Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge Contents

Chapter 5: The bigger picture

106.The EU’s comprehensive approach to external action seeks to bring together its full range of tools and instruments in a coherent manner, and the European Agenda on Migration (May 2015) also set out a wide ranging package of measures to respond to the phenomenon of migration.148 In this chapter we consider the contours of a comprehensive approach to tackling human smuggling and stemming the flows of migrants.

Tackling the root causes of migration

107.Our witnesses stressed the importance of tackling the root causes of the migration crisis. Mr Symonds underscored that conflicts in the Middle East and African continent were “becoming more protracted and intractable and they are spreading”, which increased the number of refugees.149 Mr Roberts has written that “migrants in boats are symptoms, not causes, of the problem.”150 Mr Symonds agreed: “If you do not have an answer to the situation of those people, we are sceptical about the mere targeting of the smugglers.”151

108.In particular, the Syrian crisis continues to have an enormous social, economic and political impact on countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. At the time of writing, the Syrian cease-fire was in place. Mr Roberts informed us that the majority of Syrians wished to return to Syria, and said that contributing to “a peaceable area in their homeland for them to return to” should be the EU’s long term aim.152

109.As we noted in our report, Europe in the world: Towards a more effective EU foreign and security strategy (February 2016), the protracted crises in the EU’s wider neighbourhood, sectarian conflicts and economic inequalities are beyond the capacity of the EU to resolve. On the other hand, there is a role for the EU to play in the rebuilding of Syria and in capacity building in states in the MENA region.153

Supporting transit and host countries

110.Countries in the MENA, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have been severely challenged by large refugee flows. According to the UNHCR, 2.7 million Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon, and 600, 000 in Jordan, since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.154 This is in addition to the responsibility for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees displaced in the region.155 Palestinians who were formerly living in Syria have taken refuge primarily in Lebanon and Jordan since the Syrian civil war began.156

111.Mr Symonds’ assessment was that the burden on host countries was critical to understanding why Europe was experiencing the current crisis:

“The pressure for people to move on is increasing because the situations they have immediately fled to have become increasingly unsustainable over a long period.”157

The number of refugees in the MENA region continues to rise. It is projected that by December 2016 the region will host 4.7 million refugees.158

112.Mr Hobart said that, in the short to medium term, action in regional host countries “could have the biggest impact on migration flows”, and was therefore “worth a great deal of attention”.159 Acting in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan “reduces the risk of travel, it enhances the potential to return to Syria and rebuild it, and the support [the EU] can give is more cost-effective.”160

113.We note that this is a rapidly evolving field and the EU has already been developing new policies on irregular migration. On 19 April, the Minister for Europe told us that, to tackle irregular migration, the European Council had agreed to work with countries that are the source of economic migrants, to provide development assistance and trade access. He highlighted the agreements made with a number of African countries at the Valletta Summit on migration, through which the EU would provide development assistance and financial support in return for action by these countries to reduce irregular migration.161 On 27 April, it was reported that the EU and Nigeria would begin negotiations on a readmission agreement, which “would probably involve migrants from Nigeria being deported in exchange for EU economic aid”. The Financial Times noted that this would be the EU’s first major readmission deal with a sub-Saharan African nation.162


114.Some witnesses advised that a shared policy of resettlement of refugees between the EU and MENA countries was a more equitable and sustainable policy. For Dr Roberts, support to the surrounding MENA countries “should not replace the immediate need to increase the number of places for resettlement in Europe.”163 Mr Symonds said that “not sharing responsibility for hosting refugees is itself a driver of growing instability and thus more refugee migration.”164 Mr Kingsley recognised that, though “the key point is not a popular one”, “one of the main ways to disincentivise the boat journeys is to step up large-scale resettlement programmes from the Middle East and North Africa.”165 Mr Symonds added that safe and legal routes and resettlement would “remove the market for smugglers”, and would be “an ordered way for states to receive refugees.”166

Processing claims outside the EU

115.It has been reported that the European Commission will bring forward proposals to set up migrant-processing offices in countries of transit and origin, in order to process applications for asylum and refugee status before migrants reach Europe. Italy and France are strongly in favour of such a policy.167 We weighed up the benefits and possibilities of such a policy.

