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Amnesty International: End of support for refugee rescue operations marks a dark day for UK's moral standing


Government says it will not support any future search and rescue operations of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean

Date of Publication:
28 October 2014

Amnesty International: End of support for refugee rescue operations marks a dark day for UK's moral standing

28 October 2014

Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty International UK, has said that news Britain will end support for refugee search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean marks "a very dark day for the moral standing of the UK."

The Guardian reported today that the Foreign Office "quietly announced" that Britain will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

A recent House of Lords written answer by Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay said the Government believed the rescue operations were "an unintended 'pull factor', 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 wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats," Anelay added.

As noted by the Guardian, the announcement comes as the official Italian sea and rescue operation, known as Mare Nostrum, is due to end.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on October 17th that Mare Nostrum has contributed to the rescue of around 150,000 refuges and migrants since it began a year ago as a response to two tragedies off the coast of Lampedusa.

UNHCR said it was concerned over the announcement of the ending of Mare Nostrum without a similar European search and rescue operation to replace it.

"This will undoubtedly increase the risk for those trying to find safety in Europe, and could lead to more refugees and migrants perishing at sea", UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler added.

In a strongly-worded statement today, Amnesty International UK's Kate Allen said: "The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks. History will judge this decision as unforgiveable. When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown."

Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said: "The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war. 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. The answer isn't to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it's to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection."

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported on September 16th that the death toll of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean so far in 2014 was already approaching 3,000, four times the total figure for the whole of 2013.

According to BBC News, Operation Triton, run by EU border agency Frontex, will be launched on November 1st as Mare Nostrum ends. However, Triton is a much smaller operation and does not have a search and rescue function.

Frontex spokeswoman Isabella Cooper told the BBC: "Our operation is exclusively that of border control. Mare Nostrum is an operation that aims at search and rescue, so these two operations are very different."

BBC News reported that a Home Office spokesman said the UK had offered "initial support" to Triton, in the form of finance and expertise, and is "considering a further contribution".