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We Are Actively Forcing People to Choose Between Dying in Their War-torn Country and Dying in the Sea

28/10/2014 17:36 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 10:59 GMT

It is just over a year ago that the world watched with horror as a fishing boat carrying over 500 migrants sank off the coast of Lampedusa. The death toll would soon reach 368 - 368 men, women and children who lost their lives trying to start a new life in Europe.

Following this tragedy, the Italian led "Mare Nostrum" search and rescue operation was launched, and since then it has saved more than 150,000 lives. But Mare Nostrum comes to the end of the its life at the beginning of November and, with Italy unable to shoulder the burden alone, for the project to continue it would need the commitment and support of countries across the European Union.

But instead of stepping up to the plate, Mare Nostrum will instead be replaced with a limited EU "border protection" operation that will only operate within 30 miles of the Italian coast and will not consist of search and rescue missions. The reality of this decision is that many thousands may now die because Ministers from across Europe, including those from the UK, have decided to turn their backs on those people risking everything in the hope of safer lives in Europe.

The UK Government has defended its decision not to support search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean on the grounds that such operations act as a pull factor, resulting in more people deciding to take on the dangerous sea crossing. That this argument implies that Ministers are willing to let thousands die so that fewer people try to enter Europe shows that increasingly immigration policy is completely devoid of ethical or moral reasoning.

It is also based on an extremely flawed premise.

The vast majority of those making the crossing are fleeing war and persecution, none more so than the tens of thousands who take to fishing boats having been forced out of Syria as the deadly fighting there enters its fourth year. The British Government would have us believe that in choosing to try to cross the Mediterranean they are making a rational judgment. The reality is that is a decision made in desperation. Even with Mare Nostrum in operation, more than 3,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year already, more than double the previous peak in 2011. The argument that people will stop trying to make the journey if search and rescue operations cease is at best wilfully misguided. At worse, it demonstrates callous reasoning used only to justify a decision taken for base political reasons.

The desperation of the decision to make the crossing comes from a lack of alternatives, and much of this lies directly at the feet of those same Ministers who are choosing not to back search and rescue operations. Although many would have us believe otherwise, Europe is increasingly becoming a fortress as legal routes in are removed and countries close their doors to those who seek their protection.

This is a moral and political failure. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, solidarity between EU member states is virtually non-existent. Instead of working with the countries at the borders of the EU to share the burden, the UK is washing its hands of the problem.

In stark contrast, the hospitality shown by other countries, many much poorer than our own, puts us to shame. Last month I visited Lebanon to visit a number of projects supporting some of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees in the country. With a pre-crisis population of just four million, this is a staggering figure. Similarly, Turkey is now home to around one million Syrians; Jordan 600,000. And how has the UK responded to the biggest refugee crisis in the last 50 years? By providing 50 resettlement places. This is nothing short of a disgrace. We are actively forcing people to choose between dying in their own war-torn country and dying in the sea.

While politicians agree to bomb ISIS and arm other groups in the Middle East, no protection is offered to those fleeing the conflict. Instead Ministers appear on TV shows claiming that UK towns are "under siege" from migrants. Not only do these words stir up tensions, but they are also an insult to those who know what it's truly like to be under siege as their lives are ripped apart by civil wars across the Middle East.

It is appalling that a year on from the Lampedusa tragedy this is the state of affairs in Europe. Instead of working with international partners and organisations to set up mechanisms that not only share the burden between countries but that also offer people safe, legal opportunities to travel, the UK will refuse to help rescue those who are drowning. We should all be ashamed.