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Lord Alton of Liverpool: It is time to create safe havens in North Africa and the Middle East

4 min read

Crossbench peer Lord Alton writes about Lords question on deterring the trafficking of migrants and creating safe havens.

My question on the plight of refugees fleeing the hell holes of North Africa and the Middle East was set against the news that over the previous weekend HMS Bulwark rescued 741 fleeing migrants on one day alone; that a day earlier ships from Italy, Ireland, Germany, the UK and Belgium rescued more than 4,200 people, including very young children; that more dead bodies were added to the 1800 corpses recovered already this year – and that new people smuggling routes are being opened to Greece. All of which underlines the scale of this human catastrophe.

Since January more than 35,000 migrants have reached Europe – and who can forget the harrowing images of those who didn’t make it - like the hundreds who died in April when their fishing boat capsized?

As the European Union wrestles with this crisis I cannot be alone in wanting to hear the British Government say it will do more than simply opt out of the relocation plan and that it may opt out of the resettlement plan too.
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I was disappointed by the Government’s insistence that either by creating protected havens in the region, where safe and legal routes to asylum destinations may be determined, or by accepting more escaping families, we will create magnets to encourage more people to flee from war, persecution or grinding poverty.
Ministers say “we must tackle the root causes” – and we agree – but in the meantime people are on the high seas or trying to get out of hell holes like Syria and Libya.    

Are we really comfortable in slamming our doors – not on economic migrants but the casualties of violent conflict?

How do we justify the pitiful 187 places for resettlement provided in the UK against Germany’s 30,000 or Lebanon’s 1.2 million, Turkey’s 1.8 million and Jordan’s 600,000?

We have a clear duty to relieve some of the pressure on these countries and remove a substantial source of what has become a highly lucrative market sustaining sophisticated, organised people smuggling networks.

By far the largest group by nationality attempting the Mediterranean crossing are Syrian nationals.

The EU border agency  has reported that in 2014, Syrians and Eritreans made up 46% of all those making the crossing.
And what of those who have made it to Libya?

As the Bishop of Norwich asked during our House of Lords exchanges, what will become of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, which is a country in a state of chaos and where refugees and migrants are particularly exposed to appalling abuses, if current plans to sink boats to end people smuggling out of Libya are followed through?

Amnesty International has already reported on the targeting of refugees and migrants in Libya, where abuses have included kidnapping, torture, rape and executions as well as widespread violence directed at foreigners; and the closing of borders. Are we going to simply leave them there to accept this fate?

In April, along with twelve other Peers – drawn from across the political divide - I signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph in which we compared our response to this human catastrophe with our reaction to  the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, when the international community rightly recognised that it had a moral and legal duty to act.

We argued interviewing migrants in North Africa could reduce dangerous sailings; that an internationally policed safe-haven in North Africa, where asylum applications could be assessed and repatriation organised where appropriate, was an urgent priority. It remains so.

We said that the exodus of desperate men, women and children had been driven by wars and conflicts like those in Syria and Libya and by the destitution, grinding poverty and violence engulfing countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nigeria – a point which Lord Boatang emphasised in his intervention on my question. “Yes” he said, “the terrible scenes that we see on the front pages of our newspapers and in our media are a reproach; they are a reproach to Europe but they are a reproach to African Governments, too.”

Clearly, long-term steps must be taken to make peace and prosperity in the Middle East and in Africa.

None of this, however, reduces the need for immediate lifesaving – and the urgent need for the international community to thrash out a coherent strategy.

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