Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route Contents

3The UK and Africa

15.Since 2015 the EU and member states have stepped up their “external” response to irregular migration, making deals with countries of origin or transit to manage migrant flows. The Government describes this as “‘upstream’ activity—reducing the volume of irregular migration and addressing its root causes in origin and transit countries”.49 Examples include the 2016 EU deal with Turkey, intended to prevent migrants crossing into Greece in exchange for aid money.50 The UK has played an important role in shaping the external dimension of Europe’s response,51 and the Government has said that it wants this to continue after Brexit.52 UK interventions in this field predominantly target countries in Africa.53 Our evidence highlighted the case studies of Libya, Niger, and Sudan.

16.Deals with third countries by the EU and member states have been criticised as simply “outsourcing” controls to prevent migrants from reaching its borders.54 We received evidence arguing that the lack of legal routes does not prevent displaced people from making an attempt to reach Europe, but, as discussed in the previous chapter, instead drives them to more dangerous routes, makes them more vulnerable to abuse, and increases the use of professional smuggling groups.55 These interventions have had counterproductive side effects, driving conflict and instability. Some of the EU’s partner governments are responsible for repression and serious human rights violations.56 As Lawyers for Justice in Libya put it:

The reduction of the number of migrants does not reflect a solution to the issue but rather a displacement of the problem. [ … ] if fewer are reaching Europe, this is done at the cost of human rights with more migrants being detained and tortured in Libya, drowning at sea or being “voluntarily” returned.57

17.The EU’s reliance on third countries to stem migration flows can undermine efforts to press these governments for reform, and the threat of restarting migration can be used as leverage. This risk is illustrated by the EU-Turkey deal—in October 2019, President Erdogan told the EU that criticism of his actions in Syria would have consequences:

If you try to describe our current operation as an occupation, our task will be simple. We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.58


18.Libya is the major route for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa into Europe, and has been a focus of European efforts to reduce migration flows along this route. It was the point of departure for 90 percent of irregular migrants who arrived in Italy in 2017.59 Italy made a deal with the UN-backed Libyan government that year, endorsed by the EU, to identify “urgent solutions to the issue of clandestine migrants crossing Libya to reach Europe”.60 Under its terms, the EU and Italy provide funding to Libyan security agencies, including the Coastguard, which intercepts migrants in the Mediterranean and takes them to detention centres in Libya.61 The number of those making the journey fell 80% in 2018.62 The UK is involved in migration work with Libya as a donor to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which delivers support to the Coastguard;63 to the IOM, which provides humanitarian aid in detention centres and runs a Voluntary Humanitarian Returns programme;64 and through funding to Operation Sophia, which has trained the Coastguard since 2016.65

19.We received much evidence setting out the human rights impact of these agreements. Though the number setting off from Libya has dropped, the fatality rate has increased.66 Libya does not recognise the right to asylum,67 and migrants are held in dire conditions in official and unofficial detention centres. Violence, slavery and exploitation are widespread.68 Dr Yves Pascouau told us that the role of the Libyan Coastguard was “to intercept people before they reach the international waters and to send them back to hell”.69 The Coastguard has ties to smuggling and trafficking groups,70 while law enforcement bodies running the detention centres often have ties to militias, increasing the power of these groups.71 Some Libyan actors use the threat of migrant arrivals as leverage:72 in April, the Libyan Prime Minister warned that “800,000 illegal migrants on Libyan ground will have to leave Libya and will cross the sea towards Europe”.73

20.Assistance to the Libyan Coastguard without appropriate oversight risks making the UK complicit in its human rights abuses.74 We received evidence calling on the UK to suspend funding of Libya’s migration management; to make funding to the Libyan government conditional on ending detention and formally recognising UNHCR;75 and to call for a halt to the Libyan Coastguard’s interception of boats in international waters.76 UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour has called on the EU and members to “urgently reconsider their operational support to the Libyan Coast Guard, which continues to endanger the lives of migrants in distress at sea, and whose operations lead to the return of intercepted migrants to conditions of arbitrary detention and torture.”77 The Government has said that its support for the Coastguard and Navy aims to increase Libya’s ability to secure its borders “in a way that is compliant with human rights”,78 and that a new monitoring mechanism within Operation Sophia would offer greater assurances.79

21.The EU’s migration deals with Libya 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. There is compelling evidence of large-scale arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence against migrants, and we are concerned by the evidence that UK funding could be contributing to these abuses. We recommend that the UK should put in place robust monitoring and safeguards to ensure that its funding to migration programmes in Libya is not contributing to abuses, as well as to strengthen protection for migrants in Libya, and should press its European partners to do the same. Ensuring close dialogue on migration with European partners after Brexit will help the UK to make this case. In its response to this report, the Government should set out its assessment of how far human rights measures within its assistance to the Libyan Coastguard have improved this force’s human rights performance, including actions taken, dates, and quantifiable measures.


