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Most Med migrants 'are economic'

Published 08/07/2015

The majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are economic migrants, James Brokenshire has said
The majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are economic migrants, James Brokenshire has said

The majority of people trying to cross the Mediterranean are economic migrants, the immigration minister has said.

James Brokenshire also warned that programmes to relocate those who reach Europe risk exacerbating the crisis.

Tens of thousands of migrants have made the perilous journey from Africa and the Middle East this year and more than 1,800 have died.

European leaders announced earlier this year that 40,000 migrants will be relocated from Italy and Greece over the next two years.

The UK has opted out of the scheme and urged the EU to focus on tackling trafficking gangs which arrange the crossings.

Appearing at the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, Mr Brokenshire was asked whether the Government is placing too much emphasis on that aspect of the crisis when "people are fleeing for their lives".

He said: "In terms of the mix of people who are seeking to make that journey, our estimate is that the majority of those are probably economic migrants, rather than those who are fleeing persecution or some sort of civil conflict.

"Therefore it is to try to make a better life in the EU rather than on that greater humanitarian side."

Earlier this year, Theresa May suggested that economic migrants attempting the crossing should be returned home.

Mr Brokenshire's comments drew criticism.

Refugee Council chief executive Maurice Wren said: "The immigration minister's sweeping judgment that the majority of people arriving on Europe's shores from some of the world's biggest refugee producing countries are economic migrants is utterly startling.

"The Government must stop looking for flimsy excuses to justify dealing with this humanitarian crisis at arm's length."

The minister said the Government is in agreement with the European agenda on the crisis on a number of issues.

But he added: "Where we do take issue is the emphasis that is given in to relocation and that side of the agenda where we have said that it should be for member states to determine.

"We've not signed up to the compulsory relocation. We think that is almost moving the problem around, dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause."

He raised questions about the feasibility of the plan given that it is likely to be followed by "secondary flows" of migrants to other countries.

Referring to a pilot scheme the UK took part in in 2011 in response to large numbers of people arriving in Malta, he said: "I would have to say that numbers were relatively small but it was apparent from the evaluation of the pilot project that refugees were not inclined to go to some member states because of the lack of ties, diaspora - there are a whole different range of reasons why particular refugees may want or aspire to go to particular countries.

"Even from that perspective it does add to our concern about feasibility of the current relocation proposals because it seems likely we would then see further secondary flows of migrants trying to move to their member state of choice given the Schengen arrangements, the internal borders.

"I suppose that's the point ... the weakness of the relocation mechanisms because you might try to relocate people to one country but the reality is they are unlikely to stay there."

Mr Brokenshire said trafficking gangs provide those attempting to make the journey with a "false picture and false hope, exploiting them in a really appalling way".

He said: "It is this aspect that we need to continue to focus on to ensure a long term solution."

He insisted it was important that steps taken in response to the emergency do not exacerbate the problem.

"One of the really awful parts of the whole Mediterranean migration crisis was the way in which people traffickers were seeking to exploit the search and rescue crisis with increasingly un-seaworthy boats being used.

"(Traffickers were) effectively saying to people, 'you will be rescued', and therefore put lives at greater risk. It's a horrible, complicated picture that we see."

He said it was difficult to see how relocation does not support or play into the "false narrative" traffickers attempt to advance.

"Here we are, here's the EU setting up arrangements therefore if you try to head northwards you can get some kind of settlement within the EU," he said.

"We have to be very careful in saying we are not either encouraging or making a difficult situation more difficult to resolve when we know there is that exploitation there."

Mr Brokenshire said figures suggest that between 500,000 and 600,000 Libyans are estimated to want to travel northwards towards the European Union.

Asked about the UK's contribution to efforts to relieve the crisis, he said the deployment of HMS Bulwark and other assets to affected regions has saved around 3,000 lives.

He saluted the "incredible work" that Bulwark carried out, adding that the ship had been withdrawn because it requires refit work and has been replaced by HMS Enterprise.

"The UK is still contributing," he added.

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