UK decision to stop migrant rescue operations attacked by Teather (“unethical”) and Ashdown (“inhuman”), defended by Clegg (“Italian decision”)

by Stephen Tall on October 31, 2014

Conservative home office minister James Brokenshire defended the Government’s decision to withdraw support – along with all other EU member states – for future search-and-rescue operations for migrants in the Mediterranean. The BBC reports:

James Brokenshire told MPs the change would “save lives rather than putting them in peril.” About 3,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. That is out of an estimated total of 150,000 to have made the trip by boat across to Europe. Mr Brokenshire said operations to rescue migrants encouraged more people to make the “perilous journey” across the Mediterranean in the hope of being granted asylum. He said the “despicable work” of human traffickers had made the problem much worse, and must be tackled. On the new approach, he added it was “inconceivable to suggest that if a boat were in peril, that support would not be provided”.

Italian officials have made clear they intend to scale down their government’s current operation, known as Mare Nostrum, as the EU introduces a new operation known as Triton. Triton will focus more on border control – tasks such as vetting asylum seekers once they are ashore, and coastal patrols – rather than search and rescue in international waters. Mr Brokenshire said that 28 EU member states had “unanimously agreed” to the new proposals, and criticised those attacking the policy for seeking to “politicise” the issue.

Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather was not impressed by the minister’s defence:

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): Claiming that rescuing people from drowning in the sea is somehow a pull factor for people who are fleeing war is an absurd and deeply unethical thing for the Government to do. Can the Government not see that more people are travelling because half of the middle east is burning? Has the Minister not seen the advice of his own Foreign Office? We cannot wash our hands of these people, Pontius Pilate-style. If we are to prevent people from boarding rickety boats and drowning at sea, we will have to work with our European colleagues and find safe routes of travel. Can the Minister not see that he has lost any sense of ethical reasoning here?

James Brokenshire: I entirely reject the analysis that my hon. Friend seeks to proffer in this regard. No one is turning a blind eye to humanitarian issues or needs. The purpose of the actions being taken is to put fewer lives at risk, and I am sorry that she is unable to accept the clear purpose of what we are undertaking. On the idea that boats in need of assistance would simply be ignored, I point her to the head of Frontex who said that if a boat in distress is spotted, rescue is the top priority. I am sure that that is precisely what will happen.

And neither was Paddy Ashdown, speaking in the House of Lords:

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon (LD): My Lords, it pains me to say to my noble friends that this is a discreditable policy, whatever words are used to describe it. We do not find it difficult to disagree with the European Union on all sorts of other matters, but do we have to lay our hand to a European policy whose central proposition is that the best way to discourage people from seeking a better life is to leave them to drown in the Mediterranean? This is inhuman, it is discreditable and it may well be contrary to our duties under international law to do everything we can to save those in peril on the sea.

Lord Bates: The noble Lord comes to this with huge experience and understanding. However, those obligations which are there under the laws of the sea, maritime law and humanitarian law will remain as obligations on any vessels that actually come across people who are making this journey. The question is how we tackle this increasing trend effectively. This is not for the UK alone; this view was pored over on the basis of evidence, intelligence and information which came to the Justice and Home Affairs Council. All 28 member states agreed—which, as my noble friend suggested, is a pretty rare achievement—that, regrettably, this was having a counterproductive effect.

Nick Clegg’s line on Call Clegg was different, arguing this was primarily a decision for the Italian government:

… let’s be really clear, this was a decision taken by the Italian Government, it wasn’t taken unilaterally by the Home Office, it was the Italian Government who are quite literally on the kind of front line, if you like, there. They are the Mediterranean State concerned, they are having to address this challenge of large numbers of people risking life and limb crossing the Mediterranean often in makeshift boats, to get to Italy. And they decided that they didn’t want to continue with the search and rescue missions that went out there, ’cause their judgement was that it wasn’t helping to address the problems. So I mean, I know the Government has come under some criticism for accepting that Italian decision, in a European Union wide decision. I think it would have been quite curious for us to say, well hang on a minute, Italy, you can’t take that decision, and we’re somehow gonna kind of undercut you on that.

As for longer term solutions, Nick had this to say:

… we must play our part as a country to make sure that people want to stay put in their home country, and not illegally and very dangerously, try and move great distances to other countries. And that’s why, I know it’s controversial, but I think it is right for us as a country, to take an international lead and say, we are devoting 0.7 per cent of our national wealth to help countries develop their own economies, so that people have got a sense of optimism and hope in their own countries, and they don’t seek to flee elsewhere. The other thing we need to do, is we do need to work across the European Union, which is by the way, the context in which this decision was taken, to make sure that we know how to deal with people who seek asylum. We are, of course, not a Mediterranean country, and when people, individuals, see asylum, they do so, they lodge that appeal in the first country they arrive in. But I think there’s no, in the long run, there’s no surrogate, but to make sure there are the conditions in North Africa and elsewhere, which encourage people to stay put. But on this individual decision about search and rescue parties, I think it’s not for us to second guess the Italian government’s stance on that.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.