22.As the biggest transit country for migrants entering Libya, Niger is one of the EU’s most important regional partners on irregular migration. This includes development aid, and support for the country’s security forces through EUCAP Sahel Niger—a civilian mission whose mandate was broadened in 2015 to include irregular migration.80 States including France and Italy have troops in the country, working alongside local forces.81 The UK has been increasing its engagement across the Sahel, establishing new embassies, expanding development programmes and supporting security interventions in support of efforts to “counter illegal migration”,82 and has a project with France to strengthen management of the border with Nigeria.83 In 2015, EU pressure on the Niger government resulted in a law that criminalised migrant smuggling, which cut migrant flows by 75 percent.84 EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has called the country a “model” for migration management.85

23.However, the anti-trafficking law has undermined the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) visa-free zone, which had been promoted by European countries as a means to develop local economies. Our evidence indicates that the law created instability, had an impact on regional traders and others crossing borders without the intention of migrating to Europe,86 and pushed migrants to take more dangerous routes.87 As one witness explained: “money assigned for development interventions in Niger is very much in conflict with that assigned for security interventions”.88 It has also offered Niger’s government a means to extract more assistance from the EU.89 Our evidence suggests that Europe’s interventions in the broader Sahel region were focused on short-term wins in terms of cutting migrant numbers, rather than addressing the issue in a sustainable way.90 The stakes are high—in February 2019, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme told us that destabilisation in the Sahel could lead to mass migration into Europe:

This is a region—when you compound it with governance issues, fragility and destabilisation, and now you have extremist groups and climate extremes—that is ripe for mass migration, destabilisation and many other issues.91


24.Sudan has become a significant European partner on irregular migration. A forum for cooperation between countries in the Horn of Africa and Europe, launched in 2014, was named the Khartoum Process, after its capital. The UK plays a “leading role” in the Process, as one of five European states on the steering committee,92 and has said that this will not change after Brexit.93 The EU also set up a Regional Operational Centre in Khartoum, to coordinate efforts against migrant smuggling and human trafficking.94

25.We received evidence arguing that the Khartoum Process addresses migration primarily as a criminal justice issue, directed by the goal of reducing migration to Europe, rather than addressing the drivers of displacement.95 Others argued that EU policies had helped to legitimise the former Sudanese leader.96 There are reports that some EUTF funding has gone to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government-backed militia group linked to war crimes in Darfur,97 though the EU and UK deny this.98 The UK Government said in June 2019 that it had not been able to verify reports that the RSF had abused migrants and sold them to Libyan traffickers.99 The FCO and DFID manage the risks to vulnerable migrants in Sudan through “detailed cataloguing of reported incidents in a register” that is presented to UK Ministers.100 Despite this, the International Development Committee has warned that “the UK Government’s desire to address migration to Europe, particularly through the Khartoum Process and engagement in Libya, is clearly undermining its commitment to human rights”.101 The Government suspended all migration programmes with Sudan following the political crisis of early 2019, and said that it was working to ensure all EU programmes in which it had a stake were also suspended.102 In October 2019, the Foreign Secretary told the Committee that tackling irregular migration would form part of its engagement with Sudan’s new government.103

26.In light of the UK’s focus on migration projects in the region, we asked the Minister about the approach to irregular migration within the Government’s “Africa Strategy”.104 She did not appear to be aware of the existence of this document, despite the fact that it is referenced in the FCO’s written evidence to this inquiry.105 When we followed this up in a letter to the Foreign Secretary, he told us that tackling the drivers of irregular migration was “at the heart of the strategic approach”.106

27.Outsourcing Europe’s migration work to fragile states carries the risk of counterproductive side effects. We support the principle of aiming to tackle the causes of displacement “upstream”, in countries of origin and transit, but are concerned that the EU’s migration work in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa risks exacerbating existing security problems, fuelling human rights abuses, and endorsing authoritarian regimes. Preventing local populations from crossing borders may help cut the numbers arriving in Europe in the short term, but in the long term it risks damaging economies and creating instability—which in itself can trigger displacement. Relying on partner governments to cut migration can prevent the UK pressing for other governance reforms, and there is evidence that it is used by partners as leverage to demand more assistance or other concessions.

