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European Union: Refugees

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2016

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the security of the European Union’s border; and what discussions they have had with the Governments of other EU member states about the documentation of those individuals they accept as refugees.

My Lords, I am very glad to have secured time for this debate. I originally tabled the Question back in November, so it has been a long while coming to fruition. It is also the case that, in the mean time, we have had a huge influx of refugees coming into the European Union and a very large number indeed of economic migrants coming into the European Union.

We have had two very good debates on this subject previously. In the Moses Room on 18 June there was a Private Member’s debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and there was a debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the Floor of the House on 9 July. But we have not had a full day’s debate on what must surely be one of the most important—one might say traumatic and historic—issues that we are faced with at present. I hope that the usual channels can, therefore, arrange for a debate.

I have pointed out previously that I have a long-standing interest in the subject. I am the sole survivor of a Cabinet Committee which persuaded the Heath Government to allow the refugees from Idi Amin into the country. I have always felt rather proud of that because it was a great success and they have integrated very well. On other issues, I have pointed out that I was concerned about the way in which the British Government in 1939 appropriated the whole of the assets of the Jewish refugees who had arrived here, and it was many years later that I managed to persuade the then Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, to seek some form of redress. This has been rather reflected in what has happened in Sweden and Switzerland at present, as far as dealing with refugees’ assets are concerned.

I start straightaway with a point that I have raised with my noble friend before: it is concerned with the idea of communication. It came up yesterday in relation to the problems of children and, in particular, those children who are refugees and are related to people in this country. The question was asked: how do you communicate both with them and with other members of their family? I have suggested previously that the Government should have a “refugee app” or a website that could provide communication with these groups, because most of them have telephones anyway, particularly the youngsters. This was something to which my noble friend appeared sympathetic before, so I hope that we can go ahead and do something as far as that is concerned.

I strongly believe that the attitude taken by the British Government on these problems—in particular, giving very substantial aid to the countries in the Middle East that are suffering from a refugee problem, and allowing in people from those refugee camps rather than accommodating those who have come illegally into the European Union—is right. But it has meant to some extent that we have been a bit detached from the main thrust of European asylum policy, and therefore, perhaps, have not given the leadership of which the European Union is clearly in desperate need, given the way in which the problems have developed. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has certainly been participating in these discussions, but—perhaps also because of our referendum question and so on—we might not have been exercising as much influence as we might have done in other circumstances.

The problem is that the basic Dublin agreement, as far as the admission of asylum seekers into the European Union is concerned, has simply not worked. The idea that they would have to register at the first point of entry, which in many cases has turned out to be Greece, has not resulted in a situation where they have been properly documented and their applications properly serviced. So we have therefore seen this extraordinary flow of refugees from the south of Europe towards the north.

In particular, we have seen the matter that we discussed yesterday in relation to Calais. I was interested in a BBC news story today that stated:

“Many migrants fear they will be required to apply and claim asylum in France and then give up hope of coming to the United Kingdom”.

There is a very interesting passage in the latest report of the European Commission on this issue. It says in the clearest terms that asylum seekers are not entitled to choose where they will seek asylum. The whole question of exactly which country they wish to be in is creating big problems, particularly as far as economic migrants are concerned.

We are in a very different situation from earlier crises, where we had individual asylum seekers or people in particular groups that were being persecuted. The whole scale of this thing is influenced by the fact that they are simply fleeing from the perils of being in countries that are racked by war.

It is also true to say that the groups that have been coming have, to some extent, been remarkably violent. We have seen the scenes in Calais: that was not previously the case, and it has been true as far as those who are seeking to travel north from Greece are concerned. We have seen very violent scenes indeed, so we have some problems that we have not had to cope with on previous occasions.

I come next to a point that I have raised with my noble friend before: the fact that we have problems relating to people crossing into Europe by sea in traffickers’ boats that are very often unseaworthy. We have had a situation where they have been rescued and then landed in Europe. While we must certainly abide by the law of the sea, at the same time I think that this is a real problem, and is quite inconsistent with the view that the Home Secretary has expressed.

