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Call for rethink on rescue missions

Published 19/04/2015

Rescued migrants stand on the deck of an Italian Navy ship
Rescued migrants stand on the deck of an Italian Navy ship

Labour has called for the UK Government to reverse its "immoral" withdrawal of support for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean as an emergency EU meeting was called in the wake of the latest migrant tragedy.

Close to 700 are feared drowned after a vessel capsized south of the Italian island of Lampedusa on its way to Italy, which would be the biggest death toll in a string of incidents that have claimed at least 900 lives already this year.

The British Government has come under fire for withdrawing support for maritime rescue missions as part of the replacement of an Italian-run EU programme with a smaller more land border-based approach.

In a statement, the European Commission said the EU had "a moral and humanitarian obligation to act" and that it would bring together foreign and interior ministers to discuss " immediate actions to prevent further loss of life as well as a comprehensive approach to managing migration better in all its aspects".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg conceded that "t he 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.

On a campaign visit to Portsmouth, 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".

Pope Francis has joined calls for more help to be given to Rome to deal with the flow of migrants - which topped 10,000 last week.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said : "Today's dreadful and distressing tragedy shows how urgently we need EU and international action to prevent thousands of people from drowning off Europe's shores.

"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."

Mr Clegg told reporters: "W e have now had two different strategies at sea, neither of which work.

"I suspect a coherent European Union response should invest a lot more time and effort and perhaps resources in making sure that people are not inclined to flee in such perilous circumstances in the first place."

Pressed on demands from charities such as Save the Children for a resumption of the sea operations, Mr Clegg said: "I'm not going to be proscriptive on what I think the solution is, and I do think the Italians need to be listened to.

"The Italians are at the front line of this and, remember, the Italians were the ones who advocated the change in the first place because they felt the previous arrangements were acting almost as an incentive for people to embark on these perilous and, unfortunately in many cases, fatal journeys."

Asked if British vessels could be deployed, he said: "What is happening in the Mediterranean is clearly unacceptable to anyone who believes in the basic dignity of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

"But on the other hand we also have to make sure that Italy and the European Union as a whole enters into an arragement which is sustainable.

"In a sense we are dealing with the symptoms and I don't think the cure is at sea. I actually think the solution is what happens in those communities where people are so desperate, so frightened, where they are leaving in such large numbers."

In its statement, the 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."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: " We are seeing tragic scenes for the second time in days. European leaders must work together to stop more of these drownings taking place.

"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."

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: "The world is horrified at the appalling loss of life that it is taking place in the Mediterranean and rightly angered by the cynicism of the criminal gangs who are profiting from this people-trade.

"My sympathies go out to those who have lost relatives and friends and to all who are caught up in this vile trade.

"Stopping this needless suffering is a huge international challenge which demands a comprehensive, co-ordinated response. We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.

"I discussed ideas for effective action with G7 Foreign Ministers last week and will do so again with EU Foreign Ministers at our meeting in Luxembourg tomorrow.

"If we are to deal with this tragic situation effectively, we have to tackle it at every stage. 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."

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."

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