28.We were surprised at the lack of detail we were given when we questioned the FCO about the Government’s work with African partners. For example, the Minister did not appear to be aware of the existence of the Government’s “Africa Strategy”. The document itself is brief and lacking detail, as the Committee noted earlier this year, but the Minister’s lack of awareness of the Strategy does not fill us with confidence that the UK’s migration work with African partners is receiving substantial or considered input from the FCO.

29.We recommend that the Government should put in place robust monitoring processes to ensure that it is supporting successful operations to target the root causes of irregular migration, and is not contributing to conflict or instability through its migration work in Sub-Saharan Africa. The FCO should take the lead on ensuring that UK engagement on irregular migration with source and transit countries is viewed in terms of the full range of the UK’s strategic interests, and does not place undue emphasis on reducing arrivals to the exclusion of other goals, such as promoting stability and respect for fundamental human rights, and reducing poverty. In its response to this report, the FCO should provide a detailed assessment to the Committee on how efforts on irregular migration interact with other priorities in its approach to Sub-Saharan Africa.

30.In its response to this report, the Government should set out when it decided to suspend migration cooperation with Sudan, and what tests will have to be met before it is restarted. If the Government resumes this cooperation, it should be done with caution and in close consultation with civil society groups both in Sudan and the UK.

Climate change

31.Climate change will be an increasingly important driver of irregular migration in the decades to come, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, displacing people both through environmental disaster and by driving conflict over resources.107 The FCO highlighted this in oral evidence as a key “push” factor,108 while the UK National Security Strategy states that: “More frequent extreme weather events are likely to disrupt populations, agriculture and supply chains, making political instability, conflict and migration more likely.”109 As the Foreign Secretary noted in a letter to the Committee, this is a complex area with a lack of any common definition around the link between climate change and migration, or what constitutes a “climate refugee” or “climate migrant”.110

32.We are concerned by evidence that climate change could cause greater levels of migration in the coming years. We recommend that the UK’s work on migration in the Sahel, and more broadly, 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. We recommend that the FCO should place tackling climate change as a central part of its policy on irregular migration.

49 FCO (ERM0006), para 4

50 Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (ERM0015), para 13; Saferworld (ERM0012), para 20 3 years on, what’s become of the EU-Turkey migration deal?, Associated Press, 20 March 2019

51 Q38 [Dr Roderick Parkes]

52 The FCO states that “The EUTF enables the UK to have greater strategic impact than acting bilaterally […] the ability to continue funding and have access to the governance of the EUTF and future EU instruments is a priority for the UK’s post-EU Exit engagement.”

FCO (ERM0006), para 44, 64–69

53 FCO (ERM0006), para 43

54 Dr Mariagiulia Giuffre (ERM0010), section 4; Saferworld (ERM0012), introduction

55 Q105 [Shoshana Fine]
Saferworld (ERM0012), para 18; Dr Mariagiulia Giuffre (ERM0010), section 4; Center for Global Development (CGD) (ERM0002), para 11

56 Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 20
As the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) put it: “Initiatives to address irregular migration flows often take place in fragile or conflict-affected countries with poor national law enforcement standards. Within such settings, there is a risk that programming could, without due attention to conflict dynamics and political economy challenges, cause unintended harm to vulnerable migrants. We found that the risk of inadvertently causing harm was not sufficiently addressed in the UK’s aid response to irregular migration”

ICAI, ICAI follow-up of: The UK’s aid response to irregular migration in the central Mediterranean, June 2018

57 Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 46

59 FCO (ERM0006), para 50

61 Q105 [Matteo Villa, Shoshana Fine]

Saferworld (ERM0012), para 11

62 FCO (ERM0006), para 50

63 FCO (ERM0006), para 73

64 FCO (ERM0006), para 55
We received evidence criticising this programme. As ICAI has commented, “there is a risk that repatriation is not truly voluntary if migrants are only faced with the alternative of detention in poor conditions.”

