Britain will not support future search-and-rescue operations for migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean while crossing from North Africa to Europe, according to a statement that surfaced on Tuesday and drew heavy criticism.
In a written statement to Parliament dated Oct. 15, Foreign Office Minister Joyce Anelay explained that the British government believes the search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean create an unwanted "pull factor" and encourage more migrants to attempt to cross from North Africa to Europe.
Aneley added that the government wants to focus its attention instead on countries of origin and transit, and wants to take steps to target the smugglers who help the migrants cross.
Human rights organizations slammed the British position on Tuesday, saying the government has turned its back on people in need.
Amnesty UK director Kate Allen told The Guardian that history would judge the decision as unforgivable. "When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown," Allen said.
“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,” Maurice Wren of the British Refugee Council said in a statement on the organization's website. “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,” he added.
Agence France Presse notes that Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron has made curbing immigration a priority after the rise in popularity of the anti-immigration and anti-EU UK Independence Party.
The controversy in Britain is part of a larger debate in Europe on how to react to the growing number of migrants attempting to reach the continent via the Mediterranean. Tens of thousands of migrants attempt the perilous boat journey each year. Many pay smugglers small fortunes to be transported in what are often ramshackle boats to escape war or poor economic conditions in their home countries.
There has been a very steep increase in the last year in the number of people who don't make it across. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 3,343 people have lost their lives in 2014 while making the journey, 2,755 of them just since the start of July. Seven hundred people are believed to have drowned in just one single weekend this September.
The revelation of Britain's position comes as European countries debate the future of naval missions targeting the migrant stream via the Mediterranean.
After more than 360 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa last year, the Italian government launched "Mare Nostrum," an operation that includes sending boats to try to save stranded migrants in international waters, where most of the accidents take place. UNHCR estimates the mission has contributed to the rescue of 150,000 refuges and migrants since its inception.
As the Italian government is planning to scale down Mare Nostrum in the near future, citing the high costs of the program, the European Union's border agency Frontex is launching "Operation Triton" to fill part of the gap. The Frontex mission has a smaller budget than the Italian operation, however, and while the latter was a search-and-rescue mission, Operation Triton is focused on border protection instead.
A Home Office spokesman told the BBC that Britain has offered to contribute to Triton through finance and expertise.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Michael Gabaudan, director of Refugees International, criticized European countries' refusal to help the migrants with significant aid.
"Right now, in Lebanon, one person in four is a Syrian refugee. It’s one in six in Jordan. In Iraqi Kurdistan, one in four are people displaced by the current violence. In our countries, the presence of 40,000 kids at the border becomes national drama and is used politically. The sacrifice we make is nothing compared to what other countries are making, and we seem to ignore that," Gabaudan argued.