Refugees and Migrants (Search and Rescue Operation)

Oral Answers to Questions — Electoral Commission Committee – in the House of Commons at 10:32 am on 30th October 2014.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 10:32 am, 30th October 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on why the Government have decided not to support search and rescue operations for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those who genuinely need it. We work closely with our European neighbours to provide assistance to those fleeing from fear or persecution and to deter those whose criminal actions stand in the way of providing effective help.

The scenes we have witnessed in the Mediterranean in recent months, with people risking their lives to reach Europe, are hugely distressing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 3,000 people have already died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year, compared with some 700 deaths in the whole of last year. When people are risking life and limb—not just their own, but those of their loved ones too—it is clear that they are caught in a desperate situation. Nobody underestimates the sincerity of their plight. It demands an equally sincere approach from the governments of European nations, and that is what it has been getting.

Since Italy launched its Mare Nostrum operation in October 2013, there has been an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration across the Mediterranean and a fourfold increase in the deaths of those making that perilous journey. The operation has been drawn closer and closer to the Libyan shore, as traffickers have taken advantage of the situation by placing more vulnerable people in unseaworthy boats on the basis that they will be rescued and taken to Italy. However, many are not rescued, which is why we believe that the operation is having the unintended consequence of placing more lives at risk, and why EU member states have unanimously agreed that the operation should be promptly phased out.

It is, of course, vital that this phasing out is well managed and well publicised, to mitigate the risk of further deaths. It is vital that we continue to take action to provide real help to those who genuinely need it.

We have made clear our view that the only sustainable answer to the current situation in the Mediterranean is to enhance operational co-operation within the EU; work with the countries of origin and transit to tackle the causes of illegal immigration and the organised gangs that facilitate it; and enhance support for protection in north and east Africa for those in need.

We have agreed to a request from Frontex—the EU’s border management agency—to deploy a debriefing expert in support of the new Frontex Operation Triton off the southern Italian coast. This operation is not designed to replace Mare Nostrum, but will instead patrol closer to EU borders. We stand ready to consider any further request for UK support for the new Frontex operation.

The UK is also among those member states offering substantial numbers of resettlement places for refugees from outside the EU—more than 4,000 between 2008 and 2013—working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In close partnership with other member states, we are developing a strong programme of work to tackle the causes of migration from the horn of Africa, including through investment in regional protection programmes.

It is not in the interests of anyone—most especially those who are genuinely fleeing persecution—if European countries have an uncontrolled and ineffective approach to immigration and asylum. It is not in the interests of anyone if the criminal gangs that exploit the fear and suffering of vulnerable people—endangering human lives for cold, hard cash—are allowed to continue their despicable work unimpeded. It is not in the interests of anyone if we fail to adapt to a situation which encourages more and more people to make that dangerous journey across the seas. That is why member states across the EU have unanimously agreed to act—to defend our borders, crack down on crime and protect those who so desperately need our protection.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

The Minister knows that many of those seeking to make the journey are fleeing war, poverty and starvation in places such as Syria and Libya. They know already that the risks of dying en route are high. They are exploited by people traffickers, as the Minister has accepted, and if they are picked up by European navies or border control, they know they will not be given free entry to Europe, but are likely to end up in a detention centre in Italy or to be sent back to their country of origin. Surely it is obvious that these refugees and migrants are so desperate given that they are still prepared to make these terrible journeys. The idea that search and rescue operations should be discontinued and that people should be left to die in their thousands—presumably in order to discourage others from making the journey—is not just cruel and inhumane, but totally without logic

Is not the right response for Europe as a whole to support a comprehensive search and rescue operation for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean? Will the Government now reconsider their position and try to persuade other European nations to bring that about? Why do the Government not listen to the refugee agencies when they say that the real answer to the problem is to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection?

This policy is shameful. Surely, when we know that hundreds of our fellow human beings face a terrible death and it is in our power to do something about it, it is our moral duty to act. And if we fail to do so, are we not complicit in their deaths?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I am very proud of this Government’s humanitarian work. The investment we have provided for places such as Syria—we have committed about £700 million to the aid effort that is providing direct assistance to those in need—reflects our response. The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of search and rescue operations, but I want to highlight the fact that such matters are for individual member states in respect of their territorial waters. It is ultimately for Italy to decide how it conducts its search and rescue operations.

The Frontex operation, which I have outlined, provides surveillance capability and other support at the border. I find it inconceivable—the head of Frontex has said the same—that support would not be provided if a boat were in peril. Obviously, a rescue would be undertaken in those circumstances.

