Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route Contents

2The UK and Europe

Europe’s “refugee crisis”

3.The number of people seeking asylum in Europe rose five-fold between 2010 and 2015, peaking at 1.4 million in 2015 (see graph, below).4 Thousands died making the voyage to Europe during this period, with hundreds drowning in single shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.5 This was widely described as a “refugee crisis”, though some argue that it was Europe’s failure to formulate a collective response, rather than the arrivals themselves, that constituted a problem.6 Professor Sir Paul Collier and Dr Alexander Betts have called it “a crisis of politics rather than a crisis of numbers”.7 European countries largely failed to share the responsibility for new arrivals, leaving frontline states such as Italy with limited assistance, driving anti-migrant sentiment within these countries. Instead, the EU used enhanced border security and deals with third countries to prevent migrants reaching its shores. This was successful, in purely numerical terms, as arrivals dropped sharply after 2016.

Figure 1: Eurostat, Asylum and Managed Migration database

4.The UK was relatively insulated from the “crisis”.8 It received few asylum applications compared to other European countries, due to its geographical position; its opt-out from European schemes to redistribute refugees; and the Dublin Regulation, under which the state where an asylum seeker first enters the EU is normally responsible for processing their claim. In 2017, the UK received 35,000 applications, compared to 223,000 in Germany, 129,000 in Italy, and 99,000 in France.9 Despite this, the UK has felt the effects of the failure of a collective European response, which has boosted far-right political parties in countries such as Italy, Poland, and Hungary,10 and given rise to grave humanitarian problems on the UK’s borders.11 Instead of taking part in European schemes to redistribute asylum seekers, the UK has carried out its own schemes to resettle refugees directly from outside Europe. The Government argues that this avoids encouraging dangerous sea and land journeys, and creating business for smuggling groups.12 However, the numbers involved in these schemes are small, with just 20,000 Syrian refugees due to be relocated in the UK over the five years to 2020; and 3,000 children with their families from the Middle East and North Africa.13 The Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee and the International Development Committee (IDC) have called on the Government to increase the number of refugees to be resettled in the UK after 2020 from its current target of 5,000 a year—IDC suggested a figure of 10,000.14 The EU Committee also recommended that the UK should take part in future schemes to share responsibility for refugees within Europe, providing that these are voluntary and non-binding.15

5.Several witnesses told us that it would be wrong to consider that Europe’s “crisis” is over. They highlighted the pressure points that could cause further mass displacement, from climate change to ethnic conflicts,16 and Europe’s lack of preparation for a new increase in arrivals. The US withdrawal from Syria and the Turkish military operation in territory formerly held by Kurdish fighters could see an increase in migration—both directly, as some are further displaced, and indirectly, as President Erdogan has repeated his threat to open the border.17 As Dr Roderick Parkes put it: “We have pushed the solution to borderlands and fragile neighbours without getting our own house in order”.18

6.The UK has said that it wants to continue close cooperation on irregular migration with European partners after Brexit.19 However, UK representatives have already ceased to attend EU-level meetings where irregular migration is discussed.20 Brexit could have a significant impact on future cooperation, particularly in a “no deal” scenario: a sudden departure from the Dublin System, for example, could make it difficult for the UK to return irregular migrants to EU member states, and could leave separated refugee families in legal limbo.21 The UK could also be excluded from the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, a Europol agency that is handling the inquiry into the case of the 39 migrants found dead in October 2019.22 The UK’s future participation in Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions—some of which have a focus on irregular migration—has yet to be negotiated.23 Despite this, when we repeatedly asked Minister Heather Wheeler, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the FCO, what would change after Brexit, the only concrete comment she made was that: “we will have to use the auspices of the FCO to negotiate well”.24 When we asked how the UK would coordinate its response to any large-scale migration into Europe after Brexit—for example if Turkey opened its borders—she did not offer details, but stated: “that is an immediate problem for the countries just north of Turkey”.25 The FCO later told us in a letter that it was “leading a Whitehall exercise mapping a number of scenarios relating to potential migrant flows”, including “largescale IDP migration towards Turkey”, and that UK actions could involve “shaping and driving the wider European response”.26

