Migration Crisis Contents

5Protecting the EU’s external and maritime borders

Migrant smuggling

68.Migrant smuggling involves an individual paying willingly for the services of a smuggler to facilitate crossing an international border.84 Europol has estimated that over 90% of the irregular migrants and refugees who entered the EU in 2015 used services provided by migrant smuggling networks. The criminal turnover associated with migrant smuggling to and within the EU for 2015 is estimated at between €3 billion and €6 billion.85

69.The 2015 European Agenda on Migration identified the fight against migrant smuggling as a priority, in order to prevent exploitation by criminal networks and reduce incentives to irregular migration. The Agenda aimed to transform migrant smuggling operations from ‘low risk, high return’ to ‘high risk, low return’.86

70.Europol has collected detailed data on how and where the smuggling networks operate. Commonly, the network provides transport and drivers, fraudulent documents, a broker to contact migrants and others in the network, and access to corrupt officials and military personnel to evade law enforcement. Outside the external border, the main places of criminal activity for smuggling are in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean (for example, Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, Izmir and Tripoli). Within the EU, the main places are capital cities (London, Budapest, Rome, Berlin), major ports (Calais, Hamburg, the Hook of Holland, Thessaloniki and Zeebrugge) and border crossings. Smuggling networks coalesce at these points to meet demand.

71.Europol estimates that about 20% of the criminals identified as involved in smuggling in 2015 were linked to other criminal activity, such as drug smuggling or human trafficking for sexual exploitation, and expected the scale of exploitation to increase significantly in coming years. It believes that a successful response from law enforcement requires the “strong and consistent engagement of Member States and other partners through enhanced information sharing and operational control.”87 Smuggling occurs within Europe but most of the attention has been on the activity which facilitates passage across the Mediterranean.

72.The UK Government has said that it wants to dismantle the criminal networks that “facilitate travel for profit” and put lives at risk.88 Its priority is to gather intelligence on networks involved in migrant smuggling both across and within EU borders, and for that intelligence to be shared across the EU. A multi-agency Organised Immigration Crime Task Force has been established—involving the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service—to focus on the criminals in source and transit countries, across the Mediterranean, and at the UK border with mainland Europe. The UK also participates in JOT Mare, established by the EU in March 2015, as a forum to collect, analyse and share intelligence on immigration crime among Europol Members.89

Frontex—the EU border agency

73.Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders) was established in 2004 to promote cooperation between Member States on border management. It has limited powers, but facilitates coordination between Member States, and assists with joint operations, training, and collecting data from border agencies in each country, to research patterns and conduct risk analysis. Frontex is reliant on individual Member States to provide staff and resources for operations.

74.Frontex has struggled during the migration crisis because of its limited staffing and resources, and because it can only intervene when invited to do so. The implications of these weaknesses were illustrated when Greece refused to request its assistance when it was struggling with huge numbers of migrants arriving throughout 2015, leading to politicians from other EU countries calling for Greece to be excluded from the Schengen area.90

75.The UK is not a member of the Schengen area so is not obliged to contribute to Frontex. However, it “actively supports” Frontex, and has done so since it was established in 2004, in the form of providing experts to joint operations, return operations and training activities, supporting research, development and risk analysis, and supplying detection equipment. The UK has also offered “de-briefers and nationality screeners” to help support Frontex as part of the UK’s Organised Immigration Crime Task Force tackling criminal networks operating in the Mediterranean. The UK Government has said that it “firmly believes that a common immigration and asylum policy across the EU is not a viable approach and that each member state needs to take responsibility for its own border”. However, it wants to see Frontex “develop sustainably”.91

76.In December 2015, the European Commission introduced proposals to transform Frontex into a European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG). This would elevate it from its current coordination role to one where it can take control when Member States are unable or unwilling to do so, and it will be able to act on the EU’s external borders without a Member State’s consent. Its new capabilities will include: a reserve of 1,500 rapidly deployable border guards (within three days) plus 1,000 permanent staff; its own equipment; a monitoring and analysis centre; surveillance capacity; a mandate to work with third countries, including in joint operations; and a European Return Intervention Team to deal with returns of illegal entrants.92

77.Control of the EU’s external borders is critical to an effective approach to the migration crisis, which is resulting in such high migratory flows. Large numbers of unregistered migrants moving into the Schengen area exacerbates existing security threats and risks undermining migration controls in other countries, including the UK. Members of the Schengen area need to agree whether control of external borders is the responsibility of the frontline state or is a collective EU responsibility to which they all contribute. We have noted that some Member States have implemented their own passport controls within the Schengen area, in breach of the Schengen principles and no doubt due to a lack of faith in the integrity of the external Schengen border.