The Government’s view is that, because of the situation in various parts of the region, a regional solution is required. I have already made the point that assistance is required to prevent people from making such perilous journeys. The judgment of the UK Government and other Governments across the EU is that the emergency measures should be stopped at the earliest opportunity. Ultimately, we want to do something that helps, but sadly, in our judgment, the emergency measures are not achieving that end.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I commend the Minister on his statement, which, to be perfectly honest, was full of common sense. Is it not the case that since the search and rescue operation began, more and more people have tried their luck, with the result that there has been more and more illegal immigration and more and more deaths? The solution must therefore be to stop the search and rescue operation. Does he agree that the message that should go out from this House is not about restoring the operation, but about telling people to stop trying their luck in the first place?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

Our genuine concern has been to provide solutions to prevent people from making those perilous journeys. As I said in my statement, the sad reality is that the number of those who have died in the Mediterranean sea has increased since the introduction of the Mare Nostrum operation. It is therefore right to look at what assistance can be provided on north African borders through direct aid, and at what further assistance the European External Action Service can give for such solutions. The approach of the Government and of other EU member states is about saving lives, not putting them in peril.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I thank my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz for securing the urgent question, and the Minister for his response.

After days of silence, it is absolutely right that the Government should come to the House and answer for their decision to abandon search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. No one is suggesting that the problem of migrants entering Europe from north Africa and the middle east does not need to be addressed, but leaving people to die in their thousands is not the answer.

This year alone 150,000 people have been rescued in the Mediterranean and, as the Minister said, 3,000 people—3,000 men, women and children—have died on their way over. Most of them were fleeing desperate poverty or war zones, and many of them were under the control of human traffickers. Instead of trying to reduce this appalling loss of life, the Government have decided to allow it to increase. The 150,000 people rescued this year will in future be left at the mercy of the sea: if their overcrowded, decrepit boat sinks, they will be left to drown. This is a barbaric abandonment of British values.

Moreover, this decision was taken to distract from a failed immigration policy. With a net migration target in tatters, border security downgraded, a crisis at Calais to which the Government have no answer and in desperation at the prospect of a by-election loss to UKIP, the Government needed to be seen doing something—anything—to appear tough on immigration, but it will not be effective. The Government have provided no evidence that abandoning rescue missions will reduce the number of people getting on the boats. When will the Government publish the evidence and the impact assessment?

Many of the individuals concerned have no choice in the matter because they are under the control of human traffickers, as has been said. What is being done, therefore, to tackle trafficking gangs in north Africa and southern Europe?

The Government need to start working with our European partners to address the so-called pull factors. Once people are on a boat and are drowning off the coast of Italy, it is too late. We need to intervene far earlier. Therefore, when does the Minister next plan to meet his EU counterparts to discuss the matter?

We must remember that Operation Triton is not only about attempting to stop those who make the dangerous journey to Europe in boats from coming to harm, but about protecting our borders. Will the Minister confirm the reports that the Government are providing just one immigration officer to gather intelligence about those who arrive in Italy by sea? That seems to be totally inadequate. We need to know what more the Government intend to do to play their part in making Operation Triton a viable alternative to search and rescue.

Rescuing people who are in danger of drowning is a legal obligation under international maritime law, as is set out in the international convention for the safety of life at sea. The Government may be abandoning their efforts in that regard, but what will happen to commercial boats that intervene, as they are obliged to do?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

The hon. Lady has sought to politicise this issue in a way that does not reflect the intent or focus of the Government.

I say to the hon. Lady clearly that the people who are responsible for the deaths of those at sea are the organised traffickers who seek to exploit the vulnerable by putting them in increasing numbers on boats that are entirely unseaworthy. Our judgment is that extending the emergency measures has encouraged that and put more lives at risk. That is our primary focus. Indeed, it is the focus not simply of the UK Government, but the unanimous conclusion of all 28 member states of the EU.

The hon. Lady made an appropriate point about intervening earlier and looking overseas at the flows of people across borders far from the Mediterranean sea. That is why I made the point about the aid, assistance and political leadership that the UK provides in that work. She asked when we would meet other European Ministers. The Italian Government will host a conference in the coming weeks to look at these very issues around the horn of Africa. We look forward to attending and supporting that conference.

The hon. Lady asked about the support that the British Government are providing to Frontex. I want to make it clear that the UK is not a fully participating member of Frontex because it is not in the Schengen area, and Frontex is an EU body that is designed to safeguard that area. However, we have always sought to respond as favourably as we can to any requests that Frontex makes of the UK. Indeed, the expert to whom she referred is being provided as a consequence of the requests that we have received from Frontex to date. We stand ready to look favourably on any further requests that Frontex may wish to make of the UK Government in support of Operation Triton.

I say again that the focus of the Government is not on short-term political issues, but on examining what will make a difference in the region and providing the necessary humanitarian support. Our judgment is that the steps that are being taken are about saving lives, not putting lives at risk.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Liberal Democrat, Brent Central

Claiming that rescuing people from drowning in the sea is somehow a pull factor for people who are fleeing war is an absurd and deeply unethical thing for the Government to do. Can the Government not see that more people are travelling because half of the middle east is burning? Has the Minister not seen the advice of his own Foreign Office? We cannot wash our hands of these people, Pontius Pilate-style. If we are to prevent people from boarding rickety boats and drowning at sea, we will have to work with our European colleagues and find safe routes of travel. Can the Minister not see that he has lost any sense of ethical reasoning here?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I entirely reject the analysis that my hon. Friend seeks to proffer in this regard. No one is turning a blind eye to humanitarian issues or needs. The purpose of the actions being taken is to put fewer lives at risk, and I am sorry that she is unable to accept the clear purpose of what we are undertaking. On the idea that boats in need of assistance would simply be ignored, I point her to the head of Frontex who said that if a boat in distress is spotted, rescue is the top priority. I am sure that that is precisely what will happen.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The mayor of Calais told the Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the destination of choice for many who arrive in Italy is Calais and after that London, and £12 million has been allocated in Calais. The unintended consequences of not allocating support will be that more people will die in the Mediterranean. I understand why the Minister does not want to give succour to people traffickers, but that is what will happen. The real problem is the failure of Frontex to act appropriately to ensure that the borders are secure. He will see that at the Greek-Turkish border, and at Melilla in Morocco where people are climbing over the fence that the Spanish have put up, this issue will remain a problem. When he goes to Rome will he please also visit Lampedusa and ensure that the real long-term solution is with the countries of north Africa? We must support them in preventing people from leaving in the first place, and that is where our focus should be.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I commend him and members of his Committee for the focus they have attached to this issue. I know they have undertaken a number of visits to the region to see the situation for themselves. He is right to say that the solutions lie in north Africa, which is why I made a point about the need for focus and attention there. The mayor of Calais characterised the UK as the primary destination, but let us analyse where asylum applications are being made. The UK anticipates around 25,000 applications this year, but France anticipates around 65,000, Sweden around 80,000, and Germany more than 200,000. This is an issue for the whole EU, and it is important, as I have said, to continue to work together to find solutions.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

The flow of migrants across the Mediterranean is now more than just a trickle, and the Minister is right, as is Keith Vaz, to say that the solution is to work on the causes of migration. I commend to the Minister the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on instability in north and west Africa, and I put to him a question posed in that report that did not get a very clear answer: if a British warship finds a boatload of refugees in the middle of the Mediterranean, is the policy to escort it back to north Africa, or to usher it into a European port?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee in looking at the pressures in north Africa and across the region. We have a keen focus on and interest in the Committee’s reports and recommendations. On identifying and rescuing boats at sea, clearly if vessels are in the territorial waters of a particular country I would expect the normal rules of the sea to apply. That is why Frontex, with its mission to protect the security of the external European border, will focus on the 30-mile limit off the Italian coast.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Is the Minister aware that, for many British people, including those who share his concern about protecting our borders, the decision on search and rescue represents a new low? Of course the solution to those problems lies in north Africa, and of course there must be a regional solution, but consciously pursuing a policy that will allow people to drown should play no part in protecting Europe’s borders. Some of us are reminded of nothing more than the Exodus, the boat that, at the end of the second world war, tried to take Jewish refugees to Palestine and was turned away by the British Government on precisely the kind of realpolitik grounds the Minister has advanced this morning. Just as people look back in shame at what we did in relation to the Exodus and the fleeing Jewish refugees, we will look back in shame on the decision he is trying to defend today.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I respect the hon. Lady’s passion and that of other hon. Members, but the harsh reality is that more people are dying in the Mediterranean following the introduction of Mare Nostrum and the emergency measures. If we want solutions that save lives, we need to examine different options and alternatives. Not just the UK Government but 28 other EU member states have come to that same conclusion. The measure cannot therefore be characterised as a specific action of the UK Government. There has been an EU-wide recognition that things are simply not working and not saving lives.

