Documents considered by the Committee on 16 December 2015 - European Scrutiny Contents

8 Managing the refugee crisis: a further update

Committee's assessment Politically important
Committee's decisionNot cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee
Document detailsCommission Communication: Managing the refugee crisis — State of Play of the Implementation of the Priority Actions under the European Agenda on Migration
Legal base
DepartmentHome Office
Document Numbers(37190), 13121/15 + ADDs 1-9, COM(15) 510

Summary and Committee's conclusions

8.1 This Commission Communication was published shortly before EU leaders met on 15 October — one of a series of specially convened meetings to discuss the refugee crisis. It describes the progress made in implementing a number of actions set out in the European Agenda on Migration, which the Commission presented in May, and highlights areas in which further efforts are needed. The Communication invites EU leaders to "make a clear and unambiguous commitment to starting a new phase in the EU's response to the refugee crisis: one of swift and determined implementation".[101] It reflects a broader concern that implementation is lagging far behind the commitments made previously by EU leaders and justice and home affairs ministers to address the crisis.

8.2 We considered the Communication at our meeting on 18 November. Whilst acknowledging the UK contribution to search and rescue facilities in the Mediterranean, and the funding given to international organisations assisting Syrian refugees in the region, we asked the Immigration Minister (James Brokenshire) to provide further information on the Government's response to the specific appeals for support contained in the Communication. We also sought his views on the possible resumption of so-called "Dublin transfers" of asylum seekers to Greece — these have been suspended since 2010/11 on the grounds that there were systemic deficiencies in Greece's asylum system[102] — and on the Commission's intention to publish proposals before the end of the year to develop "a fully operational European Border and Coast Guard".

8.3 We welcome the Minister's comprehensive response. We note that the Government is considering how it might make a further contribution to support the establishment and functioning of 'hotspots' in Greece and how to respond to the Greek government's recent request for assistance under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. We ask the Minister to inform us once the Government has decided on the nature and extent of the UK's contribution.

8.4 The Minister explains that the UK has contributed "over £1.1 billion" to tackle the crisis in Syria. None of this funding appears to have been channelled through the EU's Trust Fund for Syria (established in December 2014). We understand that the Trust Fund is intended to enable donors to pool their financial contributions and improve coordination in responding to a crisis on a regional scale (supporting Syrian refugees and their host countries in the region). We would welcome a clearer indication of the Government's view on the value of the Trust Fund for Syria.[103] In particular, does the Government consider that it provides an efficient and effective vehicle for meeting funding needs in Syria and neighbouring countries, and does it expect to channel future UK funding through the Fund?

8.5 The Minister draws our attention to rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the EU which have had the effect of suspending the return of asylum seekers to Greece from other Member States since 2011. His observation that these judgments "continue to prevent all EU Member States returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation until the situation there has improved sufficiently" does not address the question we asked. The Communication describes the progress made by Greece as "encouraging" and indicates that, subject to a further assessment by the end of November 2015, the Commission may recommend that Dublin transfers to Greece should be reinstated early in 2016. Given this possibility, we think it is reasonable to ask the Minister for his assessment of the situation in Greece and for a clear indication of the Government's view on the appropriateness of reinstating Dublin transfers in the near future.

8.6 Turning, finally, to funding arrangements for the relocation of asylum seekers, we note that the Government intends to explore "administrative" means for obtaining reimbursement for EU relocation activities in which the UK does not participate, as it is unable to obtain a refund from the relevant EU funding instrument — the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund — in which the UK participates. We ask the Minister to explain in greater detail the basis for this analysis. Whilst Article 3 of the UK's Title V (opt-in) Protocol makes clear that the UK is bound by a measure once it has decided to opt into it, Articles 2 and 5 of the same Protocol are equally clear that EU measures which the UK has chosen not to opt into shall not in any way "affect the competences, rights and obligations" of the UK and the UK "shall bear no financial consequences" of such measures other than "administrative costs entailed for the institutions, unless all members of the Council, acting unanimously after consulting the European Parliament, decide otherwise". It would seem that there are two conflicting legal obligations, the first stemming from the UK's decision to opt into the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, the second from the Government's subsequent decision not to participate in EU relocation measures which depend (for their implementation) on the prior EU funding instrument.

8.7 We also ask the Minister to explain whether all EU funding for relocation is to be channelled through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and to identify the relevant provisions of the Fund and/or the relevant Council Decisions establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection which authorise its use for expenditure on relocation. We draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee.

8.8 Pending the Minister' reply, the Communication remains under scrutiny.

Full details of the documents: Commission Communication: Managing the refugee crisis — State of Play of the Implementation of the Priority Actions under the European Agenda on Migration: (37190), 13121/15 + ADDs 1-9, COM(15) 510.

