The announcement of the UK Foreign Office that the UK will no longer take part in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea from last week has raised many eyebrows.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) commented on the decision saying that the rescue of all persons in distress at sea – including illegal migrants – is an obligation under international maritime law, as well as being a long established humanitarian duty.
Head of Communications at UK Chamber of Shipping, Jonathan Roberts, said that some vital facts were missing in the media coverage of the announcement.
“The vast majority of the area of the Mediterranean where migrants and refugees have been transported falls under the remit of Italy, which is why the Italians have, to date, taken responsibility for their rescue. They have understandably argued that because the numbers of migrants is so high (around 150,000 in the last year), and because the vast majority are heading to northern Europe, a much wider response is needed. That is why the operation is being passed to the EU,” Roberts said.
According to him, the UK’s involvement in Mediterranean search and rescue was virtually non-existent anyway. There was next no UK military participation and the Government’s sole contribution was the provision of a tiny number of immigration officers offering their advice.
“So the announcement that the UK was drawing down its contribution appears to be a much more politically motivated attempt to appear ‘tough on immigration,’” Roberts added.
As explained by Roberts, “The Government has to accept that many of these migrants are drawn to the UK, attracted by a better life, and are willing to put their lives in the hands of brutal criminal gangs to achieve their aim. So by formally declaring a lack of interest in tackling the flow of migrants at source, all it is doing is allowing the problem to get closer to home.”
“Thousands of illegal immigrants congregate in Calais waiting for any opportunity to cross the English Channel. It is a huge problem for our ferry services and the UK Border Force. If the UK does not assist with dealing with this problem effectively at the earliest point, such as in the Mediterranean, then the problem becomes more difficult to handle when they eventually arrive in Calais.
None of this detracts from the fundamental point. There is a humanitarian disaster taking place regularly in the Mediterranean. Ship Master’s will continue to recognise their obligations under SOLAS but it is clearly the responsibility of Governments to provide search and rescue capability to deal with both humanitarian need, and the flow of illegal immigrants.
If the UK Government is to take those obligations seriously, then it needs to play an active role in EU operations in the Mediterranean,” Roberts concluded.