116.Mr Kingsley told us that processing people in transit countries, before they set out for Europe, would be a way for European countries to “screen them before they arrive and weed out people who you think might not be best for the continent.”168 For Mr Roberts, the advantage of ensuring that resettlement offers were made outside the EU was that there would be “no attraction for people to come across”.169 It would also “undermine the business model” of smugglers, by depleting the demand for illegal crossings.170 Mr Kingsley believed that processing claims for asylum in the EU in countries neighbouring the source countries, in conjunction with an enlarged resettlement programme, could “create an incentive for people to invest in a formal process”.171

117.We do not underestimate the challenge of introducing migrant-processing offices in key transit countries, which may be unstable or have weak infrastructure. Mr Roberts drew our attention to the need to protect such centres militarily: “you would need a level of protection around them because initially they would be absolutely swamped with people.”172

118.In our view, processing centres in countries of transit will not have an impact on the numbers of economic migrants seeking to reach Europe, but processing the claims of migrants early on in their journeys could help to impose some order on the flow of people, help distinguish genuine claims for refugee status, and assist the transit countries manage the challenge.


119.Turkey is the critical launch point for migrants travelling on the eastern Mediterranean route. While this falls outside the purview of Operation Sophia, in its attempts to stem migration flows the EU has developed a new policy approach with Turkey, which goes far beyond that with any other host or transit country of the MENA.

120.In March 2016 the EU and Turkey negotiated a deal to manage the migrant flows. All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands will be returned to Turkey. This will apply to migrants not applying for asylum, or those whose application has been found inadmissible. In return, Europe will open legal routes for asylum and resettlement in the EU for an equivalent number of Syrians directly from Turkey. The deal further reaffirmed that the EU and Turkey would work towards visa-free travel by the end of June 2016, and the EU would speed up the disbursement of the already agreed €3 billion refugee facility fund up to the end of 2018.173

121.Mr Lindsay assessed the EU-Turkey agreement as a “very significant step”, which “could make a real difference”, though it relied on “implementation.”174 Doubts have already been expressed over the implementation of the deal: whether the Greek authorities would have the administrative capacity to process the migrants, the legal basis of deporting refugees, and the willingness of the EU to deliver visa-free travel.175

122.We note that while questions remain about the implementation of the longer-term measures of the deal, there has already been a deterrent effect on migrant numbers crossing via the eastern Mediterranean route. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, pointed to a “sharp reduction of the illegal migration flows” from late March to late April 2016.176

123.Any similar deal with a Libyan state is highly unlikely. With Turkey and Greece, the EU has functioning state partners, but such a state in Libya is a distant prospect. Vice Admiral Johnstone pointed to a practical consequence of Libyan state weakness: the concomitant weakness of the Libyan coastguard. In Libya, the smuggling gangs can act with “relative impunity”, but by contrast the Turkish coast guard and navy “are highly professional forces that have made substantial efforts in recent weeks to stop the flow of illegal migrant boats.”177

Tackling illicit financial flows

124.Migrant smuggling is a profitable business. According to Europol, the estimated criminal turnover associated with migrant smuggling “to and within the EU is between €3–6 billion for 2015 alone.”178 Given the level of illicit revenue that is being generated from migrant flows, and probably being funnelled to the top of the smuggling networks, tracking the profits and combating these criminal economies should be a priority.