I am glad to see, therefore, that there seems to be a significant move on the part of the European Union to protect our borders. That has not been happening up to now. The tendency has been to allow people to come in and then try to sort out the problem. We now see, in essence, as a result of the report of the European Council that just came out on 18 February, that the EU is finally—this gives one some hope for the immediate future—taking the view that the deal with Turkey, which has gradually been established, will enable it to prevent people carrying out the extremely hazardous and very short sea journey, and actually patrol the borders. That has not been happening yet, but the report of the Council’s conclusions on migration on 18 February, and a subsequent one a couple of days later, gives one hope that this is indeed a moment when we can see some serious concern to patrol and re-establish the borders.

It is clearly an impossible situation when we have the Schengen agreement on the one hand and porous external borders at the same time. That is something that we cannot live with, and nor can the European Union. It does seem that, at long last, the EU is doing something on this matter. I very much hope that our Government, despite the inhibitions that I mentioned earlier, will encourage it to do so and ensure that serious action is taken to admit genuine asylum seekers—which most certainly should be our policy, not least as far as two of them are concerned—and at the same time distinguish them very clearly from economic migrants. We ought to take a very different line with them and ensure that they do not obtain entry to this country, to some extent at the expense of the genuine asylum seekers. I therefore hope that the Government will be able to take a very positive attitude to the points that I have made.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for bringing forward this Question for Short Debate. He mentioned that he tabled it some months ago but it is, nevertheless, extremely timely. I agree with a lot of what he said, which might come as some surprise as we are from opposite sides of the Chamber. However, nobody could fail to be moved by the sight of refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Libya or the sight of people, including children, drowning in the Mediterranean; nor could anybody fail to be moved, at least intellectually, by the sheer numbers of people who are moving. According to the International Organization for Migration, since the start of the year—in two months—129,455 people have arrived in Europe by sea. Some 418 people have died in the sea in the last two months alone.

It is very easy, from this side of the channel, to realise that there is a problem and to talk about it in very much an intellectual way. These people are coming mostly to Greece and to Italy. If you look at a map you will realise that those who will come to the United Kingdom as their first port of call are very few in number. However, the sheer scale of the refugee flows that are affecting Greece is as nothing compared with what is going on in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Western Europe has been remarkably unaffected by refugee flows over recent decades. In many ways, the United Kingdom is one of the least-affected countries.

One of my concerns, already flagged up by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is that in many ways the United Kingdom has not demonstrated leadership here. We have not been affected by huge numbers of refugees coming to our borders. We have agreed to take 20,000 Syrians from the camps but we are not on a daily basis accepting coachloads or boatloads of would-be refugees. The lack of leadership and engagement from the United Kingdom is unfortunate.

Perhaps some of that is, as the noble Lord suggested, to do with the fact that the United Kingdom is going through a somewhat existential crisis in our relationship with the European Union. However, perhaps it is more than that. The fact that we are not part of the Schengen area means that in many ways we feel we are protecting our own borders and leave it to other member states to protect their own. However, those borders are porous and there are questions about documents—which comes into the formal Question—and how far those held by people seeking asylum are verifiable. Are they genuine documents? How far is it possible to scrutinise them? That is a hugely important area that affects British security as well as security in the rest of the European Union.

Last week, the Home Secretary talked about the importance of securing European borders but she also made very clear that the United Kingdom still did not see a need to be part of a European coastguard initiative, and that somehow the United Kingdom still feels that we are separate from that. Does the Minister not think that it would be beneficial for the United Kingdom to be more engaged, supporting countries such as Greece to man European borders? Those borders are not simply ones for other countries. They affect the security of the whole continent.

