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UK Refuses to Back Mediterranean Rescue Missions



A handout picture released by the Italian coast guard on June 14, 2014 shows migrants on a boat being rescued off the coast of the Calabria region in southern Italy. The Italian coast guard rescued around 281 asylum-seekers, including 93 children and six women in the Mediterranean as an influx of asylum-seekers try to reach Europe. AFP PHOTO / GUARDIA COSTIERA<br /> <br /> --RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT &quot;AFP PHOTO / GUARDIA COSTIERA&quot; - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS --

Greg Daly - published on 10/29/14

Charities and politicians condemn government policy as shameful and depressing

As Italy’s official sea and rescue operation to prevent refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean draws to a halt, Britain has quietly announced that it will not support similar operations. 

Mare Nostrum, the Italian mission, has been central to the rescue of almost 150,000 people over the last year, but with Italy unable to finance the operation without broader European support it is being cancelled as “unsustainable.” A less extensive EU border control operation, codenamed Triton and with only a third of Mare Nostrum’s resources, will begin on November 1, acting only within 30 miles of Italy’s coast. British involvement in Triton will be limited to a single immigration officer tasked with gathering information on those migrants who risk the Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

The refusal of Britain to participate substantively in Triton was revealed in a recent House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay of St Johns, who wrote, “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.” 

“We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’,” she explained, “encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes 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 who willfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

Mare Nostrum was launched last October in the wake of two tragedies in which up to 500 people drowned near the tiny island of Lampedusa, 113km from Tunisia and a common landing place for desperate migrants. 

Three months earlier Pope Francis had chosen Lampedusa as his first place to visit outside Rome since becoming Pope. In a Mass commemorating the thousands of people who had died at sea while striving to reach Europe, he recalled God’s question to Cain, and said that “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death.”

Explaining that “the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours?” Pope Francis lamented how “we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”

“We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan,” he continued. “We see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: ‘poor soul…!’ and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged.”

Condemnation of the government’s decision has been swift, not least in light of how earlier this month European interior ministers, including Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May, acknowledged that current trends of desperate migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean were likely to continue. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, about 43,000 refugees arrived in Italy in 2013, whereas more than three times that number has already arrived in 2014, a further 2,500 being thought to have drowned at sea. With refugees fleeing such countries as Syria, Libya, and Somalia, the European interior ministers should feel confident in their prediction that “the situation even risks deteriorating further.”

Martin Foley, national director of Catholic seafarers’ charity Apostleship of the Sea, told the 

Catholic Herald he was “disappointed” by the government’s refusal to support search and rescue operations, saying that “All the evidence shows that such operations are needed now more than ever as people flee violence and persecution in many troubled parts of our world.”

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the British Refugee Council, said Britain’s government “seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War,” adding that, “People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.”

Perhaps the most damning response came from Sarah Teather MP, the Catholic and Liberal Democrat chair of Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, who described the government’s decision as “deeply depressing,” and said that “when it comes to immigration, the Government has plumbed new depths of inhumanity.” 

Castigating how Britain’s willingness to bomb the Islamic State group and arm combatants in the Middle East has not been matched by offers of protection for those fleeing the conflict, Teather described a recent visit to Lebanon, where nearly a quarter of the population are refugees, and said that “we cannot pretend this problem has nothing to do with us and wash our hands as people die. It is the policies we are pursuing, attempting to turn Europe into a fortress with no safe routes in, that is forcing migrants into risking their lives. We are forcing people to choose between dying in their own war torn country and drowning in the sea.”

“How depressing,” she concluded, “that the UK’s response, rather than to extend a hand of welcome, is to turn our back on the biggest refugee crisis for over half a century. We should all be ashamed.”

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

Pope FrancisRefugeesUnited Kingdom
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