Northern Isles MP, Alistair Carmichael, today led an urgent debate in the House of Commons on the announcement that the Royal Navy will join NATO forces in the interception of refugees in the Mediterranean.
Mr Carmichael got agreement from the Commons Speaker for the debate after newspaper reports this morning that the Government has dispatched Royal Navy warships to combat the ongoing refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Carmichael pressed for more action against criminal human traffickers at the point that they force refugees into such desperate journeys. He also urged the Government to clarify whether any intercepted refugees would be sent back to their homelands or other countries - in contravention of international refugee law.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and, in particular, for coming to the Chamber to make the statement. He describes a series of tactics, many of which will find broad support in this House, but it seems to me that, taken together, they do not add up to a strategy. Today’s press refers to a “war against people traffickers”. If we are to win that war, we need to cut off from the people traffickers the supply of those who are desperate enough to pay to use them. Of course, in the longer term that means getting peace in their countries of origin, but in the short to medium term, surely it means a series of safe and legal routes into Europe, the expansion of the refugee family scheme and the introduction of humanitarian visas.
What will happen to those seeking refuge who are intercepted in the Aegean? Will they be taken back to Turkey? Does that not run contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, which is at the centre of international refugee law?
What will be done to keep under review the widely questioned status of Turkey as a “safe country” to which people can be returned? Is the Defence Secretary aware of the reports from Human Rights Watch describing people being sent from Turkey back to Syria? What impact do the Government think that action will have on the flow of refugees elsewhere? The Secretary of State will, I am sure, be aware that last year 35,000 people came to Europe through Russia. What will be the impact on that land route if the sea route is to be closed down? What will that mean for the deployment of resources elsewhere in the Mediterranean, in particular assisting those travelling from Libya to Italy? The Secretary of State will be aware that the coastguard cutters were deployed on that route last year. Will they be available to help those who get into difficulty on that route, on which there have been many more deaths by drowning than there have been on the route through the Aegean sea?
If this is to be a war against people trafficking, I fear that, as with all wars, there will be innocent victims. The innocent victims, it seems to me, will be those who are desperate enough to undertake the journeys across the Aegean, across the land routes and across other parts of the Mediterranean. Will the Secretary of State assure me and the House that those people will be uppermost in the Government’s consideration?
Commenting afterwards, Mr Carmichael said:
“This is welcome, but these are tactics without a strategy. Closing down one route for refugees wanting to come to Europe will merely displace the people traffickers to go through other routes.
“The remit of the Navy’s operation with NATO is lacking in clarity which is why I sought this urgent statement from the Defence Secretary. Most pressing and worrying is the British military’s possible involvement in returning desperate refugees back to lands where their lives may be in more danger.
“The Defence Secretary confirmed the presence of Navy ships in the Aegean Sea, but failed to acknowledge specifically whether intercepted refugees would be refused process of asylum in safer countries. Therefore, refugees fleeing the Middle East for Europe - who have already undergone terrifying journeys at the mercy of criminal traffickers - may face the prospect of transfer back to countries like Syria from Turkey. The British Government should not be complicit in this act.
“Turkey has recently been attacked by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its handling of refugees and asylum seekers. Turkey and Greece are already under enormous pressure to process asylum applicants, which is why Europe should be working together to alleviate the strain that is being placed on them. Safe and legal refugee routes are vital to solve this problem and also combat the bases of wicked human traffickers who are forcing people into such dangerous journeys.”