The nature of the Schengen area may be one that we have decided is not for the United Kingdom but there is always the danger that people who come through the European Union from porous borders are not properly documented. They will then be able to come through other channels to the United Kingdom. Are we sure that we are able to scrutinise and filter out everybody who should not be here because they are coming for illegal terrorist purposes? How are we also scrutinising to find out whether people are genuine asylum seekers whom we should welcome, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested? How far are we working with European partners to say, “Some of these people should not be coming”, even with the very generous opportunities offered by Angela Merkel in Germany who said, “Any Syrian refugees can come”? Many people arrived in Germany legally because they were invited—or at least they appeared to be legal. If they came from countries other than Syria and were not fleeing war they do not have a genuine right to be here. How is that verified?

Does the Minister not think it would be beneficial for the United Kingdom to be part of the European Union? Would it not be beneficial for us to work more closely with our European partners to ensure that we focus on working effectively to facilitate the reception of genuine asylum seekers and to keep out those who should not be here? Would it not be beneficial to the United Kingdom in our role in the European Union to demonstrate solidarity with those countries that suffer from huge migration flows, particularly Greece, by offering to take more people?

My Lords, as we begin a four-month marathon debate on whether Britain should remain a member of the EU, it is good that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, enables us to discuss, however briefly, another major challenge facing the EU—all the more so since the EU’s handling of this problem and the outcome of the migration crisis will profoundly affect this country whether we are inside the European Union or not. The idea that we can just pull up a drawbridge and indulge in some enjoyable schadenfreude at the expense of our European partners is as misguided as when some said we could comfortably sit out the eurozone crisis and economic and financial crisis without them affecting us in the slightest way.

No one could say that the EU has so far covered itself with glory when faced with the migration crisis, even if it was none of its own doing and though it is a kind of backhanded compliment to the stability and prosperity that the EU has brought to our continent. The EU is managing—let us face it—no worse than the United States, faced with a quite different immigration challenge. Mistakes have been made. Too little effort and too few resources have been put into stemming the flood at source in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Unilateral actions taken by countries such as Hungary and Austria are, whether or not they are in conformity with EU rules, surely in breach of their obligations under the UN refugee convention. A misguided—in my view—attempt to impose mandatory quotas of refugees on the members of Schengen is almost certainly unenforceable. There has been a failure by some member states—Greece and Italy in particular—to fulfil their obligations under the Dublin convention to document and process new arrivals, separating out genuine refugees and asylum seekers from illegal economic migrants, returning the latter to their countries of origin.

One action I would not criticise is the decision by the German Chancellor, taken after the immigration surge began, to offer asylum to all genuine refugees. I am saddened when I hear that act of humane generosity described as if it triggered the surge in the first place, when in fact the surge was taking place and it was in response to it that she spoke as she did. The Chancellor now faces plenty of domestic criticism, much of it from people with whom no respectable politician in this country would share a platform, so let us not add to it.

Amid all the confusion and tensions, one can see some of the elements of a better overall approach beginning to emerge. An agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of immigrants and clamp down on traffickers is absolutely vital and I believe there is a meeting on that later this week. NATO assistance in patrolling the maritime borders between Greece and Turkey, and those between Libya and Italy, is another element. There is the establishment of processing centres within the countries of first arrival where proper documentation can be carried out and where economic migrants can be separated from genuine refugees and the former returned to their countries of origin. There is much greater help given to countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to harbour refugees close to their homes while offering them better health and education services and a chance of employment. Here, our own Government’s response has been exemplary. They deserve praise for it, even if I reiterate that our willingness to take in refugees has been, in the words of the most reverend Primate, rather thin.

Clearly, some member states—Greece in particular—and some other countries outside the EU will need substantial help in carrying out these policies. I hope the UK will be generous in providing finance and material support in that respect, and not just sit like Pontius Pilate washing our hands. I say this because, to return to my original theme, we have plenty at stake in all this. We may not be a member of Schengen but if that imaginative border-free system were to collapse irretrievably our own trade with and ability to travel around the European Union would suffer, as would the benefits our citizens enjoy when working or on holiday elsewhere in the EU. It is in our interest that any temporary suspension of Schengen, such as a number of member states have quite reasonably resorted to in the heat of the crisis, should remain just that—temporary. The policies being gradually shaped by the Schengen members should receive our full support, even if we are not going to apply them ourselves in all respects.

If the Minister agrees with that analysis, I hope he will give a little bit more detail about the support the Government might be ready to give when this matter is next discussed at the European level: no doubt when the Prime Minister goes to the next meeting of the European Council in two and a half weeks’ time.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Higgins for initiating this important debate. I will make a few short points and I appreciate that some may echo sentiments already raised by other noble Lords. I intend to concentrate on documentation for refugees coming into the UK. As all sides of the House would agree, the fundamental responsibility of government is to ensure that however a person finds themselves here—as a refugee or otherwise—they do not pose a threat to the safety of any member of the British public. To know who visitors are is key and, therefore, so is documentation.

However, in the case of refugees, we know that documentation is often unintentionally—or, indeed, intentionally—lost. Understandably, many refugees deliberately do not travel with any papers for fear of documents being discovered and of being sent back to their country of origin. For others, documents are simply lost or have been confiscated; and for some, documents are present but counterfeit. How many people try to enter our borders each year without any official paperwork? What measures do the Government have in place to identify genuine refugees in a situation where no official papers are present or where false documents are presented? Furthermore, what measures are being taken to identify people who are misusing the refugee crisis, such as people traffickers or those with criminal or terrorist intentions? For example, have estimations been made of the number of people who may be trafficked each year to the UK under the guise of migration or being refugees, bearing in mind that the perpetrators of this hideous activity, who often travel with those being trafficked, will undoubtedly be taking advantage of the current migration and refugee patterns throughout Europe?

Having a robust plan in place to identify people is especially important in relation to vulnerable travellers, such as children. We know from Home Office figures that over 3,000 unaccompanied children under 18 years of age sought asylum in 2015, about 50 of whom were under 14. How many of those children did not have documents, and how many were travelling with counterfeit identification when they arrived? What is being done to monitor these children and to keep them protected from abuse after they have been granted asylum in the UK?

Great Britain exists to support and protect those who contribute to making it so great. Those who wish to prosper through criminal activity or those who wish to do us harm should never be allowed in. Refugees rely on us, often as a matter of life or death, and we need all the resources possible to be directed to the people who need them most of all. We must therefore ensure that thorough procedures are in place to identify the most vulnerable, as well as those who are misusing the system, so that a clear distinction can be made between the two. I know this is an area that the Government take extremely seriously, and that much work has been done. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s remarks.

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised an issue of pressing concern which continues to baffle all of us on both sides of the EU divide. The number of migrants who are up against internal EU barriers is causing distress to all of us: the scenes in the Aegean and on the Greek-Macedonian border being among the most critical. As we speak, some 8,000 are still stuck at Idomeni, where the Greek army and the ICRC are doing their best to cope. No one is in doubt that the rules governing external borders need to change: what escapes us is the question of whether they can change and whether the European Council has the muscle to make any changes at all. Of course, the advocates of Brexit say with some glee that this is the end of Europe as we know it. One newspaper even says the EU itself has only a few days to go. More sensible people are determined that the Commission will be forced to find solutions, although inevitably they will have to be partial and specific to each successive crisis.

Schengen is now at risk. A liberal, humanitarian principle that has enabled millions to travel daily between frontiers has been seriously challenged, and may possibly be ended, by mass migration. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall and who will put him back together again? The Commission is bending over backwards to control the uncontrollable and its website on Schengen makes painful reading—I shall not repeat it. Eurosceptics should renounce any feelings of schadenfreude because they could never have anticipated a crisis on this scale.

