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PM hails efforts on migrant crisis

Published 23/04/2015

David Cameron says Britain will help migrant rescue efforts, but a 'comprehensive' solution is needed
David Cameron says Britain will help migrant rescue efforts, but a 'comprehensive' solution is needed

David Cameron has hailed an emerging agreement among European leaders to go after the people traffickers blamed for causing hundreds of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean as he announced the deployment of Britain's biggest warships to the region.

Following emergency talks in Brussels, the Prime Minister said there was a consensus building on a "comprehensive strategy" for tacking the deepening crisis.

"What's emerging is what we need which is a comprehensive plan, going after the criminal gangs, going after the traffickers, going after the owners of the boats - potentially taking action there as well and stabilising the countries from which these people are coming," he said.

Earlier he announced that he would be sending the navy's flagship, HMS Bulwark, to join an enhanced search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. However he insisted there was no question of Britain offering asylum to the migrants it plucked from the sea.

"I think it's right for Britain to step forward, for the Royal Navy to play a role. They will be saving lives not offering asylum in the UK," he said.

"That's the role we can play in the immediate term but a comprehensive strategy is what in the end will make the difference and solve this problem."

European Council president Donald Tusk said the meeting had agreed a four-point plan to tackle the issue including measures to take out the boats used by the people smugglers before they take to sea.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been tasked with drawing up plans to "identify, capture and destroy" potential people trafficking vessels before they can set sail with their human cargos.

Among the issues she will have to consider is whether such a mission will require the authorisation of the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Tusk said that agreement had also been reached to treble the funding for the EU's Operation Triton coastal patrols with "many more vessels, aircraft and experts" becoming involved.

Help will be offered to frontline EU member states such as Italy to co-ordinate the resettlement of people arriving in Europe, while for those who could not show they were refugees there would be an "effective returns policy".

The meeting also agreed to take steps to "lower illegal migration flows and discourage people from putting their lives at risk" through improved co-operation with countries of origin and transit, "especially those around Libya".

Mr Tusk said: "Europe did not cause this tragedy, but that doesn't mean we can be indifferent. We are facing a difficult summer and we need to be ready to act."

Britain's contribution led by HMS Bulwark will be supported by two UK Border Force cutters and three Royal Navy Merlin helicopters with sophisticated radar designed to spot small surface vessels over long distances.

The 19,500 tonne assault ship - currently in the Dardanelles for the Gallipoli centenary commemorations in Turkey - will be on the scene ready to start search and rescue operations within the week.

It will extend well beyond the range of the current EU Operation Triton, which is restricted to Italian coastal waters and controversially replaced the more extensive Italian navy Operation Mare Nostrum last year.

It will also provide a floating refuelling platform for the Merlins - expected to be based in either Malta or Sicily - enabling them to extend the range of their patrols.

Bulwark is expected to continue operations for around two months after which Britain is hoping that other member states will take up the reins.

The Prime Minister was adamant that the operation to save lives did not mean Britain would offer asylum to the people it rescued, insisting that they must be dealt with in the nearest safe country to where they are picked up.

He stressed however that Britain's involvement depended upon the "right conditions" being in place.

"That must include that the people we pick up and the people we deal with are taken to the nearest safe country - most likely Italy - and don't have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK," he said.

With more than 1,700 migrants feared drowned already this year, the Refugee Council said the measures agreed in Brussels would not help those currently at risk making the perilous crossing in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.

Chief executive Maurice Wren said the refusal of countries like Britain to offer asylum to the refugees was effectively slamming the door in their faces.

"European governments had the chance to step up to the plate and get serious about saving lives instead of just talking about it. Instead, they've tried to save political face by attempting to deal with this problem at arm's length," he said.

"Patrolling the Mediterranean and smashing the smugglers may sound like the priority, but what will become of those who are fleeing for their lives right now if we aren't prepared to provide them with alternative routes to safety? What's the use of stopping people drowning on our doorstep just to watch them being beheaded, butchered or shot in northern Africa?

"The UK government speaks about our proud tradition of protecting refugees, yet when the Syrians and Eritreans come knocking on the door of Europe begging to be protected, we slam it in their faces."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The commitment from Europe to increase resources and action to tackle the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean is welcome. European governments were wrong to drop search and rescue last year, and wrong to argue - as the British government did - that this was justified to deter others from travelling too.

"So it is extremely important that Europe has promised to increase the mission at sea. Anything short of a properly resourced and extensive search and rescue mission will be a moral failure. Additional vessels and resources are welcome, as is action from Europol to tackle the criminal traffickers.

"But a long-term and comprehensive strategy will be needed to deal with the ongoing crisis. And ahead of the Council in June the world will be watching to ensure the decisions taken today result in real humanitarian change."

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