The primary role of the Royal Navy ship that is leading Britain’s contribution to saving lives in the Mediterranean is not search and rescue, but to gather intelligence on people smugglers, according to the immigration minister.
James Brokenshire – which was capable of carrying more than 1,000 migrants at a time – and its replacement with HMS Enterprise, a survey ship one-fifth its size.
The minister told a committee that although HMS Bulwark had been involved in saving more than 4,000 lives, HMS Enterprise was now engaged in a different role in gathering intelligence on migrant flows as part of the first phase of the new EU operation to prevent the smugglers’ vessels leaving north Africa in the first place.
Two smaller Border Force cutters would continue to take part in the EU’s proactive search and rescue operations. Brokenshire warned there were an estimated 500,000 - 600,000 people in Libya who wanted to make the journey northwards across the Mediterranean to .
He insisted that the vast majority were “economic migrants” and not refugees, despite coming from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea – a claim which drew repeated requests from peers for evidence to back up his claim.
Brokenshire said Britain’s priorities were to ensure that those who made it across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece were fingerprinted and logged on European asylum databases, and to support the development of processing centres in Niger and the Horn of Africa to stem the flow of those wanting to travel to Europe.
He attacked the over the next two years, saying it would make trying to get across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece an attractive option. “It is moving the problem around and dealing with the symptons and not the causes,” he said.
Britain has refused to take part in the EU relocation scheme and Brokenshire said it was simply making an already difficult situation worse, as he addressed the House of Lords’ EU committee. “We have to look beyond the shores of Europe to break the flow of migrants and that is where the emphasis should lie rather than on relocation within Europe,” he said.
He particularly highlighted the danger that those relocated from Italy and Greece would not stay in the European state they had been sent to but would instead rapidly move to more desirable destinations within Europe.
Brokenshire disclosed that Britain is among those EU states putting Italy and Greece under the strongest pressure to fingerprint all new migrant arrivals on their shores and to log their movement on the Eurodac database set up to track the movements of asylum seekers across Europe. He revealed new data that suggests that as many as 55,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in 2014 have not been fingerprinted and registered, with the implication that they had been allowed to move on without any problems.
The minister insisted that Britain was making a significant contribution to the Mediterranean refugee crisis, including making available £900m in aid for Syrian refugees and making the biggest contribution to a joint European asylum processing effort in the “frontline states”, with more than 1,000 working days being contributed by British staff.
The Refugee Council responded to Brokenshire’s evidence by tweeting: “Minister talking about smashing smugglers to prevent lives being put at risk. Lives are already at risk: that’s why people gamble on the Med.” It added that his claim that the majority were migrants wilfully ignored the fact that the biggest group were Syrians.