Saturday 18 November 2017

EU ministers in crisis talks over Mediterranean migrant deaths

Migrants wait to disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Migrants wait to disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Joe Churcher

EU foreign ministers will discuss measures to halt the rising death toll of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea amid intense pressure to resume full-scale search and rescue missions.

Up to 900 are feared drowned in the latest capsize tragedy, taking the number of dead among those seeking refuge in Europe from Libya and elsewhere in this year alone to more than 1,500.

The toll has re-focused attention on demands for a more co-ordinated European response to what Italian premier Matteo Renzi said had become "a plague in our continent", with 10,000 migrants arriving just last week.

Labour called on the Government to reverse its "immoral" withdrawal of support for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean as Philip Hammond prepared to join counterparts in Luxembourg where the issue will be high on the agenda.

An Italian scheme was wound up late last year despite rescuing tens of thousands of people making the treacherous journey from North Africa and replaced with a more limited European Union border security operation.

The UK argued search and rescue operations might encourage more illegal immigrants to attempt the crossing.

Mr Hammond said the whole world was horrified by the death toll and the "vile trade" of people smugglers and that stopping it "demands a comprehensive, co-ordinated response" that targeted traffickers to ensure no-one embarked on such journeys in the first place.

"As well as helping to identify and target the traffickers by offering the expertise of our National Crime Agency and security services, Britain can make an important contribution to addressing the factors driving migration through our aid programme in the key source countries," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg conceded that "the current arrangements are clearly leading to these tragic consequences" and backed a change of course but insisted the "cure" lay not at sea but in dealing with the reasons people were seeking refuge.

He said it was Italy which had pushed the switch of focus amid fears that the safety net of maritime patrols was encouraging the refugee traffic but accepted the need for a "long, hard collective think about what the best arrangements are".

But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The British Government must immediately reverse its opposition to EU search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as the EU needs to restart the rescue as soon as possible.

"Theresa May was very wrong to argue that the EU rescue operations should be stopped in order to deter others from coming. It is immoral to turn our backs and leave people to drown in order to deter other desperate travellers - and of course it hasn't worked.

"Since the operations were cancelled even more people have tried to cross the Mediterranean, and thousands have died."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "Those dying in the Mediterranean are some of the poorest men, women and children in the world. We must act to stop these awful scenes."

The European Commission said: "The reality is stark and our actions must therefore be bold. These are human lives at stake, and the European Union as a whole has a moral and humanitarian obligation to act.

"What we need is immediate actions to prevent further loss of life as well as a comprehensive approach to managing migration better in all its aspects.

"A joint meeting of the foreign and interior ministers will be organised to this end. This is a joint responsibility of all 28 EU Member States and the EU institutions and requires a joint European response."

Refugee Council head of advocacy Lisa Doyle said: "This latest tragedy is an appalling reminder that Europe's response to the greatest refugee crisis in modern times has been to close off people's escape routes, pull up the drawbridge and let desperate people drown.

"How many more people have to be swallowed by the sea before European leaders act? The focus has to be on saving lives and creating alternative routes to safety."

Arriving at the meeting, Mr Hammond said: "The world is horrified by the events that are taking place in the Mediterranean and by the cynicism of the criminal gangs that are exploiting these unfortunate people.

"My heart goes out to those who have lost friends, family, in the terrible tragedies of the last few days.

"We are meeting here today and we are going to have a joint meeting later on between foreign ministers and home affairs ministers to address how we can tackle this issue. It requires a comprehensive European level response to be effective.

"That response has got to include targeting the criminals who are managing this traffic in human suffering. We have got to tackle them, we have got to work upstream in the countries from which these people are coming and we are determined to put an end to this vile trade."

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said: "British foreign policy over decades, and particularly recent military interventions, has played a significant part in creating the instability that has driven so many people from their homes. That puts further responsibility on David Cameron to push for immediate EU action and provide Britain's share of the necessary resources.

"Britain should immediately pledge funding to help with the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. We cannot simply stand by while hundreds of people drown in our contintent's seas. The charities saving people's lives in the Mediterranean must be properly resourced, and Britain must help with this."

Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Let me say how tragic it is this appalling loss of life that there has been ... it is a very dark day for Europe, it really is horrific the scenes that we have all witnessed on our television screens, the loss of life.

"We should put the blame squarely with the criminal human traffickers who are the ones managing promoting and selling this trade, this trade in human life.

"We are doing everything we can to try and stop them. There is a vital meeting going on in Luxembourg today between EU foreign ministers and it is important they get that work going.

"I believe what is necessary is a comprehensive approach. You have got to deal with the instability in the countries concerned, you have got to go after the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade.

"You have got to make sure, yes there is an element of search and rescue, but that can only be one part of this. We must use all the resources we have including Britain's aid budget, which can play a role in trying to stabilise countries and trying to stop people from trafficking."

Mr Cameron said people were coming from "all over Africa and other parts of the Middle East", not just Libya.

Press Association

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