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As EU ministers gather next week to discuss the growing crisis in the Mediterranean, the spokesperson for the UK’s emergency planners say the authorities should stop treating the victims as an immigration issue, but one of Displaced Persons.

Tony Thompson, chair of the Emergency Planning Society, said:” The political mood music across Europe has been all about the economic pressures of migration. It has resulted in the search and rescue operations being scaled back, leading to all these terrible tragedies. We should instead view those fleeing North Africa as Displaced Persons.

“Europe has risen to the challenge before. After World War II there were tens of millions of Displaced Persons – the international community did not walk away from that challenge but sought to resolve it. Similarly, in the 1980s, collectively we received and helped the Vietnamese Boat People.

“It is not an issue of immigration – it is one of refugees fleeing failed States, just as it was in World War II.”

Tony Thompson pointed out that the search and rescue operation had been scaled back at a time when the numbers fleeing were actually decreasing, but the number of deaths was rapidly rising. The United Nations say that 218,000 migrants crossed from North Africa last year, whereas so far this year it is believed to be a much reduced 35,000. But proportionally, the number of deaths is increasing. In 2014, 3,500 people drowned – already this year 1,600 have been killed.

“Clearly, the humanitarian response must be increased, and the UK must play its role. Until recently, the UK contributed only one immigration officer to the EU border control operation – Operation Triton – with a further four seconded earlier this year. That is clearly not enough. But it also demonstrates once again that the focus is on immigration, and not on search and rescue or a humanitarian response.”

EU Ministers are meeting on Monday to discuss the crisis, while the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Europe “must find answers”. There have been calls for EU countries to each take in many of those fleeing North Africa.

The Emergency Planning Society is the professional association that represents many Emergency Planning Officers working for local authorities. Tony Thompson said: “If this move goes ahead, we must act in a co-ordinated way. We should remember the lessons of the settlement of the Vietnamese Boat People.

“Along with the US, France, Canada, Australia and Germany, the UK agreed to resettle some of the 800,000 refugees who fled the country after the fall of the South Vietnamese regime. The grand gestures on the international stage did not match the treatment of the Vietnamese refugees when they arrived in the UK. Many were scattered across the UK to different local authorities who placed these isolated and frightened families into low income social housing, often facing hostility from the local population.

“Local authorities then faced a new wave of ‘illegal migration’ in microcosm. In the 1980s, the isolated Vietnamese families voted with their feet and made their way to squatted properties on the North Peckham estate in the London Borough of Southwark where leaders of the refugees had begun to set up their own community. This put the burden on Southwark, in a similar way that EU states are treating Italy today.

“We all have a humanitarian duty to respond to the growing crisis in the Mediterranean and we must all take our share of the responsibility.”

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