On Tuesday, the British Foreign Office announced that it would not support any future search-and-rescue operations aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. It was only confirmation of what was already known: The British government had quietly spelled out its position on Oct. 15, when Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay took questions in the House of Lords.
"We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean," she said. "We believe that they create an unintended 'pull factor,' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."
Britain is not the only European power pulling back from aiding migrants in the Mediterranean. A widely praised Italian plan that saw many migrants making the treacherous voyage from North Africa to Europe rescued is in the process of being scaled back. And while the European Union will start its own project next week, it will operate on a far smaller scale.
Critics say that Britain's position ignores a historical refugee problem. "The British Government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War," Refugee Council chief executive Maurice Wren said in a statement.
Regardless of whether you buy the idea of a "pull factor," it is undeniable that tragic deaths are occurring in the Mediterranean — and at a startling rate. In mid-October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 3,343 people had died at sea while trying to reach Europe, including 2,755 since July. Those numbers present a dramatic rise from previous years, even topping the numbers at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011.
And if the death toll is huge, the number of people rescued is even more remarkable. The Italian search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea"), set up after more than 300 migrants died off the island of Lampedusa in 2013, is said to have saved an estimated 150,000 people. Where Italy had once taken a harsh line on migrants, Mare Nostrum was seen as an exceptionally open and progressive policy toward them: Rescued migrants were to be brought to Italy, where they would be offered medical treatment, shelter and food. Rather than be immediately expelled, they would be granted legal aid to make formal requests for asylum.
Mare Nostrum is coming to an end, however. "Mare Nostrum is being wound up," Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, said recently. "There will be a formal decision during one of the next cabinet meetings." Despite its best intentions, Italy appears unwilling to keep paying the monthly $12 million price tag; it may also be wary of a backlash from its neighboring countries, some of which were less keen on the "back door" to the European Union that they said Italy had created.
On the surface of it, the E.U. border agency Frontex's Triton mission, due to launch Nov. 1, would seem to be a successor. But Frontex has been clear that Triton is not designed as a replacement and will focus on border protection rather than search and rescue. "Our operation covers a very specific operational area, and we only have a few vessels and a few aircraft," Frontex spokeswoman Isabella Cooper told the BBC.
The project has a comparatively modest budget estimate of $3.6 million a month and specifically calls on member states to contribute. How much those members contribute remains to be seen, but Britain's involvement will be extremely limited. The Guardian reports that Britain will provide only a single immigration officer to collect information on migrants.
In many ways, the British position seems to be a direct response to Italy's Mare Nostrum experiment. While Italy's search-and-rescue missions clearly saved lives, the logic goes that they encouraged more and more people to risk their lives in the hope of being rescued and making their way to Europe. The ever-increasing number of migrants taking the Mediterranean route would seem to validate this position.
However, the sheer scale of the world's growing refugee problem must also be a factor. The chaos in a number of Middle Eastern and North African nations has led to an incredibly vast number of refugees in 2014: More than 3 million people have fled Syria amid its ongoing civil war, for example. The UNHCR estimated earlier this year that the global number of refugees had topped 50 million for the first time since World War II. And, as the Economist notes, Greece registered a 142 percent increase in the number of arriving refugees, despite a far harsher policy for refugees and asylum seekers.
And while European governments may avoid the problem, private groups have stepped in. UNHCR notes that commercial vessels have contributed to the rescue of more than 37,000 people this year, and private groups such as the Migrant Offshore Aid Station have been set up to rescue more.
Human rights groups and refugee agencies say a lack of a coherent European strategy is leading refugees to drown in the Mediterranean sea. "Europe needs to step up efforts to provide credible legal alternatives to dangerous voyages to protect people from the risks of traveling with smugglers," UNHCR said this month. "The level of desperation among many of those involved, fleeing war, persecution and violence, including from Syria require our concerted efforts to respond."