The Royal Navy rescued more than 1,000 migrants off the coast of Libya on Sunday, as HMS Bulwark, a 19,000-tonne assault ship, conducted five rescue missions, with two more continuing.
Helicopters spotted a number of migrant vessels – often in poor visibility – allowing boats from HMS Bulwark to get to them. The latest callout saw the use of all eight of the ship’s landing craft. Among the migrants rescued were at least 10 pregnant women.
Nick Cooke-Priest, captain of HMS Bulwark, said: “Starting very early this morning, this has been an intense, complex day. My helicopters have done a brilliant job locating a number of migrant vessels and my landing craft have effected their rescues with typical professionalism and complete success.”
He added: “In many ways this search and rescue mission is like an amphibious operation – I’ve deployed landing craft and aircraft in multiple waves, in poor visibility, operating autonomously over the horizon – the objective this time, of course, being to save life. But it’s only through being trained for high-intensity war-fighting operations that we are able to execute such activities in peacetime.”
HMS Bulwark and three Royal Navy Merlin helicopters deployed to the Mediterranean on 5 May have played a leading role in the EU’s mission to stem the flow of illegal migrants to the continent.
The latest rescue brings the total number of people saved by HMS Bulwark to more than 2,700, with it plucking 747 people from dangerously overcrowded boats in a similar operation last week.
The ship was sent by the government to help the search and rescue operation in the Mediterraneantackle a large increase in the number dying trying to cross the sea. It is estimated more than 1,600 people have drowned so far this year trying to make the crossing.
Many are fleeing war in Libya, where Islamic State fighters are terrorising the population, fuelling instability in the war-torn country.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, thanked HMS Bulwark for its “unwavering efforts” at sea, but said it was necessary to look at the root cause of the problem, rather than just addressing the symptoms.
This was reiterated by David Cameron as he arrived at the G7 summit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He said Britain is a country that “doesn’t walk on by” and that the flagship had been deployed because the UK is a “country with a conscience”.
But he warned that the causes of the exodus from Libya must be dealt with, not just the consequences, adding: “But we also need to do more to stop these people leaving their countries in the first place.”