The Government has ignored calls to back restored search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean after 950 people drowned on a boat crossing to Europe.
Reinstating the rescue missions, which the UK government has previously said it opposes, pointedly does not feature in the Foreign Secretary’s response to the latest mass deaths.
In a statement released on Sunday Philip Hammond blamed ‘traffickers’ for encouraging people to flee conflicts and come to Europe but was silent on helping families who might drown in future.
“We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys,” he said, calling for a “comprehensive, co-ordinated response” to the regular deaths.
Mr Hammond said he was “horrified at the appalling loss of life” at the crossing and accused groups assisting the migrants to make the crossing of “cynicism”.
When the rescue missions were ended in October last year the Government said it believed the prospect of being saved from drowning in the event of an accident encouraged people to make the journey.
“Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in October.
“This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.”
Migrants have continued to make the journey despite the Government’s theorising, however. Well over 1000 people had died crossing the sea so far this year.
The charity Save The Children, which was been working to draw attention to the deaths, said the loss of life was a “direct result of our policy” and described a situation in which instability in north Africa and the Middle East was driving multiple landings a day in Italy.
“The scale of what is happening in the Mediterranean isn’t an accident, it’s a direct result of our policy. How many more innocent children and their families must die before our leaders act?” Justin Forsyth, the charity’s CEO, said.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has previously described the government’s abandonment of the migrants as a “scandal” and said the government lacked “basic humanity”.
“It's a scandal that children are dying because the EU stopped search [and] rescue in the Med. As PM I would push the EU to #RestartTheRescue,” he tweeted after news of an earlier drowning.
At PMQs he said: “On immigration his government combines callousness with incompetence. They don’t show basic humanity and say rescuing drowning people is a pull factor for immigration.”
The previous EU rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was ended by the Italian government due to a budget cuts but the UK and other countries have opposed any replacement.
The UNHCR says migrant boats carried 13,500 people into Italian waters last week alone. EU ministers are to meet at a summit today to discuss the best course of action.
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