The very thing that the hon. Lady wants achieved is what we want: we want fewer lives lost and to ensure that fewer people head out to sea in dangerous boats. That is why I make the points about going after organised traffickers, and about finding a regional solution in north Africa and elsewhere.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I congratulate the Government on reducing the push factors that drive a lot of immigrants to Europe, by our expenditure through the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to improve governance in Africa, but may I also challenge the Minister? Does he believe that the evil people traffickers are likely to issue a press release saying, “If you make this journey in future, you are unlikely to be rescued”? Further to the point made by Diana Johnson from the Opposition Front Bench, does the Minister share my concern that there might be an international lawsuit against this country and possibly Europe through the UN convention on the law of the sea and the International Maritime Organisation sea regulations? The IMO is the only UN body, and it is based just 1 mile from Parliament.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I do not underestimate the sheer evil of the traffickers. They exploit the vulnerable and put them to sea in boats that are not seaworthy and are not necessarily able to reach the shores of the European Union. That is why I was clear in my statement about ensuring that the changes are well communicated and well understood. That must be part of the approach. Rescuing people at sea is a member state competence, not an EU competence, so it will always be for individual member states to ensure that search and rescue operations are undertaken appropriately, in accordance with the normal laws of the sea.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I do not think I have heard a more shameful statement from this Government. This is where we are: this poisonous debate about immigration—this monstrous race to the bottom between the Government and the UKIP as to who can be hardest on immigration—is leaving people to die in the Mediterranean. Is the Minister not absolutely ashamed of himself?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

The only shameful thing I have heard is the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The debate has been impassioned, but there has been an understanding of the challenges that individual Governments face in seeking to address a problem that has got worse. We argue that the steps that have been taken have not assisted in the way that was intended. We cannot turn our eyes away from a situation that is getting worse and not better. That is why we focus on steps to ensure that regional solutions are established and supported, and that we have an external border that is surveilled through Frontex. If boats are identified as in need of assistance, that is what will happen.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry The Second Church Estates Commissioner

Am I right in thinking that this was a unanimous decision by all Home Affairs and Justice Ministers throughout the European Union at a Justice and Home Affairs Council? Labour, Liberal and Scottish National another party colleagues who oppose this are actually out of step with every Government—left, right or centre—in the EU. It was never the intention of the United Nations convention on refugees, which was brought in just after the second world war, automatically to give indefinite leave to remain to anyone trafficked from a third country into Europe.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

My right hon. Friend makes a clear point. This did arise from the most recent Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting, and it was the unanimous conclusion of 28 member states across the EU. Frankly, to characterise this as a short-term political issue completely misses the point and does not have proper regard for those who are in peril and fleeing persecution.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Everyone condemns the criminal gangs and everyone would like to see people discouraged from coming to Europe for obvious reasons, but is the Minister aware that this policy will be summed up in three words, namely: let them drown?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

No, I do not accept that. We will see Frontex, through Operation Triton, conducting surveillance operations around the coast of Italy. Matters of search and rescue remain with Italy and other member states in respect of their territorial waters. They will remain a matter for the Italian Government, who I am sure will take their responsibilities extremely seriously.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

In 2005, the European Union unanimously pledged to give 0.7% of gross national income to overseas development assistance. The EU, with the honourable exception of the UK and a number of other countries, will singularly fail to meet that pledge. Is today’s announcement not putting the cart before the horse? Should the EU not be investing in measures such as those outlined by the Minister before withdrawing support? I ask him to think again. The EU needs to fulfil the pledges it solemnly made in 2005 and ensure that work is done in north Africa before this kind of support is withdrawn.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

To be clear, the EU is not withdrawing anything. Mare Nostrum is an Italian initiative. It is supported by the Italian navy, and ultimately decisions will be taken by the Italian Government. However, my hon. Friend makes a profound and important point about the responsibility of all Governments in the EU to look at international development in the way that we have: state-building and providing long-term solutions, as well as ensuring that clear messages are sent and clear policies are undertaken bilaterally, or through the external action service of the EU, to do the very things he has outlined.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Why can the Minister not see that it is not a case of either addressing the causes in north Africa or dealing with the consequences now, but a question of both? Mark Pritchard mentioned the International Maritime Organisation. Why can the Minister not also see that this is not simply an issue for nation states? It is an issue that needs to be addressed across the EU, and the Government should be playing their part. On the so-called pull factor, that is an argument that could have been used to discourage people from setting up the Kindertransport before the second world war.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

