Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route Contents

4The role of the FCO

Direction of policy

33.The Home Office leads on the UK response to irregular migration, while the FCO leads on “upstream” activity.111 We received evidence arguing that the dominance of the Home Office had led to an overwhelming focus on preventing people from seeking asylum in the UK, to the exclusion of other goals.112 Limiting the number of irregular migrants arriving in Europe and the UK is the “core objective” of the government’s Illegal Migration Strategy—though this remains unpublished.113 Transparency is limited: significant amounts of migration funding—£28.5 million in FY 2018/19)114—go through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), which has been criticised as opaque.115 The International Development Committee has stated that Government policy on migration is “opaque, disconnected and incoherent”, warning that “Policies pursued by one department could come into conflict with the work of others.”116

34.It is an error to focus on preventing migration to the exclusion of other goals, such as preventing conflict and promoting stability and respect for fundamental human rights in source and transit regions. The UK’s interests around irregular migration are broader than this, and include peace, stability and human rights in source and transit countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as the impact on our neighbours in Europe. The FCO should ensure that the UK’s broader strategic interests are fully taken into account in the formulation of migration policy—not just the domestic imperative to limit migration. As a start, this means ensuring that these factors play a significant role in the Illegal Migration Strategy, alongside that of limiting arrivals. Where key documents cannot be made public due to security concerns, such as this Strategy, it should be prepared to share these in confidence with the Committee to enable detailed scrutiny.


35.The FCO has shifted the terms in which it considers migration in recent years, from “irregular migration” as a human rights issue, to “illegal migration” as a security issue. The FCO’s single departmental plan published in December 2017 discusses its migration work as follows:

“Project our influence to reduce conflict and create stability: [ … ] Promote human rights, good governance and the rule of law; reducing conflict, modern slavery and irregular migration.”117

The version published in June 2019 discussed migration work as follows:

“Safeguard our national security in co-operation with allies and partners: [ … ] reduce the threat to UK interests from terrorism, weapon proliferation, hostile state actors, illegal migration, and serious and organised crime.”118

Saferworld told us that, by framing migration interventions as primarily aimed at combating crime, this shift heightens the risk that such interventions could fuel conflicts.119 We note in particular the shift in tone from “irregular” to “illegal” migration. In oral evidence, the Minister also used the language of “threats and surges” to describe migration flows.120 When we asked the FCO about the reasons for the change in tone, witnesses were unable to respond.121 In a follow-up letter, the Foreign Secretary explained that the FCO considers “illegal migration” to be a sub-set of “irregular migration”, and stated that the choice of language “did not indicate a shift in priority within the FCO”.122

36.We received several pieces of evidence questioning the language used in the terms of reference for this inquiry. Some criticised our use of terms such as “an influx of migrants”,123 while others said that our discussion of how to “stem the flows of migration” contained the flawed assumption that this—rather than assisting those in need of asylum—is a suitable goal for UK policy.124

37.Language matters, especially when discussing a highly sensitive issue such as migration. We recommend that the Government should reassess its use of the term “illegal migration” in its strategy documents, and its categorisation of this issue primarily as a security threat rather than a question of stability. The human cost born by migrants should be front and centre of UK policy, and accompanied by the recognition that large-scale irregular migration can drain talent from countries that rely on their human capital to bring about changes at home. In its response to this report, the FCO should set out its reasons for the change in language used in its departmental plan, and its implications for policy. As a start, it should consider changing references from “illegal” to “irregular” migration throughout its policy documents.

111 FCO (ERM0006), para 5

112 Saferworld (ERM0012), para 4; Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 2–3

114 FCO (ERM0006), para 5

115 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Second Report of Session 2016–17, Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, 30 January 2017, para 80
Saferworld told us that “CSSF Libya programme summaries indicate £1.15 million in FCO funding for tackling irregular migration in 2017–18,31 and include security and justice sector support in 2018–9,32 but offer no specific details.”

Saferworld (ERM0012), para 15

119 Saferworld (ERM0012), para 5

120 Q142 [Minister Wheeler]

121 Qq180–181 [Minister Wheeler, Matthew Johnson, Lewis Neal]

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

123 Refugee Rights Europe (ERM0001), para 11.3

124 Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (ERM0015); Lawyers for Justice in Libya (ERM0009), para 4,6; Amnesty International UK (ERM0013), para 6

Published: 4 November 2019