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UK opts out of Mediterranean migrant rescue mission

Marina militare, AFP | Migrants being rescued by the Italian Navy as part of the "Mare Nostrum" operation on August 18
4 min

Britain has said it will not support the European Union’s planned search and rescue operations to help migrants left stranded in the Mediterranean Sea, even as Italy prepares to wind down its own rescue missions, which have saved thousands of lives.


The UK’s Foreign Office argued on Tuesday that the EU’s plans to patrol the Mediterranean would only encourage more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing.

The operation, codenamed “Triton”, is headed by the European Union border agency Frontex and is set to begin in November.

"We do not support the planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean," said Baroness Joyce Anelay, a Foreign Office minister. "We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’… thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."

Britain will focus its efforts on the “countries of origin and transit,” tackling smugglers instead, Anelay said.

Human rights groups reacted with anger to Britain’s refusal to join the mission, saying it would only lead to more refugees dying as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

“The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War,” said Maurice Wren of the British Refugee Council.

“People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames,” Wren added.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has put curbing immigration at the centre of efforts to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU, under pressure from the rising popularity of the anti-immigration and anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of next year’s general election.

‘Mare Nostrum’

The British announcement comes as Italy is winding down its own search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, which has saved the lives of over 150,000 men, women and children travelling from North Africa this year alone. Italy launched its “Mare Nostrum” operation a year ago following two deadly shipwrecks.

It is unclear, however, whether the country intends to merely scale back its missions or close them down entirely with the introduction of Triton.

"Mare Nostrum is being wound up. There will be a formal decision during one of the next cabinet meetings," Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said recently.

But Alfano has also insisted the two operations are "totally distinct", as Triton will remain within European territorial waters, while Mare Nostrum rescues people in floundering boats and overcrowded dinghies from the Strait of Sicily to the coast of Libya.

Interior Ministry Undersecretary Domenico Manzione said earlier this month that Mare Nostrum "will continue until further notice. For now, nothing changes."

Aid agencies have warned the number of deaths in the Mediterranean – which has surpassed 3,300 so far this year – may rise if Italy cuts the chord.

A total of 32 boats have taken part in the Mare Nostrum mission, supported by two submarines as well as planes and helicopters, according to navy figures.

On average, a total of 900 men and women are manning the decks daily and pick up an average of 400 people every 24 hours. Their work has also led to the arrest of 351 human traffickers since the mission began.

Half of those rescued are asylum seekers from Syria and Eritrea, the rest come from Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories or Somalia.

Shifting the burden

Policing the coast also comes at a monetary cost and the Italian government, struggling to stave off a third recession in six years, is increasingly unwilling to shell out the 9.0 million euros ($11.4 million) a month needed.

Triton's budget is more modest, coming in at 3 million euros a month, with eight European Union countries pledging planes and boats for the operation.

Other countries will send teams to help Italy with the new arrivals – in particular with registering fingerprints, amid concerns Italy is letting too many migrants slip through the net and make it to other countries, shifting the burden to other national asylum seeker systems.

The majority of would-be refugees do not want to stay in Italy. The country registered 26,620 requests for asylum in 2013 – just 6.0 percent of the number of requests made across the European Union.

In the same period, 125,000 requests were made in Germany, 65,000 in France and 55,000 in Sweden.

Catholic charity Caritas, Save the Children and the UNHCR have all insisted that, with a lack of commitment in Europe to finding legal ways for asylum seekers to escape their homelands, Italy cannot simply stop saving boat migrants.

In a bid to reassure critics, on October 16 Alfano said that "even after Mare Nostrum winds up, Italy will continue search and rescue missions at sea."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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