In October last year, the Home Office decided to end British support for search-and-rescue operations in respect of migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean. Home Secretary, Theresa May, along with other European interior ministers, judged that the Mare Nostrum rescues were acting as a “pull factor” for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue and leading to more deaths as people traffickers exploited the situation. British policy was spelled out in a House of Lords written answer by Lady Anelay, who described the rescue missions as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people-smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”
As news emerged of the tragic drowning of 900 refugees in the Mediterranean over the weekend, that decision must have weighed very heavily on the consciences of Theresa May and the other EU ministers involved. Refugees have since been caught literally between the devil (the horrors of life in a war-torn country) and the deep blue sea (where they are at high risk of drowning). According to Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, the Italian navy’s “desperately needed” search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean had saved thousands of lives. “When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown,” she said. “The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks. History will judge this decision as unforgivable.”
Apparently, the rationale behind the policy was to deter such perilous journeys by sending word to would-be refugees in Syria and Libya that there was no prospect of rescue at sea. But it cannot be right to effectively drown a migrant to save a migrant. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this situation, it cannot be part of the solution to tell helpless men, women and children to abandon all hope and then stand aside while they perish.