125.Mr Kingsley noted that calculations on the profits of the migrant smuggling business were often “back-of-the-envelope figures”. His own back-of-the-envelope calculation for the smuggling business operating out of Libya was about $150 million per year, based on every migrant paying $1,000 and approximately 150,000 people launching from Libya. Migrants would also have to pay for the route through the Sahara to Libya, which he estimated to come to a similar figure of around $150 million annually.179

126.The challenge of tracking financial flows associated with smuggling from Libya is that many of the payments are made in cash or through an informal hawala system, where a relative pays an associate of the smuggler.180 Mr Kingsley said that it was “hard to keep a handle on exactly where a lot of these payments are made”; the transaction can take place “far” from the migrant.181 Consistent with this view, Europol noted that there was only “limited intelligence available on the criminal proceeds, illicit financial flows or money laundering processes” associated with migrant smuggling activities. “In 2015, less than 10% of investigations into migrant smuggling activities produced intelligence on suspicious transactions or money laundering activities.”182

127.This Committee considered improvements to EU information gathering on financial transfers in its report, EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (November 2015).183 The Home Affairs Sub-Committee heard that the Commission had launched a counter-group of EU agencies—Frontex, Europol, Eurojust, European Maritime Safety Agency and European Police College—which had been discussing working together on “co-operation in tracing, tracking and freezing smugglers’ assets.”184

Devising a new migration policy: political leadership and public debate

128.The current EU approach to migration is not equipped for the phenomenon of mass movement of people. The challenge will be to shape a policy response that is in the shared interests of Europe, but one that has due regard for the values and legal obligations of the EU Member States. For example, there are other global approaches to migration that could serve as an example. Mr Roberts raised the Australian model of “enforced repatriation”,185 noting that Australia’s migration policy was “one of the few models in the world that has disincentivised migration”.186 There was “no sign” that the EU had the “political appetite” to follow such a model, but nor had it “considered some of these approaches.”187

129.On the other hand, witnesses urged the EU to recall its values and obligations. Mr Roberts said that the EU discussed “what we want and not what we are obliged to do.”188 Mr Kingsley reminded us that the EU was a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, with concomitant obligations.189 Mr Roberts warned that if the EU broke with international normative behaviour and international law, it could create a “precedent for other powerful states to do the same thing in other domains.”190 As we noted in our report, Europe in the world: Towards a more effective EU foreign and security strategy (February 2016), the EU’s values are also an important dimension of its power to persuade and dissuade, and of its authority as a trusted and reliable international actor.191

130.Witnesses recognised that any discussion on migration policy would take place in the limelight of public scrutiny. Mr Symonds informed us that public communication and engagement with local communities would be necessary: “if you are willing to do that and explain the reasons, there is more scope than we thought there was for [resettlement] to happen.” He pointed to the evolution of thinking within the UK: AIUK had seen “enthusiasm for [resettlement] right across the UK.”192 Mr Kingsley agreed that, while there had “been some very angry responses”, there had “been some very human ones as well.” He warned against “prejudging what people might think” and “making assumptions and policy based on those assumptions”.193

Conclusions and recommendations

131.In the short term, work to track and tackle the illicit financial flows associated with people smuggling should be a priority for the EU. We note, however, that journeys through the central Mediterranean route are financed by informal cash transactions, often completed far from the migrants themselves, which will fall outside the scope of action by the EU.

132.In the longer term, a broader approach will be required. Operation Sophia is a limited operation with limited objectives. Our inquiry has convinced us that it cannot be considered in isolation from the global phenomenon of mass migration, the implications of which go far beyond the scope of this brief report on Operation Sophia.

133.We are witnessing globally large scale movements of people fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, lack of opportunity and poor governance in their home countries, and seeking safe havens and economic opportunities in the more prosperous parts of the globe, notably Western Europe and North America. The countries of Western Europe, whether in the EU or not, act as a magnet to those in the Middle East and Africa.

134.Member States have obligations to refugees from war and persecution, but are struggling to meet them. Economic migration is a different challenge: European citizens cannot be expected to accept all those from neighbouring regions who wish to enter their countries. In public policy and public communication, this distinction should be drawn clearly.

135.We conclude that a military response can never, in itself, solve the problem of irregular migration. As long as there is need for asylum from refugees and demand from economic migrants, the business of people smuggling will continue to exist and the networks will adapt to changing circumstances.

