David Cameron has said he is ready to commit British resources to a strengthened search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean as EU leaders prepared to meet to discuss the escalating migrant crisis.
The Prime Minister – who is breaking off from the election campaign to attend an emergency summit in Brussels – said he would be pressing for a “comprehensive approach” to the problem.
With experts warning the death toll could reach the tens of thousands as growing numbers of desperate migrants take to the waters in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, Mr Cameron said authorities need to go after the people traffickers as well as addressing the instability causing them to flee.
“We now need to make a change and make sure there is more and search and rescue,” he said. “I will be arguing ‘Let’s have a comprehensive approach’. Yes, we need search and rescue. We can play a role with that. Britain’s a wealthy country with strong assets. We can bring some of those to bear.
“But let’s also go after effectively the modern slave traders.
“Let’s also try and stabilise these countries – not just Libya but also Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. It’s these unstable countries that people are coming from that’s part of the problem.”
The summit was called after around 800 migrants were feared drowned when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya in what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said was the “deadliest incident” it had ever recorded in the Mediterranean.
In the latest arrival of migrants, an Italian naval vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Augusta with 446 people on board who had been rescued from a smugglers’ boat yesterday off the southern coast of the Italian mainland. The navy said 59 of the migrants were children.
The Ministry of Defence said that it was “looking at options” following reports that one of the Royal Navy’s largest vessels – the assault ship HMS Bulwark – could be despatched to take part in the operation.
It is understood, however, that Mr Cameron will want to see what other EU leaders are prepared to offer at the talks before making a final decision on Britain’s contribution.
His call for a comprehensive approach to the issue echoed Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has rescued hundreds of migrants after their ships ran into trouble