ICAI, ICAI follow-up of: The UK’s aid response to irregular migration in the central Mediterranean, June 2018

Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 39; Saferworld (ERM0012), para 12

65 FCO (ERM0006), para 58; Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 58; Dr Mariagiulia Giuffre (ERM0010), para 2.2

66 FCO (ERM0006), para 50

67 Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 15

68 Q16 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson], Q105 [Shoshana Fine]
FCO (ERM0006), para 72; Overseas Development Institute (ERM0007), para 6–7
Spoken word poet George Mpanga set out his concerns about the human rights abuses against migrants in Libya in a podcast, which he submitted as written evidence to this inquiry. The following is a short extract: “What you see is a failing economy, with no single prevailing authority - just gangsters, in a state of autonomy who stand to gain if you can be used for trade. To keep you at bay that’s who the EU have paid. They treat you this way because they need you afraid. They can charge your family double the fee you have paid, on the basis of fear, but another way to pay the fee is straight up slavery”.

George Mpanga (ERM0008)

69 Q105 [Dr Yves Pascouau]

70 Q105 [Matteo Villa]

71 As one witness put it, the EU “need something to be happening on the ground, so you have to engage with this blurred situation”. Q33 [Dr Roderick Parkes] Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 12

72 Saferworld (ERM0012), para 14;
Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 12

74 Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 12; Dr Mariagiulia Giuffre (ERM0010), section 4; Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 54

75 Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009)

76 Refugee Rights Europe (ERM0001), para 12.9

77 Oral update of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Libya pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 37/41, 40th session of the Human Rights Council, Address by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, 21 March 2019

78 Letter from Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State at the Department for International Development, to Thangam Debbonaire MP, 28 November 2018, in International Development Committee, Forced displacement in Africa: ‘Anchors not Walls’: Government Response to the Committee’s Tenth Report, Annex B

82 FCO (ERM0006), para 48

Chinooks to stay in Mali to help in fight against violent extremism, Ministry of Defence, 8 July 2019

83 FCO (ERM0006), para 44

85 Niger: Europe’s Migration Laboratory, NewsDeeply, 22 May 2018

86 One witness told us that much of the money assigned to help smugglers find other means of support had not been used for its intended purpose, though the FCO told us that it did not recognise this claim. Q84 [Matteo Villa]

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

Saferworld (ERM0012), para 18

87 Q83 [Shoshana Fine]

Saferworld (ERM0012), para 18

88 Q82 [Shoshana Fine]

89 Saferworld (ERM0012), para 18

90 Center for Global Development (CGD) (ERM0002), para 6; Saferworld (ERM0012), para 18–19; Overseas Development Institute (ERM0007), para 12–13
There is an opportunity cost to targeting aid money on this single issue. According to one witness, the EU “pulled a lot of funding from spots in Africa that could have provided jobs and opportunities”.

Q28 [Dr Roderick Parkes]

91 Oral evidence: The World Food Programme, HC 1915, 5 February 2019, Q2 [David Beasley]

92 PQ 193384 [Eritrea: Emigration], 20 November 2018

93 FCO (ERM0006), para 41
Engagement Beyond the Centre: An Inquiry Report on the Future of UK-Sudan Relations, All Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan, February 2017

95 Overseas Development Institute (ERM0007), para 11

96 Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 20

97 Q103 [Matteo Villa]

98 EU actions on Migration in Sudan, European External Action Service, 8 June 2018

99 PQ HL16447 [Sudan: EU Immigration], 18 June 2019

100 International Development Committee, Eleventh Special Report, Forced displacement in Africa: ‘Anchors not Walls’: Government Response to the Committee’s Tenth Report, 11 June 2019

101 International Development Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2017–19, Forced Displacement in Africa: “Anchors not Walls”, HC 1433, 26 February 2019, para 147

102 HC Deb, 4 July 2019, col 610WH [Westminster Hall]

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

104 Also known as “The UK’s New Approach to Sub-Saharan Africa”. We have previously criticised the lack of detail in this strategy.

Oral evidence: The Work of the Minister of State for Africa, HC 900, 12 March 2019, Qq101–104

105 Qq171–175 [Minister Wheeler]

FCO (ERM0006), para 40

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

107 Q5 [Charlotte McDonald-Gibson], Q14 [Sarah Elliott]

108 Q119 [Minister Wheeler]

110 Foreign Secretary letter to Tom Tugendhat MP, 28 October 2019. [ERM0017]
The letter offers some detail on the Government’s work in this area, including the Building resilience and adaptation to climate extremes and disasters programme (BRACED).

Published: 4 November 2019