and strong enough to stop people who are running for their lives"

These refugees are fleeing atrocities we haven't witnessed for generations. The walls we are trying to build will never be high and strong enough to stop people who are running for their lives. You can be sure that they will keep dying on our doorsteps.

Of course the British government is right when it says that the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers. But now that states are collapsing from Iraq to Eritrea, and we are facing the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war, it is just wishful thinking to assume that we can achieve that at short notice. So, we must follow a double track and also continue the search and rescue operations.

 

Laura Ferrara (EFDD) is a member of parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee.

The decision taken by the UK to withdraw the support to Mediterranean rescue operations is not in line with the principles of solidarity and cooperation that should be at the basis of EU politics. The migration emergency will not be solved if member states think only about their own country's interests: at present only few member states have worked to address the migration emergency in the Mediterranean.

"The European Union has a very important responsibility: to ensure the protection of human rights and to save lives, this should be the utmost priority"

A few days ago, Italy needed to stop the operation Mare Nostrum as it had become too expensive for Italy alone. Search and rescue operations are now left in a vacuum that Triton most likely will not manage to fill.

It is time to rethink migration politics. We must look for legal ways to access Europe that can halt the trafficking of human beings, reforming the European common asylum system in order to respond to humanitarian crises and prevent tragedies in the Mediterranean. The EU has to ensure the correct use of the European funds devoted to face the migration issue in all the member states to fight corruption and abuses. Also, more support has to be provided directly to third countries of origin and transit.

The European Union has a very important responsibility: to ensure the protection of human rights and to save lives, this should be the utmost priority. Human rights don't have borders and all member states are called on to cooperate to save lives.

 

Barbara Lochbihler (Greens/EFA) is a vice-chair of parliament's human rights subcommittee.

The Italian rescue operation 'Mare Nostrum' has saved 150,000 lives. Yet, several thousand refugees have still died in the Mediterranean during the same period, which painfully shows that more efforts are needed. EU member states, however, have opted for the contrary; they have left Italy alone with Mare Nostrum, have readily accepted Rome's decision to put an end to it by December, and launched a poorly-funded Frontex mini-operation called 'Triton', its primary purpose is not to save lives, but to keep as many refugees as far away from Europe as possible.

"The protection of refugees is a common European responsibility and legal obligation; it binds each and every EU member state, including the UK"

As a result, more refugees will die in their attempt to reach European shores. Even worse, the British government announced that it was not willing to support any operation, not even Triton. According to London, such missions create a pull factor, encouraging more refugees to attempt the dangerous voyage, as if fleeing war in Syria or brutal oppression in Eritrea was a matter of choice, the result of a cold-hearted weighing of pros and cons. As the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, the Conservatives and Liberals seem to attach greater importance to strategic political considerations than to the lives of thousands of human beings.

Instead of UKIP-light politics, the EU needs a joint and commonly funded rescue operation as well as legal alternatives, such that refugees are no longer forced to put their lives at risk in the hands of criminal smugglers. The protection of refugees is a common European responsibility and legal obligation; it binds each and every EU member state, including the UK.

About the author

Jon Benton is a journalist and editorial assistant at the Parliament Magazine

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