78.We welcome the proposals put forward by the European Commission to reform Frontex, the agency charged with protecting the EU’s external borders. We believe these reforms would have a positive impact in empowering the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency to take effective action when individual Member States are unable or unwilling to do so. This would not affect the UK’s role directly, even while it remains in the EU, as it is not a full member of Schengen. However, the UK does provide staff and equipment to work with Frontex and its support for the EU’s Rapid Intervention Border Teams (RABIT) has always been welcomed. The Government should make clear how it intends to engage with the new EU border agency and how its engagement will differ from its current relationship with Frontex once the UK leaves the EU. We also recommend that the UK remain a key player in Europol from outside the EU, as the US is now.

Mediterranean crossings: search and rescue

79.One of the key routes into Europe is across the Mediterranean. The IOM recently reported that an estimated 227,316 migrants had entered Europe by sea so far in 2016, arriving in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain, with Libya as the main departure point, followed by Egypt.93 Many of the people crossing the Mediterranean pay smugglers for a place in a small, overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, without a crew or the power to reach land. These boats do not always complete their journey and, tragically, there have been many thousands of deaths of migrants over recent years. The IOM reports that, so far in 2016, 2,920 deaths have been recorded, compared with 1,838 in the first six months of 2015, an increase of 1,082. (Previous full year totals were 3,279 in 2014 and 3,770 in 2015.94) There were 383 deaths in June alone—the highest monthly total for June in three years.95 As many as 400 migrants were reported to have died in a single incident in April when a boat carrying about 800 people capsized en route from Egypt to Italy; and further incidents were reported in May involving the deaths of dozens more migrants.96

80.In response to the high number of deaths in the Mediterranean in previous years, in October 2013 Italy initiated Mare Nostrum, a proactive search and rescue operation across 27,000 square miles of sea, to find boats before they got into difficulty. In 12 months Mare Nostrum saved over 100,000 lives, but the Italian Government could not afford to maintain the operation at the cost of €9 million a month and it was halted. It was followed from November 2014 by two operations led by Frontex, with vessels provided by Member States: Operation Triton (in the Central Mediterranean) and Operation Poseidon (in the Eastern Mediterranean).97

81.Following cancellation of Mare Nostrum, the UK Government originally refused to support search and rescue operations, arguing that they operated as a pull factor; that decision was subsequently reversed.98 The UK contribution to the new missions included sending HMS Bulwark (an amphibious transport dock) to take part in search and rescue operations, on condition that anyone rescued would be taken to the nearest port and not be able to claim asylum in the UK. HMS Bulwark was in the Mediterranean from April to July 2015 and was involved in saving 2,900 lives. The UK also sent two Border Force cutters in May 2015 for five months and later chartered a civilian vessel, VOS Grace, from November 2015 to mid-April 2016, with a detachment of Border Force officers, Royal Marines and a medical team.99

Tackling migrant smuggling across sea borders

82.In May 2015, the EU launched an operation in the southern central Mediterranean to disrupt migrant smuggling and trafficking networks and to prevent the further loss of life at sea. This was initially called EUNAVFOR MED and then renamed Operation Sophia. The first phase of the operation was limited to carrying out surveillance on smuggling activity. From October 2015, the next phase widened to include the facility to board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking. The UK deployed the survey ship HMS Enterprise in support of this operation in July 2015 (after HMS Bulwark returned) and a Type 23 Frigate HMS Richmond from March to December 2015.100 HMS Richmond was reported as being involved in “multiple rescues, saving hundreds of lives” and it also confiscated £26.5 million of heroin and £3 million in cannabis.101 However, the House of Lords European Union Committee concluded in May that, while Operation Sophia is “valuable as a search and rescue mission”, it does not “in any meaningful way deter the flow of migrants, disrupt the smugglers’ networks, or impede the business of people smuggling on the central Mediterranean route”. It pointed out that arrests made as part of Operation Sophia to date have involved “low-level targets” and that destruction of wooden boats has led to smugglers using rubber dinghies “which are even more unsafe”.102