Individual states are, legitimately it seems, making their own national decisions. As my noble friend Lord Hannay said, the Commission has legalised the temporary reintroduction of border controls in seven countries, trying to imply that these are only an interim measure: we hope they will be. This means that member states will gradually fall in line with the UK, which has long decided to opt out. We can imagine that the Minister will have no difficulty with the first part of the question. Dublin is fast becoming a shambles and border security is becoming a national concern. What happens next and how will the EU be able to set up alternatives?

The key problem remains the number of Syrians entering Greece by sea. NATO continues to make a modest contribution—we wish it were more—by deterring and returning migrants, but its fleet needs to be increased significantly if it is to help. The real pressure occurs on the borders of all the Balkan states up to Austria, which has decided to take the law into its own hands. The UK should intervene and set an example by supporting those neighbouring states. We have a good record on enlargement, as has been demonstrated in our own EU Select Committee reports, and we are supporting a number of specific aid programmes, such as EULEX in Kosovo, as well as EU-wide projects such as FRONTEX and Europol, which have a well-developed database.

I know that, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has reminded us, we are concerned about our own security, but why can we not take more of an initiative on the security of the EU’s external border? Will the Government co-operate with the EU action plan on migrant smuggling? As an island, the UK is also a European leader on border control. We have experience at many ports of entry by air, sea and road, and the Home Office or DfID could be exporting knowledge by training more police and immigration officers. Systematic checks against databases are difficult given the current scale of migration and they will be impossible in hotspots without the necessary infrastructure. This is much more than can be provided by UNHCR and the other relief agencies which are having to cope nobly with instant emergencies around that region. Are we providing enough—or any—technological back-up for these operations? Can we be associated with the new European border and coastguard agency? Should we not be belatedly signing up to the 2005 Prüm treaty on data sharing? As my noble friend Lord Hannay said, we are, after all, a member state, whether or not we belong to Schengen.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, while our media give a powerful picture of impending crisis, we have yet to see examples of the UK carrying out our own neighbourhood policy as we should. Without in any way supporting greater federal union, I am with those who would like to see the UK much more actively joining the EU decision-making process on migration, not only with processing applications but with accepting more refugees, especially unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people who are already in Europe—not those in Turkey.

Finally, is the Minister concerned that the new identification measures announced on 18 February by Austria and four neighbouring Balkan states could be in breach of international agreements? Restrictions on the right to receive protection, such as sudden border closures and discrimination in immigration controls, and Austria’s imposition of daily quotas are already incompatible with the refugee convention. Receiving refugees is something we are good at, so let us send a message of solidarity to Mrs Merkel and support her in the field and not from the touch line.

My Lords, I also offer warm thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for initiating this vital debate and for his excellent speech. The European Commission has put forward a very comprehensive package of measures on borders and migration. As the Dutch Migration Minister who chaired last week’s Justice and Home Affairs Council said:

“We can solve this crisis if all member states are ready to work together, as well as work with the countries on the Western Balkan route and with Turkey”.

Unfortunately, the member states have behaved badly; they have been reactive and disorganised and, at worst, played the blame game. Greece, as well as Germany, has a more than legitimate grievance about not being invited to the meeting that Austria hosted recently. Yesterday we saw terrible scenes of tear gas being fired at migrants on the Macedonian border. The problem is not the lack of available laws, tools or even money—€10 billion has made available from the EU budget so far—but a lack of political will and solidarity. It is obvious that we need to do a number of things, of which the following is a non-exhaustive list of six.

The EU’s external border must be strengthened. It is welcome that the Council is urgently examining the Commission’s proposal for a European border and coastguard agency, which I assume that the UK cannot be associated with. We must also have effective rescue at sea. FRONTEX operations last year rescued 250,000 people and NATO assistance is also very welcome.

We need a much greater push to put smugglers and traffickers out of business and into jail if at all possible. I believe there are 11,000 suspects on Europol’s database. Does the Minister have any data on what has happened to those who have been apprehended? I believe 900 people have been apprehended by FRONTEX working with Europol and Eurojust.

