LONDON (Reuters) - Some of Britain’s most senior former judicial figures criticized Prime Minister David Cameron’s government on Monday for its response to the EU migrant crisis, saying it was inadequate and was pushing people into the arms of smugglers.
A statement, signed by more than 300 retired judges, working lawyers and legal experts, said Britain’s vow to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years was not enough, and called for safe routes to be set up to deal with a flood of refugees from war-torn Syria to the European Union.
Britain’s judiciary rarely openly criticizes politicians, but this public statement had the support of dozens of top legal figures such as Lord Nicholas Phillips, former President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and Nicholas Bratza, ex-President of the European Court of Human Rights.
“Like many others, we consider that the UK Government’s offer to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East, spread over 5 years, is too low, too slow and too narrow,” their statement said.
It said under international law states had a duty to provide protection to refugees but many countries in the EU including Britain had made it impossible to people to access these rights by limiting their means of travel.
“This situation, coupled with draconian penalties on airlines and ships which carry undocumented passengers ... has created the conditions which drive individuals and families into the hands of people-smugglers, with unseaworthy and overloaded boats or suffocating lorries,” it said.
In response, the government said Britain had been “at the forefront of the international response” to the refugee crisis.
“We are working closely with UNHCR to identify and resettle those in the regions who are the most vulnerable,” said Richard Harrington, Minister for Syrian Refugees. “This also deters people from attempting these perilous journeys which have already led to so many tragic deaths.”
The crisis comes at a time when immigration is a major political issue in Britain, with polls suggesting it is now Britons’ top concern, and could be a significant factor in influencing how the country votes in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU due by the end of 2017.
Last week, Cameron’s interior minister said mass immigration was damaging British society, leading to criticism from some business figures but praise from party activists and right-leaning media.
Reporting by Michael Holden and William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge