The UK will not support future search and rescue operations to save migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, according to the country’s foreign ministry, prompting concerns this policy will put lives at risk.
Joyce Anelay, Minister of State for the Foreign Office, said in a written statement to parliament that such operations would encourage more migrants to make the potentially fatal voyage.
Her statement, which came to light on Tuesday, was submitted on 15 October after the European Union unveiled plans to launch a mission to help Italy cope with the thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
Called Operation Triton, the mission, managed by Europe’s border control agency, will reinforce Italy’s rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which began after 366 people drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa when their boat capsized a year ago.
Anelay, however, said Britain did 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,” she said in her statement.
“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.”
Europe’s border control agency Frontex has called on member states for contributions to the new mission, which is expected to cost 2.9 million euros a month, so that it can begin on 1 November
In addition to two Italian patrol vessels, Frontex is hoping for two surveillance aircraft and three other vessels to patrol the waters up to 30 miles from Italy’s southern coast.
A spokesman for the British government said one debriefing expert would be sent from London in November to join the mission, but it was unlikely that Britain would be asked for any further assistance.
More than 100,000 migrants have arrived by sea so far this year in Italy, and in September the International Organisation for Migration reported than almost 3,000 people had drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014.
Britain’s Refugee Council accused the government of being “oblivious” to the “greatest refugee crisis since World War Two,” and warned that abandoning rescue operations would not stem the flow of refugees in boats trying to reach Europe.
“People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life rings,” Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said in a statement.
“The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.”