7.Europe’s responses to the 2015 “refugee crisis” were often short-term and defensive, rather than strategic. Though arrivals in Europe have decreased sharply from their peak, a fresh outbreak of conflict, or environmental disaster, could cause large-scale irregular arrivals in Europe. It is crucial for the UK, and Europe as a whole, to plan its response to future spikes in arrivals, rather than considering the issue resolved. The UK is leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, and will need to closely coordinate irregular migration policy with European partners after Brexit. In light of this, we were concerned by the lack of detailed answers from the FCO in our oral evidence session. The Minister’s inability to identify a single change to UK cooperation with European partners on this issue following Brexit was particularly worrying, and points to a lack of focused attention to this issue. We recommend that the UK should move quickly to negotiate close future cooperation on this issue with the EU. This is likely to mean negotiating a replacement for the Dublin Regulation and future, ad hoc participation in Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions, and could involve taking part in future relocation schemes, on a voluntary basis. During the current delay to our exit from the EU, we call on the Government to urgently resume UK attendance at EU-level meetings where migration is discussed, and to seek to attend these meetings after Brexit, wherever it is possible and in our interests to do so.

8.While the UK remained mostly insulated from large-scale arrivals to Europe in 2014–15, the human costs and political ramifications have been great. In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea. The UK has a strong economy and a proud history of helping those fleeing conflict and persecution, and should lead by example, creating more ambitious targets for resettlement. We recommend that the Government expands the legal pathways to apply for asylum from outside Europe and works with EU partners to encourage them to do the same.

UK-France cooperation

9.The UK has been further insulated from irregular migration to Europe by the 2003 Le Touquet agreement, under which immigration checks take place before passengers board the train or ferry in France and Belgium. Though some French politicians suggested that this agreement would not be tenable after Brexit,27 the UK and France signed a treaty in January 2018, reaffirming their commitment to the agreement.28 The FCO told us that the UK’s discussions with the French on this topic “are very cordial and will continue” after Brexit.29

10.Migrants hoping to enter the UK are often trapped in a bottleneck in northern France, particularly around Calais,30 with estimates ranging from 1,000–3,000 people.31 About half are estimated to have relatives in the UK.32 The conditions for migrants are poor—with “precarity, rough-sleeping, dangerous and unauthorised border-crossings, and widespread reports of police violence”33—and those with relatives in the UK face long delays in claiming asylum on that basis.34 Under the Sandhurst Treaty, the UK and France agreed to improve cooperation on asylum, setting time limits on processing reunification cases.35 The UK has spent almost €150 million on border security in northern France since 2014,36 but much smaller figures on improving conditions for migrants there.37 This focus on security has pushed migrants to take more dangerous routes—according to the Government, “the success of the measures already taken to secure the principal ports” has caused an increase in numbers trying to cross the Channel in small boats.38 In January 2019, the two countries agreed to invest €7 million in security measures to prevent departures, including CCTV, night goggles and number plate recognition.39 A witness told the Home Affairs Committee this year that the increase in those attempting to cross the Channel in small boats was “inevitable given the conditions”, highlighting freezing temperatures, police violence, poor access to water and sanitation and lack of shelter.40

11.We are concerned by the evidence we received about the dire conditions for migrants in northern France, and by the reports of an increase in those taking dangerous routes to reach the UK, including by crossing the Channel in small boats. Focusing on increasing border security without improving conditions in the region may have the counterproductive effect of forcing migrants to make desperate journeys across the Channel. We recommend that, in addition to its work to increase security in northern France, the UK should work closely with French authorities to improve the conditions for migrants. It should ensure efficient processing of asylum claims by those with relatives in the UK, and make it a priority to maintain close bilateral cooperation with France after Brexit, including on these claims.

