A noteworthy precedent was set on October 15, 2014, in the United Kingdom. This is in relation to the problem of the growing number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. As the would-be refugees often take to the seas on-board unseaworthy vessels, groups of migrants regularly perish. They mostly drown after their overcrowded boats capsize. Over the last few years, many have died; though many have been also saved from drowning by search-and-rescue missions. In the near future, however, it seems the balance will shift towards many more dying than being saved. The Government of PM David Cameron is supporting the new policy that will allow this to happen, i.e. to let the migrants drown. But before we spell out the new policy, it seems relevant to recap a few points.
On several occasions over the last few years we have stressed that this migration trend was a serious problem getting out of control and requiring immediate attention from the EU. We proposed that a viable alternative was to outsource the patrolling of the Mediterranean Sea in search for migrants to the private maritime industry (read for example our post of March 29, 2012). Yes, we are talking about the type of companies that been engaged for a while now in counter-piracy operations off Somalia’s coast and the Arabian Sea. Dealing with the processing of migrants or decisions about the repatriation of people and boats would rest on the EU, not private companies. This way the EU could concentrate on the political dimension of the problem in order to make the growing problem more manageable, particularly considering the multiple jurisdictions involved. Nevertheless, not enough was done when there was still time to be proactive and creative. The use of private sector expertise in the area as proposed was never considered. It seems that now the problem has got out of hand, moving some governments to unleash counterproductive policies. Unusually, the UK is one of the countries behaving in such fashion.
Away from the spotlight in the House of Lords, the new policy was outlined on October 15, 2014. This happened in the form of a written answer by the recently appointed Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State to a question posted by Lord Hylton. This is a transcript of the official Hansard record:
House of Lords
Wednesday 15 October 2014
Question - Asked by Lord Hylton: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what naval or air-sea rescue contribution they will make to prevent refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. [HL1977]
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.
This is an incredible precedent. The position outlined by Baroness Anelay is equivalent to saying why to waste money on rehabilitation programs aimed at people affected by drug problems if anyway many of them will only reoffend? Let them overdose and die. Why to rehabilitate prisoners? Let them rot in jail. Why to treat people with incurable diseases if anyway they will eventually die? You might disagree with the comparisons being made. However, the right to live is the most fundamental of human rights. Up until now the British nation has championed this fundamental principle when many remained silent. So many prominent British people, architects of modern human rights thinking, must be turning in their grave.
Indeed the problem of human trafficking is a global one and not all countries affected are doing their part. However, where is the substance when Baroness Anelay writes about ‘taking steps to fight the people smugglers’? What is the policy and what will be done about this particular breed of human traffickers? Ironically, 1) the UK enjoys a lead in the maritime security sector; 2) the UK could have put forward the proposal to outsource search-and-rescue to a consortium of British firms; and 3) the UK could have thus exerted some form of informal control over the running of the contract. The ultimate implication of this ‘let them drown’ policy is that the UK government will not be able anymore to claim the high moral ground when lecturing other governments about human rights issues. Whether real refugees or opportunists, the boat migrants are human beings and not animals. By letting vulnerable people die the problem will not simply go away. This policy is consequential and will come back to hunt the UK in the future.
November 1, 2014