136.Nor is policing the EU’s external border a feasible long term solution. Measures to tackle the problem must be taken before the migrants journey to Europe. The EU needs governments in the Middle East and North Africa that it can work with on migration. Therefore, building the resilience of these countries is critical.

137.The specific challenge on the central Mediterranean route is Libya. Ambitious agreements, akin to the one with Turkey, cannot be replicated there. The current political progress in Libya provides a window of opportunity to contribute to the stabilisation of Libya, which Member States must seize.

138.Only when the security and development challenges in source countries have been mitigated will the large movements of people diminish. The countries themselves bear the principal responsibility to resolve their challenges but it is in the interests of the EU and its Member States to provide whatever practical assistance and expert advice they can. This is a long-term project, which will not be cheap or quick: there is no silver bullet.

139.In our 2015 report on the EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling, we concluded that the majority of irregular migrants currently entering the EU were prima facie refugees, as defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But in the longer term, a comprehensive migration policy must seek to differentiate clearly between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and address questions of resettlement, repatriation and integration of new arrivals. It will require Member States to balance their own interests and domestic considerations with values and humanitarian obligations. The crafting of such a migration policy represents a huge and urgent challenge to the governments and peoples of the EU, and will require a collective response.

148 Communication from the Commission on a European Agenda on Migration, COM(2015) 240 final

150 Peter Roberts, RUSI, Militarising the EU Migration Plan: A Flawed Approach to Migration (7 July 2015): https://rusi.org/publication/newsbrief/militarising-eu-migration-plan-flawed-approach-0 [accessed 5 April 2016]

153 European Union Committee, Europe in the world: Towards a more effective EU foreign and security strategy (8th report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 97)

154 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Syrian Regional Refugee Response’: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php [accessed 12 April 2016]

155 Website of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East: http://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees [accessed 21 April 2016]

156 Q 1 (Steve Symonds)

158 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Overview: 2016 Syria Humanitarian Response Plan and 2016–2017 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (4 February 2016) p2: https://2c8kkt1ykog81j8k9p47oglb-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2016_HRP_3RP_Chapeau_Syria_FINAL_hi_res.pdf [accessed 25 April 2016]

159 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 4 (Edward Hobart)

160 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 7 (Edward Hobart)

161 Oral evidence taken before the European Union Committee, 19 April 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 6 (David Lidington MP)

162 Maggie Fick, ‘Nigeria and EU to start migrant return talks’, Financial Times (27 April 2016): available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c082e124-0c77-11e6-b0f1-61f222853ff3.html#axzz477Itpiyo [accessed 27 April 2016] The EU has an existing readmission agreement with Cape Verde.

166 Q 3 and Q 6

167 Ian Traynor, ‘Brussels plans migration centres outside EU to process asylum applications’, The Guardian (5 March 2016): http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/05/european-commission-third-country-immigrant-processing-centres [accessed 25 April 2016]

173 European Council, ‘EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016’: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/ [accessed 5 April 2016]

175 Gideon Rachman, ‘Major doubts about workability of EU-Turkey migrant deal’, Financial Times (19 March 2016): available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0fd92e42-edd1-11e5-aff5-19b4e253664a.html#axzz43e7HvM5f [accessed 5 April 2016]

176 ‘Migrant crisis: EU-Turkey deal is “working”’, BBC News (24 April 2016): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36121083 [accessed 28 April 2016]

177 Written evidence from Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone (ENF0004)

178 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU (February 2016) p13: available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/EMSC_launch [accessed 27 April 2016]

182 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU (February 2016) p13: available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/EMSC_launch [accessed 5 April 2016

183 European Union Committee, EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (4th report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 46)

184 Oral evidence taken before the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, 16 September 2015 (Session 2015–16), Q 65 (Dana Spinant)

191 European Union Committee, Europe in the world: Towards a more effective EU foreign and security strategy (8th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 97)

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