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28 October 2014

Why does the UK now oppose funding search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?

Political expediency trumps the needs of the most desperate.

By Tim Wigmore

How do you solve a problem like desperate foreigners risking their lives to get to the UK? The government has a new answer. 

Britain will not support search and rescue operations to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has explained, asserting that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The implication, therefore, is that the policy is a humane one, designed to save lives.

It is easy to take a different view. Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year. The idea that they will cease now that the quality of the search and rescue operation has deteriorated even further is extraordinary.

The UK has long maintained a certain sense of moral superiority in its attitude to welcoming immigrants and refugees. When the Australian government released its notorious posters two weeks ago – ‘NO WAY: You will not make Australia home’, accompanied by the image of a boat being tossed in a threatening sea – many said that it could not happen here.

That claim just became a lot harder to make. In the quest to clamp down on immigration, of any sort, the UK government has put thousands of desperate refugees at risk. One of David Cameron’s most notable achievements has been the development of the What Works Network, with its emphasis on evidence in policy-making. Yet there seems no indication whatsoever that evidence that reducing search and rescue operations will save lives, as Lady Anelay suggested.

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The conclusion is inescapable. The UK government is acting brazenly out of a need to be seen to be doing something – anything, really – about immigration. Political expediency trumps the needs of some of the most distressed people in the world.

They are not the only losers. Acts like these, together with the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year, create the image of the UK as distrustful and even resentful of foreigners, which has already manifested itself in the steep drop in foreign students studying in the UK. If talented foreign people see a country that seems suspicious of them, they will be less likely to work in the UK or do business with it, with negative economic consequences for everyone in the UK.

The government’s stance on search and rescue operations not only fails on a humanitarian case, but also on the most hardheaded business one too.