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My first Early Day Motion: Mediterranean Refugees

This week I tabled my first Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, which is in regard to the Government's responsibility and duty toward the migrants who have died or risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life. We need concerted action now in order to stop this catastrophe from worsening. In an article for Progress Online I discuss why I was motivated to table an EDM on this topic. Here is what I wrote:

I was moved to make this my first early day motion because the current situation for people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea is a frightening indictment of our times. During the last four years the numbers of migrants and refugees making this crossing has shot up from 4,500 in 2010, to 40,000 in 2013 and then to 170,760 in 2014. Last year the crisis grew exponentially. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 – of whom about 3,500 lost their lives. This year, between January and mid-April 2015, 23,556 people entered Italy irregularly by sea. During that time, 1,645 migrants died in the Mediterranean, out of a total of 1,902 deaths of migrants globally. The Mediterranean is both the most used and the most dangerous route for migrants in the world currently.

In October 2013, Italy’s government launched a search and rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’ (‘Our Seas’), following the Lampedusa tragedy in which 366 migrants died. This operation was costing the Italian navy €9m a month and consisted of a number of naval vessels, aircraft, submarines and helicopters. They patrolled 70,000km2 of the Mediterranean over a year, rescuing over 150,000 people. They also enabled the arrest of 330 people smugglers.

However, in October 2014 Mare Nostrum was cancelled. The Italian government, with the support of various European Union countries, took the view that the operation was encouraging migration. Our own Foreign Office shared that view. Foreign office minister Joyce Anelay said in a written answer on 15 October 2015 that Mare Nostrum was creating ‘an unintended pull factor, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths’. Italian politicians were also unhappy about the cost falling on the Italian government alone.

A smaller, EU-backed operation, ‘Triton’ was launched in November to replace Mare Nostrum. Coordinated by the EU borders agency Frontex, it initially had a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and was severely restricted in the area of patrol, to within 30 miles of the Italian coast. Clearly this proved to be too little. On 19 April, 800 migrants were killed when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya – far from the reach of operation Triton.

This did, at least, prompt urgent reactions from European politicians. Following an emergency European summit in April the European Council agreed to triple the money available to fund Triton. The United Kingdom government deployed further vessels to increase the search and rescue operations. However, the crisis has not ceased and the causes and consequences of the trafficking of people across the Mediterranean have not been dealt with. Quotas of refugees and migrants allowed into the EU remain low, and the UK government is resolutely opposed to proposals to increase it. Home secretary Theresa May, in an article in the Times on 13 May said ‘we must – and will – resist calls for the mandatory relocation or resettlement of migrants’, as it would, ‘only strengthen the incentives for criminal gangs to keep plying their evil trade’.

EDM 99 asks:

That this House urges the prime minister to recognise the fatal impact of the decision in 2014 to cancel Operation Mare Nostrum in October 2014, and the decision to replace it with the much more limited Operation Triton, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives of desperate refugees, exploited by traffickers; further urges the prime minister to do everything in his power to restore the full provisions of Mare Nostrum; and calls on him to review urgently the numbers of places available in the UK for refugees, particularly those who have relatives in this country, who are fleeing violence, persecution and suffering.

As a progressive party, Labour is always going to be the party in parliament which leads the way in highlighting injustice. I do understand that something is not always better than nothing, and the ‘something must be done’ approach to policy making generally presents unintended consequences.

The argument made by Theresa May last year was that providing – and incidentally funding – a search and rescue operation was acting as a pull factor, and therefore there were humane grounds for restricting it as traffickers would be less likely to traffick people, and people would be less willing to take the risks of the crossing if they knew that they would not be rescued if things went wrong. Patently this argument has not been tenable. Numbers of people attempting the crossing have continued to increase and, tragically, so too have the numbers of people dying. Clearly Theresa May underestimated or did not understand the appalling conditions of life in Syria, Ethopia, Libya and other countries. These are conditions which have driven desperate people to take terrible decisions which none of us would like to face. The director of the EU border agency Frontex said in March this year that between 500,000 and one million people were waiting in Libya to make the crossing.

To those who do not understand why desperate people take desperate measures, I urge them to look at the conditions of life in the countries these people are fleeing. To the home secretary and prime minister, I ask them to consider what they would do, what risks they would be willing to take for their families’ safety if they were living in Libya. Signing an EDM cannot make them do this, but it can help to highlight the issue. Keith Vaz has also arranged an adjournment debate on this topic on Tuesday 16 June 2015, which I urge colleagues to attend.

I urge colleagues to sign the EDM, to participate in Keith Vaz’ debate, to write to the foreign and home secretaries to express their concern, and to share awareness of this situation with their CLPs and others wherever and whenever we can. Thousands of people are risking their lives to get to safety – we cannot let them down.

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