The Cyprus precedent may show a way out of the crisis, says Martin Plaut.

It’s top of the government’s agenda. Philip Hammond, normally a rather cool, aloof figure at the Foreign Office complains that millions of “marauding” African migrants threatens our standard of living.

David Cameron described the migrants and refugees as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean.”

The inflammatory language is a sure sign of a government under pressure and flailing about. While Ministers talk in terms of migrants Britain has refused to even participate in the EU wide scheme to give homes to confirmed refugees.

Yet the answer lies in Mr Hammond’s hands.

Something clearly needs to be done if the Greeks – already struggling with an economic crisis – and the Italians are not to be overwhelmed.

One solution would be to intercept the boatloads of people at sea and transfer them to British territory. Not to the UK itself, but to the British Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.

These anachronisms of Empire have existed 1960. They are immensely useful to Britain: it is from here that bombing raids are conducted in Iraq. Troops were brought here after tours of duty in Afghanistan.

The bases – at Akrotiri and Dhekelia – are substantial: 254 square kilometres in total.  They come complete with excellent facilities, including a substantial airfield. There are thousands of personnel on hand who could help with such an operation.

The bases could be used as a temporary holding area, in which the claims of refugees and migrants could be assessed. It would need to be overseen by the United Nations, to ensure that the whole process is above board and no undue influence was exerted on the men and women who had risked their lives to make the journey.

Philip Hammond insists that the process is driven by the gap in living standards between Europe and Africa. If this is the case then most will be economic migrants.

Many who make their way from West Africa do fit this description and could be put on planes back to Senegal or Nigeria. Others – from Syria or Eritrea – are genuine refugees, for whom a home would have to be found.

This solution is not without its difficulties.

Britain gave a string of undertakings to the government of Cyprus when it took over the bases. Among these were promises not to allow the settlement of new people inside them “other than for temporary purposes.”

Clearly the use of the bases as an extraterritorial processing centre would only be temporary and what is the Foreign Office for if it cannot negotiate its way around this kind of hurdle?

Human Rights Watch, which has previously been very critical of similar offshore processing of asylum claims, is dubious, but not dismissive of the suggestion.

“In principle there are a lot of problems with such large scale camps,” says Judith Sunderland, the organisation’s Assistant Director for Europe and Central Asia. “There would need to be all the international safeguards, including a right to appeal against deportation.

But if these could be assured, we could not criticise. Maybe it would be OK.”

While the Cyprus option may be difficult, alternatives are hard to find.

The European Union has considered a range of proposals. These include:

  • The establishment a military taskforce – EU Navfor Med – based in Rome, with a mandate to seize vessels carrying migrants on the high seas. The trouble with this is that they cannot return them to Libya, the source of much trafficking, since there is no legitimate government.
  • Contemplating the destruction of smugglers’ boats on land or in harbour – possibly even by deploying Special Forces. This would also require UN approval, which will be hard to achieve.
  • Establishing processing centres deep in the Sahara, designed to dissuade migrants from making the journey any further, or arranging their return home. But who will voluntarily return, having used the savings of their extended families to get this far?
  • Increasing aid budgets for the countries of origin, to provide employment opportunities for young men and women. This might work in the long run, but the crisis is immediate.

These options have shown few signs of working, which is why the idea of offshore processing was first mooted in March.

Since the Cameron government has refused to accept burden sharing where refugees are concerned, why not now turn to the Cyprus option? It could be Britain’s contribution to resolving this complex conundrum.