Background and previous scrutiny

8.9 Our Ninth Report, listed at the end of this chapter, summarises the content of the Commission Communication and the Government's Explanatory Memorandum. We asked the Minister to provide further information on the following matters:

·  Whether the Government has provided, or intends to provide, additional support to the EU's external borders agency (Frontex) and the European Asylum Support Office, and whether it has notified the assets it is willing to make available this year to support refugees under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism;

·  Whether (and, if so, how much) the UK intends to contribute to the EU Regional Trust Fund for Syria and the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa;

·  Whether, despite having decided to opt out of EU measures providing for the relocation from Greece and Italy of up to 160,000 individuals in clear need of international protection, the Government is making a financial contribution to the EU's relocation policy; and

·  Whether, given the scale of the arrivals in Greece (estimated at more than 776,000 this year)[104] and concerns expressed by the UN Refugee Agency about the adequacy of reception facilities for asylum seekers, the Government considers that it would be appropriate to resume Dublin transfers to Greece.

8.10 We also asked the Minister for his initial view on the Commission's intention to publish proposals before the end of the year to develop "a fully operational European Border and Coast Guard".

The Minister's letter of 11 December 2015

8.11 The Minister expresses the Government's support for "a comprehensive solution to the crisis", adding:

    "This work involves many different strands, some of which do not necessarily involve the UK due to our non-participation in the Schengen area. Even so, we have taken an active part in related operations or provided financial help.

    "The situation is constantly changing. The Government maintains a watch on all developments so that we can reshape and refresh our offers and share our expertise and resources with our European partners and with countries further upstream in a targeted way to ensure the greatest impact. In particular, we are supporting more effective management of the EU's external border, joint action on people smuggling, and stronger cooperation with third countries.

    "Securing the EU's external border is key to addressing this crisis. We want the EU to make better use of technical solutions in order to ensure the borders both ensure proper security and management and facilitate legitimate travel.  We continue to believe that practical cooperation enabling Member States to make best collective use of their resources is the right approach in this regard."

8.12 The Minister describes the support made available by the UK for Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and other activities to strengthen the EU's external border:

    "The UK has contributed to every major European Asylum Support Office (EASO) support operation — to Greece, Italy and Bulgaria — over the last three years. This means over 20 missions totalling over 1,000 working days — more than any other Member State. And, at the recent European Council, the Prime Minister announced that we will provide a further 10 staff to EASO.

    "While the UK is not able to participate in the Frontex Regulation, we continue to provide significant practical support to the operations of that agency, in particular through supporting its sea operations and through our Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce.

    "Frontex Operation Poseidon Sea is hosted by Greece and controls illegal migration flows from the Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey, Egypt) towards Greece; Operation Triton is hosted by Italy and controls illegal migration flows from the Central Mediterranean (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Greece and Turkey) towards Italy. The UK strongly supports the scaling up of Poseidon Sea in order to better manage the illegal migration flows into Greece, to help ensure migrants are properly received and identified, and to ensure those with no right of stay are returned swiftly. Following the recent return of two Border Force cutters that were deployed to Operation Triton for five months over the summer, the Home Office has chartered a civilian vessel for six months to continue our support for search and rescue activities. VOS Grace has arrived in Greece and will be deployed to Operation Poseidon Sea until the end of January 2016 once written agreements have been finalised. From February to April 2016, she will be deployed to Operation Triton.

    "The UK supports substantially increasing the number of debriefing and screening experts deployed to the Greek islands as part of Frontex operations. We have offered 60 months of debriefing and screening support through a link up to our own Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce, which brings together National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] expertise, to pursue and disrupt the organised crime gangs operating across Europe and Africa.

    "We are also working to ensure the rapid implementation of 'Hotspots', in particular through Greece's 'Roadmap' on their implementation in that country. In my view, rapid implementation of hotspots is essential both to manage the extraordinary flows of people currently reaching the EU and to send the right messages to those thinking of making the journey. The UK is looking at providing further support to the relevant EASO and Frontex operations as it will be a huge task to establish the systems and logistics needed to implement the hotspots in the timeframe required. We would be pleased to help Greece and Frontex with their work on establishing headquarters to coordinate hotspots. We are still considering exactly how we might assist Frontex in this area, so the exact cost of our activities has not yet been determined.

    "Bilaterally, we have provided £2m to Greece over 2014 and 2015 to fund a voluntary returns programme, and £600k over three years to fund asylum programmes. DfID funding to activities in Greece currently stands at £3.9 million; support is now being channelled through organisations working in support of the Greek government, with programmes including working with the authorities to improve reception conditions, access to (and quality of) the asylum determination process, transportation of newly arriving migrants, distribution of food and non-food items, the protection of children, and an optimised logistics system to support all of these."

8.13 The Minister explains how the UK has responded to calls for assistance made under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism:

    "The EU Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM) is just one of many support mechanisms available to Member States and other EU countries facing crisis situations. To date, only Serbia, Slovenia and very recently Croatia and Greece have requested assistance through the CPM as a result of the migration crisis. The UK responded to Serbia and Slovenia's calls offering in-kind assistance to both countries. We are still considering Croatia's request. The Greek government's request for support through the CPM was made on 3 December; it is currently being considered by DfID. The Government's priority is to make sure our responses are able to add value.

