13 December, 2014

The Decision to Look Away

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Category: European Action Week, Human Rights, Opinion, Refugees
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refugeerescueWritten by Michael Hatfield

Human rights are inalienable and universal. Why then is it that the human rights of refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people in the world, being ignored by a developed nation with well-established human rights legislation? This article will seek to examine the recent decision by the British Government to opt out of a EU rescue operation tasked with saving refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

In October it was announced that British ships would not be involved in Operation Triton, a joint EU operation with the objective to save the lives of refugees who get into difficulty whilst attempting to make the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. This joint Operation, which began in October, is to replace the Italian Navy’s Operation “Mare Nostrum” off of Libya. The Operation is being phased out due to economic and resource restraints faced by the Italian Government –although the exact end to this operation is disputed. The major differences between the two operations are that Triton has one third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and is limited to Italian waters, not international. This is of course problematic, as limiting naval operations to domestic waters will not save as many lives as operations in international waters. More concerning however is the fact that the UK has opted out of aiding in this limited mission. Pressure groups and NGOs such as Hope Not Hate and Amnesty International have spoken out against this blatant disrespect for human decency.

Why has the UK taken the decision to opt out? Why did the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay state that such operations would only ‘encourage’ further sea crossings? It may well be the case that the British Government actually believes this. Or, it is possible that in a time of anti-migrant rhetoric in the UK, it is an attempt to appease such views. The rise of the anti-EU and anti-migrant UK Independence party (UKIP) has led to a shift towards a politics of anti-immigration by all political parties in order to try and out perform UKIP on immigration. If this is the case, the British Government’s views towards humanity has hit an all time low. Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, stated that

The government’s justification for not participating in Triton is cynical and an abdication of responsibility by saying that not helping to rescue people fleeing from war, persecution and poverty who are likely to perish is an acceptable way to discourage immigration.”


The British Government’s argument is flawed in many ways. The most obvious flaw is that individuals do not attempt to cross the Mediterranean from the Middle East and Africa according to UK policy, but rather push factors from their country of origin. Chief executive of the British Refugee Council, Maurice Wren stated that ‘People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life rings.’

The need for the UK to help in these operations has never been more vital. In the last year there has been an increase in refugees trying to reach Italy in overcrowded ships leaving from Libya. At least 3,000 refugees have drowned trying to reach Europe this year with the Italian Navy rescuing around 150,000 in its Mare Nostrum Operation since the tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa where 500 people died in October 2013.

To make a bad situation worse, a summer of conflict and turmoil in the Middle East has resulted in many displaced people seeking shelter in more stable parts of the world. In Iraq alone 1.6 million people have been displaced as a result of a summer of conflict. According to Maurice Wren,” the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.”

Although resources should not be an issue when saving lives at sea, it is not as if the UK lacks the resources. Despite defence cuts, the Royal Navy is one of the world’s most sophisticated navies capable of wide and diverse naval operations. Ergo, saving people from drowning should not be an issue.

It is worth noting that the British Government has said that it will try and prevent refugees and migrants from making the dangerous crossing by focusing attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as combating people smugglers who are putting lives at risk. These are of course positive goals and well worth investing time and resources in. It is morally repugnant however to ignore drowning people.

What can we do about this? We cannot take advanced ships into the Mediterranean in an attempt to save people from drowning.  What we can do however is ensure that anti-immigrant rhetoric which seems to fuel this policy is stamped out in our local community’s to ensure dignity and human rights is afforded to all people.  We can also contact our local Members of Parliament to try and change this decision politically through formal channels. We should make Parliament aware this is not what the British people stand for.

Before concluding, I would like to point out that there nothing wrong in discussing immigration policy openly and fairly since open discourse is the bedrock of democracy. There is however something very wrong with wilfully looking away when there are people in need, especially if it is to appease a domestic anti-immigration sentiments. What is more, this policy pursued by the UK illustrates that all peoples should put pressure on their governments across the world to respect human rights and dignity of all people, citizens and refugees alike. After all, as Nelson Mandela famously said – ‘To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.’

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