83.Frontex and national coastguard operations were supplemented in February 2016 when NATO deployed Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) to the Aegean Sea, to take part in “national and international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea”. The operations include reconnaissance and surveillance to identify smuggler boats, with information then passed on to Frontex, and the Greek and Turkish coastguards. The UK supported the mission by deploying amphibious landing ship RFA Mounts Bay in early March, supported by a Wildcat helicopter; three Border Force vessels also took part.103 At the end of May 2016, the then Prime Minister announced during the G7 summit that a Royal Navy ship would be deployed off the Libyan coast this summer to tackle people smugglers, although it is not clear whether this deployment has actually taken place yet.104

84.Given that Libya is now the biggest source of illegal migrants trying to reach Europe, the Chairman of the Committee asked the then Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, whether Libya needed to be offered financial support to tackle the migrant problem at the point of departure in a similar way to the arrangements the EU has agreed with Turkey. In return EU countries would also need to gain access to Libyan waters for their patrol vessels. Mr Hammond was dismissive of the proposal and argued instead that the UK should aim to “package the objectives that we want to achieve with the objectives that are priorities for the Libyans”.105

85.The Government has supported both Frontex search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and NATO operations aimed at disrupting migrant smuggling in the Aegean by deploying Royal Navy, Border Force and other vessels. We welcome these deployments although, given the low number of Border Force vessels in operation, it is important that this does not detract from their crucial role in policing the Channel. It is not acceptable for EU Member States to leave these essential tasks to the countries most affected, including Italy, Greece and Turkey. All EU national governments should share the burden and contribute to disrupting the activities and destroying the boats and equipment of criminal elements who are the source of much of the migrant crisis, and who are the only party in this crisis to have gained from the suffering of vulnerable people.

86.Although the deployments to date have saved lives, it is clear that they are not yet achieving their primary task of deterring migrant flows and disrupting smuggling networks. The response has been too slow and more robust and urgent collective action by EU countries is needed, with a clear mandate to deal with high-level criminality. Libya has now become the main departure point for illegal migration across the Mediterranean and the focus should be on preventing boats leaving north Africa in the first place. For the action to be limited to rescuing people from the sea and collecting drowned bodies, as it seems to be at present, is wholly unacceptable.

87.As we enter high summer, the then Prime Minister’s announcement in May that a Royal Navy vessel was being sent to address migrant flows from Libya appears to have stalled. Moreover, the approach taken by the then Foreign Secretary in respect of Libya, where a reported 500,000 people are waiting to cross the Mediterranean illegally, is complacent. Given the UK’s involvement in the Libyan civil war and in the rebuilding and reconciliation efforts which have followed, the EU should be able to offer Libya a deal, with substantial funding provided to tackle people smuggling at the points of departure, and access to Libyan territorial waters for European country vessels agreed in return.

84 Human trafficking involves the coercion of a victim into exploitation which may or may not be linked to the crossing of an international border.

85 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU, February 2016; European Commission communication Action Plan against migrant smuggling May 2015

86 European Commission communication Action Plan against migrant smuggling May 2015

87 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU, February 2016

88 Home Office written evidence (MIG0067)

89 Home Office written evidence (MIG0067)

90 The Economist, 7 December 2015, Why Greece was almost kicked out of Schengen; Financial Times, 1 December 2015, Greece warned EU will re-impose border controls

91 Home Office written evidence (MIG0067)

96 Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2016, “400 migrants feared dead after boat capsizes in Mediterranean”; and The Guardian, 26 May 2016, “Dozens feared dead as migrant boat capsizes in Mediterranean”.

97 The Guardian, 31 October 2015, “Italy: end of ongoing sea rescue mission ‘puts thousands at risk’”

98 The Guardian, 27 October 2014, “UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation”

99 Home Office written evidence (MIG0067)

100 Home Office written evidence (MIG0067)

101 Royal Navy website, 11 December 2015, Drug-busting and life-saving HMS Richmond returns home from nine-month deployment

102 House of Lords European Union Committee, 14th Report of Session 2015–16, Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge, May 2016, HL Paper 144

103 HMG Press release, 7 March 2016; and NATO press releases 26 February 2016, 27 February 2016,and 6 March 2016

104 BBC News, 27 May 2016, “Migrant crisis: UK set to send Royal Navy warship to Libya”

105 HC Deb, 19 April 2016, col 789

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

28 July 2016