The EU must also ensure that security threats from potential terrorists are combated by stopping them slipping in as migrants. The Council has agreed a common position on the proposal for checks against databases at external borders but, again, as it is a Schengen project, I assume the UK cannot take part. Will the UK use the Interpol database and its access for policing purposes to the Schengen information system to align our practices on Schengen and seek maximum co-operation with the Schengen zone on this checking process?

I note that the Home Secretary said last week, in a Written Statement that she would,

“push for Schengen and non-Schengen states to be able to exchange immigration information”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/16; col. 11WS]

As the UK does not have access to the immigration side of the Schengen information system, will the Minister explain what such an exchange might consist of?

We must secure safe and legal routes for refugees and asylum seekers to reach Europe. Of course direct resettlement from the region is important, but there must also be opportunities for spontaneous arrivals to come legally in pursuit of a place of safety. We have constructed such barriers with carriers’ liability that that is almost impossible.

Those who arrive on our shores must be processed and registered efficiently. Action is at last happening to have so-called hotspots in Italy and Greece up and running, though it is too slow. Decisions on who needs protection must be made promptly so that they can work and integrate as speedily as possible, and those who do not have legitimate claims to stay must be returned. This is essential to preserve the integrity of the refugee system and public support for it.

I recognise that the Government are offering practical assistance to help with the registering and fingerprinting of migrants in Greece and Italy. Will the Minister tell us exactly what our help consists of—for instance, the number of experts that we have loaned?

It is vital that the internal Schengen arrangements be preserved. These benefit UK citizens and businesses, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, as well as those of other EU countries. The reimposition of internal controls will, as the Commission warned, set back what is already a very slow eurozone recovery through obstructing the single market.

One of the worst features of the current disarray is that who gets through to safety is rather a lottery; it is often young and able-bodied men rather than vulnerable women, children, the elderly, the sick or the disabled. I am of course not saying that those men do not deserve protection—many of them do—but there is a worrying survival of the fittest dimension to it all.

I also appreciate the German Chancellor’s unilateral moves last summer, born of despair at the prospect of getting a co-ordinated response. It is none the less true, however, that some confusion was created down the chain, not least in switching the Dublin regulation on and off. Can the Minister give us some clue or prediction about what will happen to the Dublin regulation?

The Home Secretary also said last week that,

“if the EU is to avoid a repeat of last year, we must take decisive action now”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/16; col. 12WS]

Will the Minister tell us what this Government are proposing to do to make sure that the UK is fully engaged in, committed to and participating in solutions to this migration challenge? We know about and appreciate the resettlement programme and the financial assistance being given to the region, but the UK should take part in and not stand aside from the sharing of responsibility for those who have reached Europe. I say this with full recognition of our aid contributions, the resettlement programme, and the fact that we have a rising population, which some member states do not. We need a strong and effective EU in the matter of migration and security, and any Eurosceptic who thinks a Europe in disarray on this issue is good news for their cause needs to examine both their head and their conscience.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for securing this debate. Obviously, it is timely in the light of the current situation both on the Macedonian border with Greece and at our end of Europe in Calais and Dunkirk.

In its very recent report on a more effective EU foreign and security strategy, the European Union Committee said:

“Migrant and refugee inflows are likely to remain a long-term challenge for the Union. So far, Member States have not agreed a collective response to this issue at the EU level. The fractious and polarised debates have battered the reputation of the EU and resulted in a muted response to a pressing security and humanitarian crisis. These internal divisions are likely to undermine Member States’ ability to achieve unity on foreign policy issues”.

The issues covered by this debate are ones that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has raised on a number of occasions before. Indeed, he did so last month when he asked in a Written Question whether,

“EU member states within the Schengen area are issuing a standard form of passport or other document to those they accept as asylum seekers or whether individual countries decide on the format to use”.

