In Depth

Refugee rescue: why help is scarce in the Med

The UK has refused to assist in search and rescue as Italy phases out its operations due to 'unsustainable costs'

The Home Office has revealed that it will not be assisting the EU with its new refugee rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

The announcement comes as Italy prepares to phase out its widely-praised search and rescue mission Mare Nostrum, due to "unsustainable costs".

The UN is warning that thousands of refugees will die needlessly as they try to make the dangerous sea crossing unless urgent and collective action is taken.

How many people make the journey and where do they come from?

Earlier this month UN refugee agency UNHCR reported that 165,000 migrants had attempted to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, compared with 60,000 for the whole of 2013. It has also recorded an increasing number of women and children. Almost half of those rescued have been asylum seekers from Syria and Eritrea. Many of the rest are fleeing separate conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

Despite Italian efforts, more than 3,000 people are believed to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year.

What is Mare Nostrum? 

Established in October 2013 under the Roman name for the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum used naval and air units to combat human trafficking and carry out rescue operations between the Strait of Sicily and the African coast of Libya and Tunisia.

The Italian navy has been praised by the UN Refugee Agency for contributing to the rescue of over 150,000 people in the last year. But at the same time it has been heavily criticised by Italians for "ferrying in immigrants", rather than deterring them from making the journey, according to AFP.

Italy has repeatedly called on other European countries to assist, but none have, with the exception of Slovenia, according to the Daily Telegraph. Currently struggling to avoid another recession, the Italian government has said the £7m pricetag of the operation was "unsustainable" and so it had to end.

What will replace it?

Triton, the EU border agency's alternative is expected to come into effect on 1 November, but has been widely criticised by refugee agencies, who warn that it will lead to an increase in the number of deaths at sea. Its operation will not involve search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, just patrols within 30 miles of the Italian coast, The Guardian reports.

As a result, it is a much cheaper operation, costing only a third of the previous budget. Eight European countries have pledged boats and equipment.

Why won't the UK be helping? 

The Home Office "quietly announced" that it would not be taking part in any rescue missions, the Guardian reports. It creates "an unintended pull factor, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary death," according to British foreign office minister Joyce Anelay. The Home Office believes the most effective way to deal with the influx of migrants is to "focus our attention on countries of origin and transit".

Refugee and human rights organisation have condemned the stance, saying it will lead to needless deaths on Europe's doorstep. "The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War," said chief executive of the British Refugee Council Maureen Wren. "People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you're running for your life and your country is in flames."

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