David Cameron has been accused of pursuing an “appalling and totally immoral policy” towards refugees that shows the Government doesn't have a "bloody clue" what it is doing.
Speaking to The Independent, the former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said the Prime Minister’s support of a Nato mission in the Aegean Sea that will forcibly return refugees to Turkey was tantamont to the UK Government abandoning the very people it claims to be helping.
“There is great confusion about if they are going to take them back to Turkey or to Greece,” he added.
“They haven’t a bloody clue what they are doing. I’m just really concerned that, as usual, the Government has sanctioned an appalling and totally immoral policy without working out the details.
“I think they are getting away with blue murder.”
On Monday, Britain announced it will take part in an unprecedented intervention into the refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea, sending ships to the region to pick up refugees and take them back to Turkey.
The plans have sparked condemnation from human rights groups, who argue that Turkey cannot be designated a “safe third country” for refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations.
Lord Ashdown said the sea mission amounted to rescuing refugees before “abandoning them” and cautioned that clashes could break out when migrants are forcibly returned to Turkey, which many will have spent their life savings trying to leave.
“I think it will stem the boats coming to Greece,” he added. “But [the refugees] will take another route to Europe and I think there will be violence.”
The UK’s ships – RFA Mounts Bay and two border force cutters – are joining German, Canadian, Turkish and Greek naval vessels to patrol the narrow strait between Turkey and Greek islands that have seen more than a million refugees land in flimsy smugglers’ boats over the past year.
Britain previously deployed two Border Force boats in the area on proactive search and rescue missions but withdrew them quietly last October as disasters and drownings continued.
Lord Ashdown accused the Government of “completely ignoring all the people who are dying on the way to us” while championing a resettlement policy for only 20,000 Syrians over five years.
He noted that the “very small amount” of refugees being taken directly from UN camps excluded Iraqis, Afghans and other nationalities making up a large proportion of those arriving on European shores.
“Taking refugees from one country doesn’t mean we can tell the rest to stay out,” Lord Ashdown said. “We are legally obliged to consider asylum claims on a case by case basis.”
The Court of Appeal controversially ruled that failed asylum seekers could be forcibly deported to Afghanistan last week, designating it a safe country despite the continuing conflict.
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Turkish gendarmes hold the body of a child on a beach in Canakkale's Bademli district on 30 January, 2016 after at least 33 migrants drowned when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece
Ahmad Zarour, 32, from Syria, reacts after his rescue by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, Dodecanese, southeastern Agean Sea
Syrian migrants holding life vests gather onto a pebble beach in the Yesil liman district of Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, after being stopped by Turkish police in their attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 29 January 2016.
Refugees flash the 'V for victory' sign during a demonstration as they block the Greek-Macedonian border
Migrants have been braving sub zero temperatures as they cross the border from Macedonia into Serbia.
A sinking boat is seen behind a Turkish gendarme off the coast of Canakkale's Bademli district on January 30, 2016. At least 33 migrants drowned on January 30 when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany
Refugees protest behind a fence against restrictions limiting passage at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Since last week, Macedonia has restricted passage to northern Europe to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. Macedonia has finished building a fence on its frontier with Greece becoming the latest country in Europe to build a border barrier aimed at checking the flow of refugees
A father and his child wait after being caught by Turkish gendarme on 27 January 2016 at Canakkale's Kucukkuyu district
Migrants make hand signals as they arrive into the southern Spanish port of Malaga on 27 January, 2016 after an inflatable boat carrying 55 Africans, seven of them women and six chidren, was rescued by the Spanish coast guard off the Spanish coast.
A refugee holds two children as dozens arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos
A child, covered by emergency blankets, reacts as she arrives, with other refugees and migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos, At least five migrants including three children, died after four boats sank between Turkey and Greece, as rescue workers searched the sea for dozens more, the Greek coastguard said
Migrants wait under outside the Moria registration camp on the Lesbos. Over 400,000 people have landed on Greek islands from neighbouring Turkey since the beginning of the year
The bodies of Christian refugees are buried separately from Muslim refugees at the Agios Panteleimonas cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos
Macedonian police officers control a crowd of refugees as they prepare to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
A refugee tries to force the entry to a camp as Macedonian police officers control a crowd after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
Refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Lesbos
An elderly woman sings a lullaby to baby on a beach after arriving with other refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
A man collapses as refugees make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy after crossing the Aegean see from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos
A girl reacts as refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Refugees make a show of hands as they queue after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
People help a wheelchair user board a train with others, heading towards Serbia, at the transit camp for refugees near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija
Refugees board a train, after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Macedonia is a key transit country in the Balkans migration route into the EU, with thousands of asylum seekers - many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia - entering the country every day
An aerial picture shows the "New Jungle" refugee camp where some 3,500 people live while they attempt to enter Britain, near the port of Calais, northern France
A Syrian girl reacts as she helped by a volunteer upon her arrival from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, after having crossed the Aegean Sea
Refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Beds ready for use for migrants and refugees are prepared at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. The flow of migrants arriving in Passau has dropped to between 500 and 1,000 per day, down significantly from last November, when in the same region up to 6,000 migrants were arriving daily.
While almost 90 per cent of Syrian asylum seekers and three quarters of Eritreans had their applications granted by the British Government last year, the figure for Afghans stood at little over a third.
Lord Ashdown called for a “completely new framework” for handling the refugee crisis, warning that it would be a mistake to treat it as a temporary problem.
He argued for large refugee camps to be created in Greece and Macedonia, where thousands of migrants are currently trapped following border closures and controls along the Western Balkans route.
The life peer said he would prefer to see asylum seekers given adequate shelter, food and access to education in Europe rather than forcing them to remain in Turkey, which is already struggling to humanely house more than 2.5 million displaced people.
The strategy currently being negotiated would see economic migrants and refugees alike taken back to Turkey, where they would be put to the “back of the line” for legal asylum and resettlement in Europe thanks to their attempts to reach Europe illegally.
It has been dubbed out the “one in, one out deal” thanks to a clause stipulating that for every Syrian sent back from a Greek island, another Syrian would be entitled to a legal, safe trip to Europe.
The UN has voiced concern and called for legal safeguards for asylum claims, while Amnesty International condemned the policy as “absurd”.
Turkey is seeking €6 billion (£4.7 billion) in return - twice as much as a two-year deal with the EU struck in November - as well as the opening of new chapters in its long-stalled negotiation to join the EU.
The demands have created alarm among human rights organisations just days after the Turkish government seized control of the country’s largest newspaper in the latest assault on freedom of the press.
Lord Ashdown called European policy towards Turkey “crazy”, adding: “They are now using the leverage they have got and who can blame them?
“The irony is that when Turkey was actually reforming we refused to let them in and now it’s going in the opposite direction. We have subcontracted a problem we should be dealing with.”
European leaders said they had discussed press freedom with Turkish politicians at an emergency summit on Monday, when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi insisted on a specific reference to the issue in the final statement.
The finalisation of the deal has been delayed until 17 March at the earliest as negotiations continue.
A spokesperson for Downing Street highlighted comments the Prime Minister made on Monday on the possibility of refugees being returned to Turkey.
Mr Cameron said: “That would, if implemented, break the business model of the people smugglers, and end the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe and now that is something that I've been arguing for a year and I think that it is significant, but only if it's fully implemented, and that's what needs to happen next, that will make a real difference.”
British contributions to the refugee crisis have topped £2.3 billion, amounting to the country's largest ever humanitarian response, the spokesperson added.