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At the time of writing, hundreds of people are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after a boat carrying up to 700 people capsized. This, sadly, is not an isolated incident.
When Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament last November, he told MEPs that we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. He went on to say that the absence of mutual support within the European Union runs the risk of encouraging particularistic solutions to the problem of migration, “solutions which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants”.
Every year thousands of migrants in North Africa leave behind their homes, their families and their earthly possessions to take the biggest risk of their lives. Quite simply, they put their own life at risk. Hundreds of people set sail for Europe in substandard boats and never make it to their destination. They perish in the Mediterranean.
Until November last year, a major search and rescue service – dubbed Operation Mare Nostrum – operated in the Mediterranean. It saved countless lives, and then it was scrapped. The UK Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay said that the UK Government supported the scrapping of Mare Nostrum and went on to say that the search and rescue service acted as a “pull factor” for migrants to make the journey.
It is no secret that a number of European Union Member States – not least the UK – have turned right when it comes to the issue of immigration. I was desperately disappointed with the ill thought out and heartless decision to withdraw such a crucial search and rescue service. The message from that decision couldn’t have been clearer: “let them drown”.
In the space of just one week in February this year, over three hundred migrants died in the Mediterranean. It was with no pleasure whatsoever that I wrote to Baroness Anelay to suggest that the continued risks that migrants are taking – without Mare Nostrum – was proof that it wasn’t the pull factor she first suggested. I called on the UK to change its position full square.
Unfortunately Baroness Anelay never replied to my letter. Despite the fact that hundreds of people continue to drown, the UK seems set on a course of ignoring the problem. In stark contrast, I received a very sympathetic response from Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe & External Affairs at the Scottish Government who - under the current devolution settlement – is absolutely powerless to act but desperate to see substantive action. I agree when she said that “the appalling toll of lives cannot be ignored”. Unfortunately, though, that is what is currently happening.
I want to see the next UK Government – whichever colour it is – completely review their policy. We also need much more collaborative action from every EU member state. I realise that the subject of migration from outwith the EU is a difficult issue to solve. However, simply pulling up the anchor and letting migrants drown is not the answer and it runs counterintuitive to some of the great fundamental principles of the European Union which seek to promote dignity, community and human rights. Those values shouldn’t stop south at the Mediterranean.