Search and rescue

12.There is currently very limited search-and-rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean. The EU’s anti-smuggling mission Operation Sophia no longer runs boat patrols, instead tracking smugglers by air, while NGOs have found it increasingly difficult to operate.41 Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has criticised “a sustained two-year campaign by EU governments to stop virtually all humanitarian action at sea”.42 Italy’s 2018–19 coalition government in particular took a hard line against irregular migration, banning rescue ships from docking. The number of deaths at sea more than halved in the Central Mediterranean in 2018 compared to the previous year, but the death rate increased sharply.43 In 2019, one person died for every six who reached Europe after departing from Libya. In 2018, this was one in 14, while in 2017 it was one in 38.44 We received evidence linking this directly to the lack of search-and-rescue capacity.45 As one witness told us: “Essentially what Europe is doing is letting people die as a deterrent.”46

13.When we asked what the UK was doing to reduce deaths, the Minister acknowledged the “high” fatality rate, and referred to the UK’s training of the Libyan Coastguard and Navy, stating that “stopping the criminals in effect pushing these migration routes in the first place has to be one of the best ways of stopping this”.47 She said that the UK had advised NGOs to be careful in their work: “Just picking people up might have been the humanitarian thing to do, but if they couldn’t offload them anywhere sensible, that caused more trouble than perhaps it might have done.”48

14.We are deeply concerned by the lack of search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean. Under no circumstances should migrants be left to die as a deterrent to stop others arriving. The Minister’s evidence did little to convince us that the FCO is seriously engaged with this problem. We recommend that the UK Government works with European partners to take the necessary steps to ensure additional search-and-rescue capability, and in its response to the Committee it should set out how it will assess and determine this capacity, including targeting a reduction in attempts and a lowering of the fatality rate. This should include working closely with the new Italian government and offering UK capacity to support search-and-rescue efforts.

4Asylum and Managed Migration database”, Eurostat, accessed October 2019
Note: the total figure for “Europe” includes non-EU countries such as Switzerland.

5 Over 3,770 Migrants Have Died Trying to Cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, Missing Migrants, International Organization for Migration, accessed October 2019

6 As one witness put it: “UNHCR would never call what happened in Europe a crisis. It was entirely manageable for a wealthy continent. We think the number was something that could be dealt with, with mechanisms in place to do it.” Q21 [Sarah Elliot]

7 “Refuge”, Professor Sir Paul Collier and Dr Alexander Betts, Penguin, 2018, page 2

8 Q2 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson]
Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 4

9Asylum and Managed Migration database”, Eurostat, accessed October 2019

10 Q20 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson]Viktor Orbán calls for anti-migration politicians to take over EU, The Guardian, 10 January 2019

11 Q79 [Dr Yves Pascouau]

12 FCO (ERM0006), para 28

13 Q2 [Sarah Elliott], Q105 [Shoshana Fine], Q132 [Minister Wheeler]
We received some evidence supporting this approach. As Professor Sir Paul Collier put it: “Cameron said, “Oh, we’ll take refugees directly from the camps,” which was obviously a much more sensible thing to do, because you did not just select the well-off young men; you actually selected people on the basis of need.” Q36 House of Commons Library, The UK response to the Syrian refugee crisis, SN06805, June 2017

14 International Development Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2017–19, Forced Displacement in Africa: Anchors not Walls”, HC 1433, 26 February 2019, para 82
House of Lords, European Union Committee, 48th Report of Session 2017–19, Brexit: refugee protection and asylum policy, 11 October 2019, para 249

15 House of Lords, European Union Committee, 48th Report of Session 2017–19, Brexit: refugee protection and asylum policy, 11 October 2019, para 165

16 Q5 [Charlotte McDonald Gibson], Q6 [Sarah Elliott], Q24 [Professor Sir Paul Collier], Q26 [Dr Roderick Parkes]

18 Q26 [Dr Roderick Parkes]

19 FCO (ERM0006), para 64

20 Qq127–130 [Minister Wheeler, Matthew Johnson]

21 House of Lords, European Union Committee, 48th Report of Session 2017–19, Brexit: refugee protection and asylum policy, 11 October 2019, para 112
This is because the Dublin System supplies a mechanism for unaccompanied minors to apply to be reunited with their familes.

23 Q38 [Dr Roderick Parkes]

UK–EU defence and security cooperation after Brexit, Institute for Government, 22 May 2019

24 Qq140–143 [Minister Wheeler]
The FCO told us in a follow-up letter that co-operation with the EU and member states would not weaken after Brexit.

