UK withdraws last ships dedicated to rescuing refugees after 15 children drown in the Aegean Sea

A British Navy vessel will still carry out rescues if required while it engages in anti-smuggling operations in the Mediterranean

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Rescue workers are “extremely concerned” about the Government’s decision to withdraw two rescue boats from the Mediterranean after at least 15 more children died attempting the same journey that killed Aylan Kurdi.

Distressing photos of the three-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach drove calls for the UK to do more to help hundreds of thousands refugees risking their lives to find safety in Europe.

But a month later, two Border Force vessels patrolling the waters between Turkey and Greek islands have stopped rescue work.

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Aylan Kurdi's death brought the horror of the refugee crisis home last month

Save the Children, which is working to help the youngest and most vulnerable refugees in the Middle East, Africa and across Europe, counted 159 people, including 35 children, who drowned crossing the Aegean Sea last month alone.

In the time since Aylan’s death, 15 more children have died making the same crossing that he drowned attempting with his mother and five-year-old brother.

The image of Aylan Kurdi has made ‘everyone become human’

Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, said the charity was  “extremely concerned” by the withdrawal of HMC Protector and HMC Seeker, the UK’s last two boats involved in proactive search and rescue missions.

He said it would reduce capacity Europe to save lives “at a time when rescue missions are most needed”.

“Usually we see a reduction of crossings and casualties as the weather turns colder but that is not happening this year,” Mr Forsyth added.

“Seven thousand people arrived on the Greek islands (on Sunday) alone, the same day as the appalling discovery of the dead bodies of another baby and toddler washed up on the island of Kos.”

The drowning of at least 1,200 migrants and refugees in disasters off the coast of Libya in April drove EU states to pour extra funding into Operation Triton, with more vessels joining search and rescue operations.

But as focus shifted to preventing smugglers setting people on the deadly voyages, ships like the HMS Bulwark were replaced with smaller vessels in a surveillance role along the Libyan coast.

In the Aegean, the UK Border Force deployed HMC Protector and HMC Seeker to rescue refugees but the ships are now on their way back to the UK.

A spokesperson for the Home Office told The Independent: “This does not mean our work is done. The UK continues to play a leading role in combating criminal gangs through the use of HMS Enterprise, saving tens of thousands of lives. 

“We also continue to provide joint intelligence work with our European partners, as well as increasing support and protection for those who need it.

“However, we need to stop this problem at source with a properly structured programme that tackles illegal immigration head-on. This is the surest way of combating organised criminality and those who are making a profit from other people’s misery.”

HMS Enterprise has saved 1,689 people in three operations since it replaced HMS Bulwark, which rescued more than 5,000 refugees and migrants.

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The HMS Enterprise is conducting surveillance work along the Libyan coast

The latest incident was on Monday, when it took 639 people from a wooden boat in distress, during Mediterranean patrols observing smuggling activity as part of EUNAVFOR MED. 

The joint operation moved into its second phase today, allowing smugglers’ vessels to be boarded, searched, seized and diverted.

Meanwhile Frontex, the European border agency, says it has sufficient vessels to successfully conduct Operation Triton and will continue to rotate the assets of EU member states.

Mr Forsyth criticised the shift in focus away from rescue operations.

“Since Europe decided to restart the rescue in April, thousands of lives were saved - not least by Britain’s own Royal Navy,” he said.

“We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, a defining moment in our generation, and must ensure that our response efforts are equal to the task. The priority must remain stopping people from drowning, not border control.”

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