The luckier ones. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Restart the rescue: the most important policy you've never heard of

400 people drowned this week in the Mediterranean. Here's what can be done about it.

Unnoticed and unremarked upon by the election campaign, 400 people drowned in the Mediterranean last week. They were fleeing, from Libya, from the Middle East, from Egypt, from Syria, trying to reach Europe by crossing the sea.

The journey is treacherous; most of the refugees aren’t seamen, most of the boats are rubber dinghies.  Why is it happening? The crossings aren’t new, but the death toll is.

Until November of 2014, the Italian fleet carried out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, with the help of €30m from the European Union. The operation – called “Mare Nostrum”, or “Our Sea” after the Roman term for the Mediterranean – saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees who would otherwise have drowned while making the crossing.

But the cost to the Italian government – close to €9m a month – far outstripped the European subvention, and other member states, facing pressure from anti-immigration sentiment at home, were reluctant to continue funding the scheme, including the British government. Baroness Anelay, a Conservative minister at the Foreign Office, told the House of Lords that there were concerns that continuing the rescue operation could be a “pull factor”, drawing more migrants to make the dangerous journey.

The reality is that the ships of the Italian fleet weren’t a “pull factor” of any sorts. When the scheme was brought to an end, the Guardian found that people coordinating the crossings were unaware that the rescues existed. What matters is the “push factor”; of increasing repression in Egypt, of violence in Libya, of the march of Isis in Syria. Since the cancellation of Mare Nostrum, crossings have continued unabated. The only appreciable change is the rising death toll.

The good news is that the European Commission will discuss restoring Mare Nostrum on May 27. The chances for bringing back the rescue operations are good but the stance of the next British government will be vital. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have both committed to push to restore the scheme. You can add your voice by signing the Save the Children petition here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Paul McMillan
Show Hide image

"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496