Refugees and Migrants from Asia and Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:27 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:27 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing the debate. I commend him on his long-standing engagement on international development and foreign policy issues. I also congratulate all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, which had a particularly impressive speakers list. I shall try to answer all the questions that have been posed. If I fail to, because I am very pressed for time, I shall write to noble Lords and put copies in the Library.

As other noble Lords have said, we have all been shocked by the plight of migrants dying on an unprecedented scale on boats in the Mediterranean and in the Andaman Sea. People are fleeing war, violence and deep-rooted poverty. The collapse of authority in Libya has meant a huge increase in numbers coming through the central Mediterranean. Addressing these issues requires a complex and far-sighted response.

At a special meeting of the European Council in April, it was agreed that we had to act to address the humanitarian tragedy unfolding before us. At that point, the UK contributed HMS “Bulwark”—to which tribute was paid by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords—to support the Italian rescue effort. She has rescued more than 4,700 people from sinking boats that have set off from Libya.

We have also provided two Border Force cutters to support the search and rescue operations, and to date they have rescued some further 450 people. In total, UK vessels have rescued more than 5,000 people from drowning. But we also agreed that we could not resolve this crisis without a long-term comprehensive approach. This is where we need to work together across Europe to tackle the drivers of this migration.

The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and many other noble Lords expressed their concern about HMS “Bulwark” returning home and being replaced by HMS “Enterprise”. We have always been clear that to tackle the migrant crisis we need a comprehensive plan in going after the criminal gangs, smugglers and the owners of the boats, potentially taking action there as well, and stabilising the countries from which these people are coming. So it is right that we now move to the next stage under the CSDP’s mission. As a multirole survey ship, HMS “Enterprise”, as mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is well placed to assist in this phase of the operation, particularly given its additional intelligence-gathering capability. We can do this now because other European partners are stepping in with contributions to the CSDP operation.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, suggested that our United Kingdom contribution was decreasing. This is not the case. As well as HMS “Enterprise”, there is another helicopter attached to this operation and two Border Force cutters—HMC “Protector” and HMC “Seeker”—are aiding FRONTEX’s Operation Triton. In addition, we have contributed a further five defence personnel to the multinational operational headquarters in Rome, which is crucial to establishing the CSDP mission.

The urge to migrate and to seek a better life is a natural human instinct. It is part of a broader process of global change and development and a route out of poverty for millions. However, we must seek to manage irregular migration in a rational way, addressing its root causes as well as its short-term impact. Some people will be fleeing war and persecution, others are economic migrants seeking a better life. We need to make a distinction between these to ensure we address the root causes of this migration.

In the short term, we are providing humanitarian support to refugees and displaced people across the world. The Government have just provided a new humanitarian package of support, with an additional £100 million pledge to Syria, taking our public commitment to £900 million to date. This is our largest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis and makes the UK the world’s second-largest bilateral donor to the Syria crisis. It is providing food, clean water, medical care and other essential aid that is helping hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and its neighbouring countries and is having a big impact on reducing people’s need to flee the region.

The Government have also just announced an additional £217 million to Africa to provide support to more than 2 million refugees who are displaced across the region. There is also a new £110 million programme for work in the Horn of Africa, with a focus on refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. The UK is now the second-largest bilateral donor in the Horn of Africa in providing humanitarian support for displaced populations. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, said, on the other side of the world, Rohingya refugees have fled their homes in north-west Burma. The United Kingdom is one of the largest donors in Burma, providing £18 million in humanitarian assistance since 2012 to Rakhine State, from where many of the Burmese Rohingya found on boats in the Andaman Sea originate.

We are also tackling the networks that lie behind people-smuggling. This form of illegal migration funds organised crime and undermines fair immigration controls by allowing economic migrants uncontrolled access to our countries. This emphasises the importance of our supporting the creation of a credible national Government in Libya who can work with us to secure its coastline.

We must also develop a much richer picture of how these networks are exploiting people, so that we can disrupt them. The Government are establishing a dedicated law enforcement team to tackle the threat posed by illegal immigration from north Africa, in light of the surge in numbers crossing the Mediterranean. This will bring together officers from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service, with the task of relentlessly pursuing and disrupting organised crime groups profiting from the people-smuggling trade. We will work with our international partners to identify organised crime groups smuggling migrants to the Libyan coast; illuminate the routes and methods the smugglers use; and understand the money flows. These insights will be shared with our partners to disrupt those orchestrating the smuggling.

At the same time, we must be clear that we will meet our obligations to provide refuge for the most vulnerable. The United Kingdom already participates in the United Nations programme to resettle refugees who have fled from their home countries, including those affected by conflict or civil war. We also set up our own scheme for particularly vulnerable people fleeing the conflict in Syria, including women and children at risk who could not be protected in the region. However, these are only short-term measures. These scenes demonstrate how working with developing countries not only matters to them but, more than ever before, matters to us too.

We must work together to tackle this issue upstream at source, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port.

In the long term, development assistance addresses the root causes of instability and insecurity, reducing inequality and providing economic opportunities for all. This helps to build more effective states and societies, reducing some of the pressures to migrate. Finding the means to support stability, prosperity and opportunity means a more stable and prosperous world for us all.