We play our part within the EU. We continue to lead discussions with individual member states and across the EU membership on long-term and short-term solutions to why people are getting on those boats and to the transit of people across nations to the north African coast. We take that responsibility very seriously, backed up not just by rhetoric but by investment through our international development focus and the money provided to support it. We stand proud of the UK Government’s record in providing that assistance.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

It would help to reduce the attractiveness of this country as a destination for illegal immigrants if being an illegal immigrant was made a specific criminal offence, as provided for in the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Chope, the Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s support for that measure?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

Our focus is on ensuring that we have strong and effective borders, which is precisely what our Border Force is doing, with more checks undertaken under this Government than under the previous Government. We are also focused on ensuring that where people are not here legally—when they come to this country and are not found to be in need of humanitarian protection—we put in place measures to see that they are returned. Indeed, I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise the work done under the Immigration Act 2014 to achieve precisely that: to ensure that, through measures on rented accommodation, bank accounts, driving licences and other issues, the very steps he is advocating are actively assisted.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

The coincidence of events does not necessarily prove a causal link. The Minister has told us that he believes the search and rescue operation has increased the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean, but this is during a period when unrest and wars have continued to grow. Can he prove there is a causal link? Should he not get the evidence first before acting?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

We expressed our concerns and reservations in respect of those very issues in advance of the introduction of Mare Nostrum, but we are not talking about the assessment simply of the UK Government; we are talking about the assessment of 28 member states across the EU that have come to that conclusion.

Photo of Paul Uppal Paul Uppal Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

I speak on this issue having experienced both sides of the coin as an east African Sikh. With all the emotionally charged comments we have heard in the Chamber today, it would be helpful to remind Opposition Members that many of us of Indian descent who came out of Africa were not particularly proud of the fact that we were promised British passports and were then faced with a Labour Home Secretary who, when push came to shove, pulled up the drawbridge.

As for today’s issue, as a constituency MP in Wolverhampton, I am struck by the size of the backlog of cases that immigration staff have to deal with. Will the Minister update the House on the legacy bequeathed to us by the last Government, not just in the economy but in terms of immigration and asylum cases?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting his direct personal experience and the need for care to be taken in the tone we use. I am sorry that some have sought to characterise this issue in the way they have. He is also right to underline the shambles that this Government inherited and the steps we have taken to deal with the problems. The situation is improving and we are dealing with the backlogs—something that was simply ignored by the last Government, who were incapable of dealing with them.

Photo of Frank Roy Frank Roy Labour, Motherwell and Wishaw

This is indeed a shameful decision. How many lives does the Minister estimate will be saved as a result of abandoning search and rescue missions?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

The reality, as I have already indicated, is that more lives have been lost to date this year than were lost in 2013. Our focus is on ensuring that this is about reducing the tragic human cost we see in the Mediterranean sea. If we can telegraph that clear message to the traffickers in north Africa who are exploiting very vulnerable people, I absolutely believe that is the right thing to do to save lives.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

The wars in the middle east and consequent humanitarian situation are so dire there that Europe is unlikely to have an impact on the push factors in the near term. The pressures on countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and the refugee crisis there surely mean that Europe needs to face up to its responsibilities better than it has done to date. I welcomed what the Minister said about co-operation with UNHCR and getting more placements here in the UK. Will he add some detail to that announcement?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

On the latter point, we work closely with UNHCR, in connection with the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, for example. We work with it in identifying those most acutely in need of help and assistance. It is a good partnership and I think it is effective. On the broader issue of various middle east countries, my hon. Friend is right to underline the contributions that need to be made by all European Governments. I certainly stand proud when it comes to the work of the Department for International Development, which is contributing £145 million to the Arab Partnership programme, with the aim of supporting a more stable and prosperous middle east and north Africa.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

I am not going to beat the Minister over the head on this, because Members on all sides of the House share a great responsibility for the turmoil in the middle east and other places, which has caused much of the migration in the first place. I would say, however, that morally I cannot stand by without saying that I think it is repugnant that we leave children and families to perish in this way. What I dislike is that we do not have an alternative positive policy. We know the point of embarkation for many people—often Libya—so why can we not have a European partnership to tackle the problem proactively?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