I think that the Answer the noble Lord received was that EU member states were actually issuing,

“a refugee status travel document, in the form set out in the Schedule to the Geneva Convention”,

rather than that that was what member states ought to be doing but whether they all were was another matter. Perhaps the Minister could clarify this point in his reply.

The European Council meeting last month stated that the objective of the EU had to be,

“to rapidly stem the flows, protect our external borders, reduce illegal migration and safeguard the integrity of the Schengen area”.

With that last point in mind, the European Council said that there was a need to,

“get back to a situation where all Members of the Schengen Area fully apply the Schengen Borders Code and refuse entry at external borders to third-country nationals who do not satisfy the entry conditions or who have not made an asylum application despite having had the opportunity to do so”.

Reference has already been made in this debate to the intentions of an EU agreement with Turkey.

The European Council expressed the view that,

“with the help of the EU, the setting up and functioning of hotspots”,

in front-line member states to ensure effective reception and registration processes was,

“gradually improving as regards identification, registration, fingerprinting and security checks on persons and travel documents”,

although much remained to be done. What remained to be done included,

“to fully implement the relocation process, to stem secondary flows of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers and to provide the significant reception facilities needed to accommodate migrants under humane conditions while their situation is being clarified”.

The Council reiterated, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said:

“Asylum seekers do not have the right to choose the Member State in which they seek asylum”.

According to the third quarterly report for last year from the Frontex Risk Analysis Network, that quarter saw the highest ever reported numbers of illegal border crossings since data collection began in 2007, with the figure being not far short of 620,000. Most illegal border crossings—almost 320,000—were reported on the eastern Mediterranean route, with almost all accounted-for detections being on the eastern Aegean islands. Around 70% of the irregular migrants on this route claimed to be of Syrian nationality, with some 17% saying they were of Afghan nationality.

In the third quarter of 2015, the number of detected undocumented Syrian nationals within the EU, at almost 90,000, more than tripled compared to the previous quarter, and there were significant increases in the number of illegal stayers from Bangladesh, Iran and Iraq. Also during the third quarter of last year, EU member states reported more than 405,000 asylum applications—an almost 150% increase on the same period in 2014. Almost two-thirds submitted their application in the top three countries—Germany, Hungary and Sweden—although apparently most asylum seekers in Hungary absconded to apply for asylum in another country. The figures also showed that Syrians were the top-ranking asylum nationality in the EU Schengen area, with more than 137,000 applications in the third quarter of last year, followed by Afghan, Iraqi and Albanian nationals.

As a result of the increasing number of migrants arriving in the EU, several Schengen member states have introduced or reintroduced temporary border controls at their borders with other Schengen member states. At the end of last year the European Commission proposed establishing a European border and coast guard, with a view to ensuring a strong, shared management of external borders. The Commission also proposed to introduce systematic checks against relevant databases for all people entering or exiting the Schengen area.

The subject matter of this debate refers to an assessment of the security of the European Union’s borders. It is clear that the EU’s borders are not secure and probably cannot be secure in the face of the large-scale migration arising mainly from the current and continuing conflicts in the Middle East. However, our own borders are not secure either in the sense that we do not have much control over the numbers of people coming to this country. The lack of response from the Government when asked to give even an estimate of the level of net migration for this year and next year is eloquent testimony to that lack of control.

At times there also appears to be a certain lack of enthusiasm on the Government’s part for engaging with EU member states, particularly on migration and border control issues. Interestingly, the subject matter of this debate also asks what discussions the Government have had with the Governments of other EU member states about the documentation of those individuals they accept as refugees. Of course, that is a question to which only the Minister can really provide a response. Relevant and appropriate though that question is, and relevant and appropriate though the measures the EU wants to take to try to secure its borders may be, the only real solution to the present situation is to address the causes of the large-scale migration currently taking place—and that will require a mutual determination to do so on the part of the major powers, including the EU, which currently seems to be lacking.

I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Higgins for securing this debate. He may have waited a little time for it come up, but the usual channels, with impeccable timing, have brought it to our attention today. The debate that we have had around these issues has been of great value, and I hope to add to it with some responses to the legitimate questions that have been raised.

