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Four mistakes Theresa May has made about the crisis in the Mediterranean

May’s attempt to stand firm on the migrant crisis has been cackhanded. EPA/Andy Rain

Theresa May, home secretary of the UK, has written an article in the The Times arguing that the EU is “putting migrants at risk” by asking member states to resettle or relocate more refugees and asylum seekers, and indicated her vehement opposition to the European Commission’s plans. But she made several inaccurate and misleading points in her article. Here are some of the facts.

1: No-one’s asking to resettle migrants

May says the UK “must – and will – resist calls for the mandatory relocation or resettlement of migrants across Europe”. In doing so, she makes the common mistake of confusing migrants with refugees and asylum seekers.

The plans do not propose resettling or relocating migrants, since migrants technically cannot be resettled – only refugees can. The commission is proposing distributing asylum seekers who have already reached the EU – who will then have their claim assessed – and resettling some refugees from outside the EU.

In fact, the proposal actually seeks to improve return and removal of irregular migrants and refused asylum seekers.

2: Helping isn’t the same as encouraging

May implies in her article that the resettlement plan could act as an incentive to incoming migrants. The UK, she says, “cannot do anything which encourages more people to make these perilous journeys – or which makes it easier for the gangs responsible for their misery. That is why the UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation”.

Resettlement will not encourage more people to travel to the EU. Resettlement is about taking refugees from countries struggling to cope with refugee numbers, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, who are hosting almost four million Syrian refugees between them. It is about meeting international obligations and ensuring that refugees do not have to “make perilous journeys” in the first place.

The EU is proposing to resettle 20,000 refugees across the whole EU over the next two years. In the context of the global need for resettlement, this number is minimal, and would require the UK to take just over 2,000 people. Germany has already offered to take in 20,000. According to the latest official figures, the UK has resettled only 143 Syrian refugees to date.

3: Smuggling is not trafficking

May suggests using “military, intelligence and crime fighting assets not only to deliver search and rescue mechanisms, but also to crack down on the traffickers who are putting people at risk”.

Migrants rescued off North Africa by HMS Bulwark. EPA/Carl Osmond/MOD

The term “trafficker” has been used repeatedly in response to the migrant crisis, but there is actually a crucial distinction in law between trafficking and smuggling.

Human trafficking is defined by exploitation – for example, trafficking for sex or labour, whether through force, fraud or coercion. Human smuggling, on the other hand, is transporting and evading immigration laws. The vast majority of those crossing the Mediterranean would fall into the smuggling category.

In any event, talk of smuggling and trafficking misses the point that a large percentage of people arriving in the EU from North Africa are refugees or have protection needs. For example, in 2014, 20% were Syrian.

4: Eritreans need help too

Defending her stance on the BBC’s Today programme, May argued that a large number of people coming across the central Mediterranean were “from countries like Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia”, and were “very often economic migrants”.

This is inaccurate. Eritreans, in particular, are at risk; in 2014, they made more asylum applications in the UK than any other group, and 87% of those were granted protection.

It is time for less politics and more accuracy when discussing asylum and migration.

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