Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route Contents


The UK received a smaller proportion of the asylum seekers who entered Europe during the refugee crisis of 2014–15 than many other nations, but it has felt the impacts: a changed political climate, and grave humanitarian suffering close to its borders. It would be a mistake to assume that we will never see migration on this scale again—a fresh outbreak of conflict or environmental disaster could cause an upsurge in numbers. The UK will need to work closely with its European and regional partners to ensure a coherent, strategic response to future irregular arrivals. The Government should urgently resume attendance at EU meetings where irregular migration is discussed and seek to maintain a cooperative voice with EU partners after Brexit.

Bilateral cooperation with European partners will have to be a crucial part of the UK’s response to irregular migration. The UK cannot expect others to prevent Channel crossing attempts if we are not willing to work together to address the root causes. Together, we should do more to improve the dire conditions suffered by migrants seeking to enter Europe and those attempting to cross to the UK from northern France. The Government should also work with Italy and other EU member states to ensure a reasonable level of search-and-rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean; although the numbers crossing have dropped recently, the death rate has increased.

The UK has played a leading role in European efforts to tackle irregular migration through deals with third countries—particularly in Africa. However, the Government’s approach is flawed. While we agree with the principle of addressing the root causes of migration, these deals do not address the frequent shortcomings in governance in those countries. Partner countries, such as Libya, Niger and Sudan, often struggle to meet the agreements made and further migration deals risk exacerbating existing security problems, fuelling human rights abuses, and endorsing authoritarian regimes. The prospect of restarting migration can be used as leverage—as demonstrated by Turkish President Erdogan’s recent threat to “reopen the gates”.

We are particularly concerned by the serious and systemic abuses perpetrated against migrants in Libya. EU deals with this country have achieved the short-term political “win” of cutting migrant numbers, but at the cost of fuelling human rights abuses, strengthening armed groups, and undermining stability in the longer term.

The dominance of the Home Office in this area risks focusing policy on the domestic goal of limiting migration to the exclusion of broader UK foreign policy goals. The UK should address the wider, interlinked factors driving irregular migration—including climate change, conflict, repressive governance and corruption—rather than focusing narrowly on reducing the numbers reaching Europe’s borders in the short term.

A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups. The case of 39 people found dead in a lorry container in October—though detailed information is still lacking—is a horrific illustration of these dangers. It should serve as a wake-up call for the FCO, and Government more broadly, to reassess its approach to irregular migration.

Published: 4 November 2019