The deaths this week are a wake-up call. We need a change of direction

This latest horror is neither isolated nor unexpected. We can't sit by and leave people to drown.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The tragic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean this week must force us to change direction.

Immigration is one of the major issues of this election and Labour and the Conservatives continue to portray all immigrants in a negative light. But immigration is not an issue which can be solved by Britain on our own. Or by oversimplifying and stoking fears based on one stereotype. The Liberal Democrats' manifesto will not ignore the plight of refugees playing a lottery with their own survival.

Labour's “controls on immigration” mug has done nothing to help the country debate this most difficult of issues. Nuance doesn't fit well on a mug. And it creates an environment in which it’s easier to turn away from truly horrific situations than to try to do something about them.

This latest horror is neither isolated nor unexpected. The number of people fleeing war or human rights abuses on rickety boats across one of the most dangerous crossings has surged in the last few years. In 2014, over 200,000 attempted the journey – more than three times the previous record in 2011, at the peak of the Libyan civil war. So when the EU ended search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean last year, there was an outcry from NGOs.

The reason given for the decision was stark:  the Italian's search and rescue programme were thought to act as a “pull factor”, encouraging people to flee. This clearly should be a cause for concern but the new policy is clearly not working. UN officials say well over 500 people have died since the start of the year, 30 times more than in the same period last year – although when I asked the Conservative minister responsible for any similar analysis from our own Government, it was shockingly absent.

Migration is a complicated issue. We can’t just brush aside allegations that smuggling gangs were exploiting search and rescue operations because they knew that people would be saved. But we also can’t turn our backs on the people caught up in the midst of wars in Syria, in Libya, in human rights abuses in Eritrea. This is why we want a review of search and rescue, and why we support Save the Children's campaign launched this week. 

The Liberal Democrats will press for an immediate EU review of both search and rescue, and current EU-anti-trafficking programs. If lives are being lost unnecessarily, we will support the reintroduction of search and rescue.

Ultimately, we need to stop trafficking, and help countries build peace to make these journeys a less rational prospect. But in the short term, Liberal Democrats will not abandon those who presently have little choice but to pay criminals to get to safety.

Immigration cannot be tackled by playing to fears of a single stereotype. Or by pretending that leaving the EU will solve all "immigration" related problems. The number of people who are travelling to Calais and attempting to cross the Channel to Britain demonstrates that we cannot deal with this issue in isolation, even if we left the EU. In an increasingly uncertain world, Britain and Europe cannot turn our backs and expect no repercussions. We must work together for the human dignity and security of everybody. ​​

Tim Farron is Foreign and Commonwealth spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats.

Tim Farron is Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.