The United Kingdom is already refocusing its own efforts. Despite the difficult economic times, Britain has kept its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid. The United Kingdom will spend over £4 billion on bilateral and multilateral development assistance in Africa this financial year. Of this, £725 million will go bilaterally on development programmes to key source and transit countries for irregular migrants in the Horn of Africa and east Africa. We will also spend £280 million bilaterally on governance and security, building state capacity to achieve stability, peace and respect for human rights; and £540 million will be spent bilaterally on economic development, including a strong focus on jobs and urban youth populations, particularly relevant in areas of the Horn of Africa.

We are supporting the cross-government effort, including the £1 billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which seeks to deliver longer-term peaceful political settlements—ultimately the best tool for reducing flows of irregular migration into the European Union from countries in the Middle East and north African region. At the Department for International Development we have already refocused our priorities to be more on jobs and livelihoods than ever before. Through United Kingdom aid we are investing a total of £1.8 billion globally on economic development this financial year, more than doubling the direct amount spent in 2012-13. This refocusing of our programme will take time to have an impact on the current migration trends.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned the recent debate in the Moses Room, which my noble friend Lord Bates responded to on behalf of the Government. He has been pleased to write to all Ministers in this House from the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office—that is himself, of course—the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so that all the Ministers in the Lords will be able to discuss these matters among themselves, and I will be taking part in these discussions as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, went further on the problems facing the Rohingya people. The United Kingdom has taken action at ministerial level by raising the issue with the Burmese ambassador in London. We are issuing a joint demarche, with the US and the EU, to Ministers in Burma, and we are lobbying ASEAN member states Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia not to turn away boats in distress. On 29 May, we participated in the Thai international co-ordination meeting as an observer. We call on all parties in Burma to address the dire situation of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state. We want to see improved humanitarian access, greater security and accountability, and a sustainable solution on citizenship.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friends Lord Marlesford and Lord Higgins all mentioned the issue of safe havens. The scale of the present situation requires ambitious thinking. We must contemplate difficult decisions to help break the link between getting on a boat in north Africa and being allowed to enter and remain in Europe. Our colleagues in Spain have valuable experience in doing exactly this when migrants arrived in their thousands in the Canary Islands. We can learn important lessons from them, but we will be urging the EU to look to create safe zones in transit countries where illegal migrants could remain, or to which those who end up in Europe and who do not require asylum could be returned when it becomes difficult to send them home directly. For this reason, the United Kingdom is very interested in the proposal by the European Commission for a multipurpose centre in Niger. We have joined the informal working group to develop this and will be pressing for the level of ambition to reflect the need to fundamentally change the current patterns of illegal migration to the European Union.

My noble friend Lord Higgins mentioned the situation in Calais. We recognise that we need to do more with our French counterparts to tackle the issue. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, set out a number of commitments in a joint declaration published last September to tackle the problems at the port. The declaration included £12 million from the UK Government towards upgrading the security infrastructure at Calais and other juxtaposed ports.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, also mentioned asylum. The majority of illegal immigrants to Italy come from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal where the drivers for emigration tend to be more economic rather than fear of persecution. My noble friend Lord Higgins asked what the European Union is doing. The EU needs to do more to ensure that it is taking a lead role in responding to this crisis. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, working closely with the African Union is vital, and I welcome the proposed summit that is to take place in Valletta in the autumn.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, mentioned the human rights situation in Eritrea. The UK will continue to press Eritrea to improve its human rights record through a range of channels, including through our engagement with multilateral partners on their programmes. The root causes of migration from Eritrea are complex. They are driven by a mix of economic, social, political and other factors, but the opportunity for economic development is clearly a contributing factor that is clearly influencing people’s decisions to migrate.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, asked about resettlement. We have been clear that the United Kingdom will not sign up to a compulsory European Union quota system which risks undermining control of our own borders and the UK asylum system. However, I am proud of this country’s record for resettling refugees. In the past five years we have resettled more than 5,000 people, second only to Sweden in the European Union.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned humanitarian aid in Sudan. The United Kingdom is a leading humanitarian donor in Sudan, with my department involved in a programme of £47 million in 2015-16. The majority of this is focused on the provision of humanitarian assistance. The noble Baroness also mentioned cross-border support in Sudan. While we are deeply concerned at renewed military activity in the two areas, we continue to judge the risks of providing cross-border support to be too high, due to the limited number of implementing partners and our inability to assess or monitor programmes. However, we continue to review this policy.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford mentioned the £900 million response in Syria. The response to the conflict in Syria is the United Kingdom’s largest ever to a humanitarian crisis. As my noble friend said, the UK is the second largest donor to the Syrian crisis. This response also supports Lebanon, Jordan, which was mentioned by other noble Lords, and Turkey to deal with the influx of refugees and the pressures this creates.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what we are doing in the regional development and protection programmes. These are EU-led initiatives to increase efforts to deal with what is called the stickiness of refugees in transit countries. This has two goals: to strengthen EU member states’ co-ordination and coherence and to develop activities to strengthen migration management in the region, and benefit refugees and migrants.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, also mentioned the Syrian relocation scheme. I understand that 187 people have been helped under this scheme. On Friday 19 June, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that we would modestly expand the scheme by offering a few hundred more places by working with the UNHCR.

I will now have to finish my notes. It is only through taking an approach that both addresses the immediate symptoms, through our search and rescue on the Mediterranean and our humanitarian programmes across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and the root causes, through our long-term economic development and governance programmes, that we can truly have an impact. Through shared prosperity and ambition, we need to work to create a world in which people do not feel forced to leave their home countries.