'Send Med migrants home' says May
Economic migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe should be returned home, the Home Secretary has indicated.
Theresa May reiterated the Government's intention to reject any proposals for a mandatory system of resettlement.
The comments came as the Royal Navy's flagship took part in its largest rescue operation since being deployed to the region to help tackle the crisis.
Writing in The Times, Mrs May said: " We must distinguish between those genuinely fleeing persecution and economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life.
"While the UK has a proud tradition of providing refuge for those who need it, we must not provide new incentives for those simply seeking to come for economic reasons."
She said she disagrees with an assurance offered by the EU's High Representative Federica Mogherini earlier this week that no migrants intercepted at sea "will be sent back against their will".
Mrs May repeated the Government's firm stance on reported plans for a quota obliging European states to take a share of migrants, saying it would encourage more people to make the journey and make it easier for the smugglers responsible.
"We must - and will - resist calls for the mandatory relocation or resettlement of migrants across Europe.
"Such an approach would only strengthen the incentives for criminal gangs to keep plying their evil trade - and reduce the incentive of member states to develop their own effective asylum regimes," said Mrs May.
Mrs May described the current situation in the Mediterranean, where hundreds have drowned as they tried to make their way into European Union countries, as "intolerable".
Later she told ITV1's Good Morning Britain that the UK has a "very specific" programme for Syrian refugees.
"But for Syrian refugees, I think the best thing to do is to be helping them in the region. We are the second biggest bilateral donor on that," she added.
Mrs May said the UK was assisting with the operation to deal with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat: "HMS Bulwark is out there, there are two Border Force cutters and Sea King helicopters out there in the Mediterranean, working as part of the search and rescue operation that is taking place in the Mediterranean to save lives, to stop people from dying."
The Ministry of Defence disclosed that Bulwark is conducting its "largest tasking to date" as part of the response. The operation involves rescuing more than 400 people from four inflatable boats off the coast of Libya.
The EU's executive Commission is today due to set out proposals to deal with the crisis.
According to a draft document seen by the Associated Press, the plan includes steps to ensure speedy identification of migrants and the quick return of those who do not qualify for protection.
The EU is also said to be seeking approval from the UN to allow member states to seek out traffickers and destroy their boats.
Figures released yesterday by Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, showed that the UK granted protection to a total of 14,065 asylum seekers last year.
This was the fifth highest of the 27 member countries for which data were available.
The statistics showed that more than one in three asylum seekers accepted by countries in the EU last year was Syrian, reflecting the exodus from the country riven by civil war.
Eritreans made up the highest proportion of asylum seekers granted protection status by the UK, with 2,275 - 16.2% of the total - from the African state.
Anna Musgrave, of charity Refugee Council, said: "Sadly, the British Government appears oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis in recent memory.
"This country has a proud tradition of protecting refugees, but failure to offer alternative routes to safety for some of the world's most desperate people during this humanitarian emergency would leave a dark stain on the nation's moral conscience."
Michael Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, said: "The crisis must be seen for what it is - a humanitarian disaster that is causing acute suffering and loss of life.
"Whatever the ins and outs of any particular proposal - and the quota suggestion is just one being discussed - the Red Cross welcomes the fact that countries are discussing new measures to make the journey to asylum safer for those most in need."
SNP former leader Alex Salmond called on the Government to accept the EU quota and take an extra 60,000 asylum seekers a year.
The MP told Channel 4 News: "I think that Britain should take the full 60,000 and Scotland is certainly willing to take our proportionate share and we would argue for that.
"I think most people are human beings and, when they see people in their extremity, want to do something to help and I think a government that doesn't understand that basic human instinct of the Scottish people and indeed the English people isn't the sort of government that represents people properly."