That is precisely what is happening through the work of member states and, indeed, our Foreign Office and DFID. The harsh reality is that we are seeing those deaths at sea. Our judgment is that extending the search and rescue approach that has been taken close to the Libyan coast will mean more people putting out to sea in less seaworthy boats in greater numbers. That is making the situation worse.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Since Mare Nostrum was established some 12 months ago, 3,000 or more people have lost their lives, notwithstanding the presence of more than 30 Italian vessels patrolling the Mediterranean sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the problem is the activities of the people traffickers and that one of the best services that both this country and the EU could perform would be to conduct an information campaign in north Africa to try to inform and persuade people that if they put their lives in the hands of these people, they will very likely end up losing them?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I agree with my right hon. Friend on the messaging and communication around the strategy. However, I say to him most acutely that the organised traffickers are absolutely responsible for the exploitation of the vulnerable, leading to the deaths of scores of people. That is why we are working very closely with a number of European nations to step up our intelligence sharing and actively to go after those organised crime groups that are trading in human misery.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In all my years in academic philosophy, I never heard such sophistry as I have heard from the Minister today. The solution is of course on the north African coast, but if that is the case, that solution must be implemented so that people do not leave in droves before the safety net is taken up. Why is the Minister taking the safety net away while people are still falling out of a burning building?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

It is for the Italian Government to determine, as they are the lead in the search and rescue operations off their coast, when Mare Nostrum is or is not terminated. It is ultimately a matter for them. As I have underlined on a number of occasions, this Government are not turning a blind eye to any of the humanitarian suffering. That is why we stand ready to support Frontex on Operation Triton and to take the lead on communications around the approach. I say again that the reality—the harsh reality—is that the current arrangements are, in our judgment, making matters worse, and that is what drives our approach.

Photo of Stephen Mosley Stephen Mosley Conservative, City of Chester

Over the summer, the UNHCR drew attention to an increase in the number of deaths following the introduction of Mare Nostrum in October last year. Has the UNHCR made any comments since the announcement of the changes?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I am aware of a number of points that have been made in this House and by other agencies. We are keen to ensure that the approach is well communicated and well addressed. Our focus, and the focus of the aid agencies and the UNHCR, is on saving lives. That is the Government’s motivation, and the motivation of many other agencies.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Opposition Whip (Commons)

In response to the question from Margot James, the Minister referred to the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. It has been reported that, under that scheme, just 50 of the people who have had to flee their homes and their country have been given safe haven in the United Kingdom—just 50 of the 3 million refugees who have had to flee Syria as a result of this crisis. The Minister is a decent man. Why does he not want the United Kingdom to do more to give those who are fleeing brutality a safe and legal route to this country?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I respect the manner in which the hon. Lady has asked her question, but the United Kingdom is playing its full role. For instance, we have invested £700 million in the region, because given the numbers that are involved, a regional solution is required. That money is providing direct support for hundreds of thousands of people in the region who are in desperate need of assistance. Our Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme is intended to assist those who are most acutely in need of help; we have said that it will provide assistance for several hundred people over the next three years, and that is precisely what it is doing.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

It is clear that the EU’s external frontier is as leaky as a sieve—whether we are talking about the land border with the ex-Soviet Union, the islands between Greece and Turkey, or the Mediterranean coast off north Africa—and that Frontex is a highly dysfunctional organisation. Surely part of the solution would be an effective policing operation off the north African coast, using close-to-shore patrol vessels. Frontex should be encouraged to work with the north African Governments to register such vessels under north African flags, so that people can be caught close to the shore and returned to their countries of origin.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but Frontex adds an important element in respect of the Schengen external border—the EU border—and the establishment of Operation Triton. As I have said, the United Kingdom stands ready to support any requests that may be received, and we will consider such requests very carefully. We are not a full member of Frontex, but it is important that there is that continued focus on ensuring that the EU’s external borders are properly maintained.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Defence)

Lest we forget, this Government, supported by Her Majesty’s Opposition, backed military intervention in Libya. The people who are drowning in the Mediterranean are fleeing the chaos in that country. Is there not a simple moral imperative? Do we not have a moral obligation to those people until there is a stable Government in Libya?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

As has been made clear by my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who is the Minister with responsibility for north Africa, we are focusing very directly on north Africa, and on Libya in particular. We have a nominated representative to lead that activity after 40 years of misrule in the country. As I have said, Frontex is providing support at the external border through Operation Triton, and it is the Italian Government, not the EU, who are actively providing search and rescue assistance. That applies in the case of all member states. Ultimately, it is the Italian Government who will decide on matters relating to their own territorial waters.