The disclosure from Graham Leese, who was also a special advisor to Frontex, the European Union’s border control force, will add to concerns that “search and rescue” operations in the Mediterranean are encouraging traffickers by making their deadly trade easier. On Wednesday, the United Nations urged European nations to increase such operations, following the deaths of more than 400 migrants on Sunday when their ramshackle, overloaded boat capsized off the coast of Libya.
Britain opposes such a move, arguing that Operation Mare Nostrum, a major Italian search-and-rescue mission that ran until last year, acted as a “pull factor” that simply tempted more migrants into risking their lives. In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Leese backed that stance, saying that during Mare Nostrum, smugglers in Libya had become aware that there were extra rescue vessels on the seas and had taken advantage.
“My understanding is that the facilitators are often phoning up the Italian authorities in advance and saying that boats are on their way,” said Mr Leese, who now works as a consultant on border and immigration issues. “They are not putting as much fuel in the boats as they usually do because they expect them to be picked up.” “A lot of the migrants are interviewed afterwards, and this is what they say, and my professional contacts also say it. We have started to hear about it since Mare Nostrum was launched, when those on the Libyan side became aware that there were more boats being deployed to rescue people.”
Mr Leese’s comments will add to the growing debate over how to respond to the ever-increasing numbers of migrants attempting to enter Europe via people trafficking routes across the Mediterranean. Numbers have increased dramatically in the last two years thanks to the deteriorating security picture in Libya, the smugglers’ main operating base. Italy says more than 15,000 migrants have arrived this year already, and is expecting numbers to skyrocket in coming months as the summer weather makes boat crossings easier.
The EU-funded Operation Mare Nostrum was launched in October 2013, in response to a previous tragedy in which 350 migrants drowned within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa. It rescued more than 100,000 refugees from the sea, but was discontinued last September amid concerns about the £6m-a-month cost, and fears that it was simply encouraging illegal immigration into Europe. The replacement service, Operation Triton, has fewer vessels and limits itself to European territorial waters rather than ranging out to near the Libyan coast.
Laurens Jolles, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the latest drownings showed the need for a resumption of a “”strengthened and efficient capacity to carry out rescue”. He dismissed the possibility that it would make the problem worse, describing it as “an argument used by those who want to prevent anyone coming in from Europe”. However, Mr Leese disagreed. “The UN’s idea that one is obliged morally to take in people coming across in boats is a dangerous one because you are encouraging the very process that you are seeking to stop. Some of these people are desperate, but a good proportion are economic migrants, and either way, you shouldn’t be encouraging people to risk their lives in a boat.”