A move that will bring yet more deaths for Africa's desperate boat people

The Government claims that knowing they will be rescued is what encourages migrants – but this is based on flawed logic
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The Independent Online

A few more Africans will drown. But it will be worth it. Yesterday the European Union took over the job of patrolling the Italian coastline to protect us from illegal immigrants. The EU has allocated only a third of what the Italians were spending on their search-and-rescue operation, which has saved 150,000 souls from overcrowded boats at risk of sinking in the Mediterranean. So, more refugees will drown.

But that will send a very clear message to the racketeers who profit from this traffic in human desperation. Doubtless it will prick their consciences to the point where they stop piling people into rickety craft for the perilous journey from Africa to Europe. Such is the shameless argument of the British government.

The Italian operation, which ended on Friday, was launched a year ago after 366 people perished in two boat disasters off the coast of Lampedusa. Since then, it has rescued an average of 400 people a day. It saved too many, it turns out.

When the Italians complained to the rest of the EU that they could not continue to afford the €9m (£7m) a month for patrols, the response of the other 27 members was not to share the cost but to replace them with Operation Triton (named after the mythological Greek god who was messenger of the sea). Its message is a grim one. Just six ships, two planes and one helicopter will be available. And their brief will not be to scour the seas for those in distress, but to stay within 30 miles of the Italian coast, to keep intruders out.

They will be run by the EU's Frontex organisation, whose budget is €100m a year – a drop in the unwelcoming ocean compared with the €60bn Europe spends on farm subsidies. The UK is making no financial contribution to Triton. Britain's immigration minister James Brokenshire made a mind-bending attempt to justify the Government's position in the House of Commons this week.

The Mare Nostrum rescue mission, he said, had created an unintended "pull factor" which had encouraged more migrants to attempt the crossings. By way of proof he cited two facts. Before the Italian operation just 700 migrants a year died attempting the crossing. Afterwards the figure has leapt, with another 2,200 deaths in just six months. Ergo, the ministerial logic goes, the rescue system has caused an increase in the problem.

This is either wilful sophistry or else a spectacular logical fallacy. The contingency of two events does not necessitate a causal relationship. Mr Brokenthought offers no evidence to link Mare Nostrum with the increase in deaths – only a determination to look tough on immigration ahead of another by-election that Ukip might win. For those who think a bit harder there are other answers.

Recent history suggests more plausible causes for the increase. The Middle East is in turmoil from Iraq and Syria, to Libya, to Gaza (from whence a family of 19 perished on the waves last month). Lebanon and Jordan are full of displaced people. There is war and anarchic violence in Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Niger as well as severe human rights violations in Nigeria, the Congo, and a desolate Eritrea from which 4,000 young people are fleeing each month to avoid conscription. Poverty and hunger are commonplace. The world's total of refugees has now passed 50 million for the first time since the Second World War.

And how can Mare Nostrum rescues have caused the 150 per cent rise in illegal immigrants entering Greece via Turkey in the first seven months of this year? Or the breakdown of the fences around Spain's north African enclaves? Or the storming of a ferry by 150 illegal migrants in Calais? The attempt by Britain to wash its hands of all this is particularly repugnant given our military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which is the point of departure for many of the ramshackle migrant boats. That ought to sharpen the moral imperative for us to help rather than hinder.

Action needs to be taken long before migrants begin to cram into the boats. Where there are effective governments in North Africa, such as in Tunisia and Morocco, the EU needs to use its economic clout to encourage states to manage migration outflows. We could provide close-to-shore patrol vessels for the African authorities to intercept traffickers' boats before they get far out to sea.

And the EU needs to do more to encourage all its members to take their share of refugees. Last year, 70 per cent of asylum seekers were taken by just five countries: Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and the UK. Mr Brokenshire should be pressing for changes in EU politics before snatching the safety net away from desperate people.

There is a cruel irony in the inability of the EU to fund rescue ships at a time when Nato is talking loftily about using the West's hospital ships and heavy-lift helicopters to conduct a night-and-day operation in Africa to tackle the Ebola epidemic. It fears the spread of disease. By contrast the dead bodies of boat people washed up on the shores of Lampedusa bring a contagion which is merely moral.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester