Britain will ‘make a contribution’ to more search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean according to David Cameron, who admitted current policies “haven’t worked”.
The prime minister stopped short of calling for the return of the full scale Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission that was abandoned last year. It was replaced by Operation Triton, which focuses on border surveillance rather than search and rescue, and has a budget of roughly a third of Mare Nostrum.
Instead, he said, more needed to be done to tackle the criminal behaviour of traffickers and to stabilise countries such as Libya and Eritrea, where many migrants originate.
But he accepted more search and rescue mission may be needed to save lives.
The comments, made on Wednesday to British television, represent a softening in the UK’s position. It is thought that Cameron now believes the British view the crisis as a humanitarian issue rather than an immigration issue.
EU leaders today meet in Brussels to discuss how to respond to the burgeoning crisis, which has claimed nearly 2000 lives so far. Most recently, Amnesty International’s UK Director Kate Allen called the events of the past week “Europe’s shame” and was particularly damning of the UK.
“Until now, the UK Government’s response has been shameful but finally they have been woken up to the need to act. EU governments must now urgently turn their rhetoric into action to stop more people drowning on their way to Europe,” she said.
The Labour Party’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper backed the calls, saying the replacement, Operation Triton, was ineffectual. “The priority must be to get search and rescue operations back up and running,” said Cooper.
Immigration is high on the political agenda in the UK, ahead of May’s general election. Cameron, who has promised an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU if he wins the vote, has called for reform of EU immigration rules.
Last weekend The Sun columnist Katie Hopkins compared migrants to “cockroaches”. The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore wrote on Monday “the language of genocide has reached the mainstream” when discussing immigration.
On Wednesday, UKIP leader Nigel Farage warned that without action, “millions” of migrants would arrive in Europe in the next few years.
“Unless you send a message that you’re not going to unconditionally accept unlimited numbers of people, they will keep coming,” he said.
Farage stated that the UK and France’s bombing of Libya had “caused this problem” and migrants “should be put on vessels that are seaworthy and taken back to where they came from”.
Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, whose party is the junior partner in Cameron’s coalition government, called Farage’s comments “simplistic”. He also called for the reinstatement of Mare Nostrum.
The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.
Amnesty International's report: Europe's sinking shame