Foreign Secretary letter to Tom Tugendhat MP, 28 October 2019. [ERM0017]

25 Q144 [Minister Wheeler]

26 Foreign Secretary letter to Tom Tugendhat MP, 28 October 2019. [ERM0017]

28 FCO (ERM0006), para 21

UK-France Summit 2018: documents, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 18 January 2018

29 Q140 [Minister Wheeler]

30 Overseas Development Institute (ERM0007), para 5

31 Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (ERM0015), para 3
Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: English Channel migrant crossings, HC 1900, 22 January 2019, Q20 [Clare Moseley, Founder, Care4Calais]

32 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: English Channel migrant crossings, HC 1900, 22 January 2019, Q4

We note evidence that not all of these relationships are close enough to qualify for asylum.

33 Refugee Rights Europe (ERM0001), para 4.3
As one witness told the Home Affairs Committee: “We cannot centralise facilities because a lot of people don’t even have tents, they are sleeping rough out in the open in the middle of winter. We cannot centralise medical facilities because there is no community as the police are so very, very aggressive towards them. A lot of the medical complaints we see are simply from people sleeping rough: permanent coughs, colds, chest infections, skin infections, feet infections from walking, from being permanently wet.”
Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: English Channel migrant crossings, HC 1900, 22 January 2019, Q21 [Clare Moseley, Founder, Care4Calais]

34 Refugee Rights Europe (ERM0001), para 4.4; Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (ERM0015), para 3

35 UK-France Summit 2018: documents, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 18 January 2018

36 FCO (ERM0006), para 23

37 Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (ERM0015), para 3
In 2017, in answer to the Home Affairs Committee’s request for information on the amount invested in Calais that had gone towards improving conditions, the Government stated:
“Under the Joint Declaration of 20 August 2015, the UK is providing €5 million (£3.6 million) per year for two years towards providing migrants with alternative accommodation in France. In addition to this, on 3 March 2016, the then Prime Minister announced that the UK would contribute £17 million towards management of the migration situation in France, including for the provision of reception facilities. The UK Government is also making a further contribution of up to £36 million to support the camp clearance in Calais and to ensure in the long term that the camp is kept closed.”
Home Affairs Committee, Migration Crisis: Government Response to the Committee’s Seventh Report, Seventh Special Report of Session 2016–17, 21 February 2017
A letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Committee stated that “a portion” of the Sandhurst Treaty funding package had been use to improve conditions for migrants, including £3.6 million supporting transfers of eligible children to the UK.

Foreign Secretary letter to Tom Tugendhat MP, 28 October 2019. [ERM0017]

38 UK-France Summit 2018: documents, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 18 January 2018
Q79 [Dr Yves Pascouau]
Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: English Channel migrant crossings, HC 1900, 22 January 2019, Q3 [Maddy Allen, Field Manager, Help Refugees]

39 UK-France Summit 2018: documents, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 18 January 2018

40 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: English Channel migrant crossings, HC 1900, 22 January 2019, Q2 [Maddy Allen]

41 Q16 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson]

FCO (ERM0006) para 26; Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 22–23

42 Mediterranean search and rescue, Doctors without Borders, accessed October 2019

43 Q16 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson], Q17 [Sarah Elliott],

FCO (ERM0006), para 25; Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 12

45 Q16 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson], Q17 [Sarah Elliott],

Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 24

46 Q17 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson]

47 Q152 [Minister Wheeler]

48 Q156 [Minister Wheeler]
In its written evidence, the FCO notes Italy’s demand for a “predictable relocation mechanism” to place rescued migrants elsewhere in Europe, and states that “While the UK does not participate in relocation of rescued migrants – the UK is not a member of the Schengen Area, and UK policy favours resettling from the region rather than accepting migrants who have put their lives at risk making dangerous sea crossings (which perpetuate people-smuggling operations) – the UK supports a predictable mechanism for their relocation that would avoid delays to disembarkation.”

FCO (ERM0006), para 28

Published: 4 November 2019