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The faces and life stories of the people making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean have been in the news for months now. Of all people, the UK’s immigration minister should be well informed on the subject.

A view shows a tent which is part of a makeshift tent city where migrants stay after they travelled from the Mediterranean northwards in the hopes of crossing the English Channel and seeking asylum in Britain, located in a field in Calais, France, France, July 2, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

And yet, speaking before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, James Brokenshire claimed that “the majority of those [seeking to make the journey] are probably economic migrants, rather than those who are fleeing persecution or some sort of civil conflict.”

He is wrong. According to the UN, as of June 29, two thirds of arrivals by sea to Europe were from war-torn Syria (34%), Afghanistan (12%), and Somalia (5%), as well as Eritrea (12%), a country with grave and widespread abuses. Indeed, recent Human Rights Watch research indicates that conflict, generalized violence, and abuses are the main reasons why thousands of people, including children, have been risking their lives at sea in the attempt to reach Europe.

Last week in Calais, I spoke to men who had made the journey to Europe and were living in a large, unsanitary camp, many of them hoping to come to the UK.

Why did you leave your country, I asked them? “I was detained and tortured in Syria;” “I was a political opponent in Sudan;” “because of the problems in Darfur;” “the war, racism, and torture in Libya,” they answered.

Who would do this unless they felt they had no choice?
Izza Leghtas

Researcher, Western Europe

As I looked around at the tents where they were living, and listened to them describe the dangerous and expensive crossing of the Mediterranean, I thought: who would do this unless they felt they had no choice?

Brokenshire also repeated the UK’s government’s line that life-saving rescue operations in the Med are a “pull” factor attracting people to the EU, and he blamed “traffickers” for giving people false hopes of rescue. That analysis is hard to square with the reasons that drive people to make the journey, and the fact that when the Italian Navy scaled back its rescue efforts at the end of 2014 due to lack of EU support, the crossing continued regardless – and with deadly results.

In May, the British Navy answered the call for enhanced search-and-rescue efforts, with HMS Bulwark leading the rescue of more than 3000 people. But its smaller replacement is focused on anti-smuggling rather than search and rescue, as the Minister confirmed yesterday. British Navy rescue efforts are still needed in the Med and should be resumed immediately.

It is clearly convenient for the UK government to suggest that these people are seeking greater economic opportunities, or that they are exploited and misled by traffickers (or both). But the truth is that most of these men, women, and children are fleeing horrendous violence, conflict, and repressive governments. UK policy should reflect that reality. 

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