    "But we view the CPM as part of a wider set of contributions to the Europe-wide crisis response; in total we have contributed £16m to this response thus far. This includes £2.4m to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Serbia will receive a total of £1.5m: £500,000 via IOM; £923,000 via UNHCR to deliver humanitarian assistance and protection; and £140,000 through the CPM. Slovenia will receive a total of £150,000, all of which will go through the CPM. Slovenia, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia will also receive a proportion of £5m provided through a consortium of NGOs led by the Start Network.

    "Greece will receive a total of £4.5m of this wider crisis funding: £150,000 through IFRC, £3.19m through UNHCR and £1.05m through IOM to deliver humanitarian assistance and protection.

    "It is also important to bear in mind that support for these EU operations places a strain on our own resources, many of which would otherwise be deployed within the UK and at the UK border. For that reason, we need to exercise caution before diverting further resource from the UK borders and visa systems to other purposes. I believe there is more that other Member States can be doing to support all of this work and the various funding strands alongside the UK's contribution."

8.14 Turning to the contribution made by the UK to the EU Regional Fund for Syria and the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the Minister explains:

    "Our other priority is stronger cooperation with third countries, especially upstream engagement to mitigate migratory pressures. To support this, the UK has already promised £2.11m to the EU's new Africa Trust Fund and £200m of bilateral DfID funding to support projects in Africa.

    "The £200m in bilateral support will go towards a number of programmes including those designed to help build more resilience to short term economic and environmental pressures; humanitarian responses for those displaced by the recent crises; providing access to services and education; and economic development programmes to provide jobs, skills and opportunities.

    "DfID hopes that the European Union's Syria Trust Fund is able to play a constructive role in tackling the Syria crisis.  We are actively engaged with the EU and other Member States to ensure that this is the case, and that the Trust Fund can act with the urgency that is required. What is clear is that there is a severe lack of funding for UN Syria appeals.  It is now critical that other Member States step up and provide further funding to meet immediate needs this year. The UK is already playing its part — our total contribution to the crisis is over £1.1 billion."

8.15 The Minister notes the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of MSS vs Belgium and Greece (21 January 2011) and the Court of Justice of the European Union in NS and others vs the UK (21 December 2011) which "continue to prevent all EU Member States returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation until the situation there has improved sufficiently".

8.16 As regards Commission proposals, expected before the end of the year, to establish "a fully operational European Border and Coast Guard", the Minister comments:

    "The UK is not part of the Schengen area or a member of Frontex, therefore it is unlikely that the UK will be participating in any European Border and/or Coast Guard. We want to see Frontex develop sustainably, whilst recognising that Member States remain responsible for the operational control of their own borders. We will be in a better position to assess the potential implications for the UK of an EU Border Guard when the Commission issues a more detailed proposal in mid-December. Ahead of that proposal we are also expecting France and Germany to set out their views on how to strengthen the external border. Proposals relating to an EU Coastguard are now off the table due to a lack of political will."

8.17 Finally, the Minister responds to our request for information on how the EU's relocation policy will be funded and the mechanism for ensuring that the UK does not contribute financially to EU justice and home affairs measures in which it does not participate:

    "You asked us to consider whether it is possible to seek a refund for the relocation package which the UK has opted out of. After detailed discussion with HMT, we surmise that it is not possible to seek a refund from part of the AMIF [Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund] funding instrument, including to cover relocation costs. We are opted in to the whole of the AMIF fund and pay our contributions, as do other Member States. Once opted into a measure we are in it until it expires or is superseded by new legislation.

    "However, we will continue to work with HM Treasury to establish if there is an administrative way of seeking a reimbursement for the relocation activities in which we do not participate under AMIF when the EU budget reimbursement process occurs, which takes place with a one-year lag. At present it looks unlikely we would secure a refund and the opportunity will not present until end 2017 when the Commission presents its proposed reimbursements for 2016. A further opportunity to seek a reimbursement would also arise when the AMIF Regulation is reviewed, at which point we can press for an amendment which allows us to be exempt from funding relocation.

    "To date, the UK has benefited from participation in the AMIF. We receive an allocation from the AMIF (€370m for 2014-2020 which equates to £260.4m), the largest EU allocation, and have received further funds for resettlement (€22m for 2014-2015 which equates to £15.48m). The UK contributes about 13% to the EU Budget and the AMIF is about 0.33% of the overall EU budget. At present the UK is set to receive about 12.6% of the AMIF budget.

    "We have also just 'pledged' for more funding for further resettlement activity (particularly Syrian VPRS — Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme[105]). We use the UK allocation to meet our national priorities, of which returns and resettlement play a major part. Other Member States also meet their priorities from their allocations.

    "We are not opted into the Internal Security Fund, which is funded from the EU's general Budget. We will receive a refund on our contribution to these funds, including where the spending is relevant to the migration crisis."

Previous Committee Reports

Ninth Report HC 342-ix (2015-16), chapter 8 (18 November 2015).

101   See p.2 of the Communication. Back

102   See the judgment of the Court of Justice in Joined Cases C-411/10 and c-493/10. Back

103   For more details on EU Trust Funds, see the briefing produced for the European Parliament. Back

104   See the latest data contained in the IOM's Mediterranean update. Back

105   For further details, see the Government's fact sheet for local authorities participating in the programme. Back

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Prepared 23 December 2015