Med crisis: ‘Britain ready to help’

Published: Thursday 23rd April 2015 by The News Editor

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David Cameron is offering to commit British resources to search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean as he breaks off from the election campaign to attend emergency EU talks on the worsening refugee crisis.

The Prime Minister said last night that he would use the Brussels summit to press for a “comprehensive approach” to the problem which is estimated to have left more than 1,700 dead since the start of the year.

He acknowledged there had to be an extension of the search and rescue operations after they were scaled back dramatically last year in the hope it would deter people from making the perilous sea crossing.

But he will tell other EU leaders that it must be accompanied by measures to target the people traffickers and tackle instability in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa from where many of the migrants are fleeing.

The Guardian reported that a leaked draft of the summit statement said resettlement places in Europe would be offered to just 5,000 refugees and the vast majority who survived the crossing would be returned as irregular migrants.

It said immediate preparations should begin to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.

Mr Cameron’s call for a comprehensive approach to the issue has been echoed by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has rescued hundreds of refugees after their overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels have run into trouble.

Italian defence minister Roberta Pinotti called for refugee camps to be set up in countries bordering Libya, from where many of the boats sail, and said the Italian military was ready to go after the traffickers.

“We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather. The plans for military intervention are there,” she said.

Today’s summit was called after around 800 migrants were feared to have drowned when their boat capsized at the weekend off the coast of Libya in what the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said was the “deadliest incident” it had recorded in the Mediterranean.

European leaders have been widely criticised since the decision last year to end the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation and replace it with the far more limited EU Operation Triton, patrolling the Italian coast.

Appearing last night before a studio audience on BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, Mr Cameron said a different approach was needed and Britain stood ready to help.

“We now need to make a change and make sure there is more and search and rescue,” he said.

“I will be arguing, ‘Let’s have a comprehensive approach’. Yes, we need search and rescue. We can play a role with that. Britain’s a wealthy country with strong assets. We can bring some of those to bear.

“But let’s also go after effectively the modern slave traders. Let’s also try and stabilise these countries – not just Libya but also Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. It’s these unstable countries that people are coming from that’s part of the problem.”

The Ministry of Defence said that it was “looking at options” following reports that one of the Royal Navy’s largest vessels – the assault ship HMS Bulwark – could be despatched to take part in the operation.

It is understood, however, that Mr Cameron will want to see what other EU leaders are prepared to offer at the talks before making a final decision on Britain’s contribution.

On Monday the EU set out a 10-point action plan to prevent more deaths, including increase in the financial resources of Frontex, the border agency which runs Operation Triton, and an extension of Triton’s operational area.

But the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, warned that Triton could not be a full search and rescue operation in the way that Mare Nostrum was.

“In our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search and rescue action,” he told The Guardian. “This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is, in my understanding, not in the mandate of the European Union.”

For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said it was essential that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean were fully restored.

“The British government and all of Europe must stop turning its back on people drowning on Europe’s shores,” she said.

“This summit is the result of a serious moral failure in British and other European governments. It needs to generate a plan that puts European leadership back on the right path.”

Published: Thursday 23rd April 2015 by The News Editor

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