The UK Government recognise the importance of this issue and are committed to supporting our European partners to ensure the full and proper management of the EU’s external border, reduce the impact of illegal migration and deter people from risking their lives on perilous journeys, as well as to increase security at the border. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, reminded us of the scale of the human loss. Last year it was 3,771 lives, and she used the figure so far for this year of 418, which may be more up to date than the 410 which I have in the briefing I received this morning. The scale is quite shocking.

It is important to clarify that although the UK is not part of Schengen or a member of FRONTEX, we want to support the operational work of the proposed EU border agency, in the same way that we currently support FRONTEX operations. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Hannay, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friend Lord Smith, asked whether we were standing aside and how we were engaging with our European partners.

If the House will bear with me for 30 seconds, I will just point out that this is of course the dominant issue on the European agenda—in fact on the international agenda—at present. The British Government were represented at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 25 and 26 January, at an informal strategic committee on immigration, frontiers and asylum in Europe on 15 and 16 January, and at the European Council on 18 and 19 February. This week, we have the France-UK summit on Thursday. The Prime Minister and the leaders of the French Government, along with the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary, will be there in Amiens. Next week, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, is the EU-Turkey summit, to move that agenda forward. There is the Justice and Home Affairs Council the week after and then the European Council the week after that. At the end of the month, there is the UNHCR meeting on Syrian refugees.

That is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but I read it out to stress that, from my experience of working in the Home Office, my colleagues in the department are actively engaged in this on a daily basis. We totally endorse and accept the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Rosser, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and indeed my noble friend Lord Higgins himself that there cannot be an ounce of schadenfreude —the term I think the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, used—about what is happening there. I was reminded as they were talking of the aphorism that if you do not visit your problem neighbourhoods, then your problem neighbourhoods will visit you. That works in a domestic setting and certainly in an international one.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, invited us to say, we are focused not just on what is happening but on dealing with the causes. That was one of the reasons for the Valletta summit between EU and African partners, which set out a significant agenda for action to respond to and tackle the flows from Africa. It was notable that, in response to that, we have I think seen the principal flows in recent months from the central Mediterranean reduce significantly, to 9,000 arrivals in the first two months of this year. The principal route now is through the Aegean, with 120,565 arrivals.

That link with tackling these issues at source in Africa reminds me to pay tribute to the work that my noble friend Lord Higgins did all those years ago in bringing Ugandan Asians to this country. They have made an immense contribution to it, and we are certainly delighted that we have one of them, our noble friend Lord Popat, on this side. We look forward in years to come to perhaps being joined by one of those Syrians who have been offered sanctuary in this country too.

European Union member states are facing unprecedented pressures on their time. That is why the UK is taking a comprehensive approach to the migrant crisis, intervening at every stage of the migrant journey—at source, in transit, at the EU’s frontier, at our border and in the UK. We want to help build stability in the countries these migrants come from and we are engaging in the largest-ever humanitarian response to a single crisis. At the Syria conference in London on 4 February—which I left off the list I gave earlier—the Prime Minister announced that the UK will more than double its support in response to the Syria crisis, to over £2.3 billion. That is the kind of generosity that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, urged us to have.

To help those in need of genuine protection, the UK is expanding its scheme to resettle vulnerable Syrians from the region. We have exceeded our commitment to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees before Christmas, and expect to resettle up to the full commitment of 20,000 Syrians by 2020.

In relation to the external border, the UK is playing a part in the maritime operations. Royal Navy operations in the Mediterranean have so far saved 12,500 lives and it is currently involved in NATO activities in the Aegean. This is not just a Syrian crisis; many nationalities are trying to come to the EU. As my noble friend Lord Smith urged, the EU needs to be firm with those who do not need protection, pose a security risk or refuse to co-operate with the asylum process.

With regard to the Government’s approach to European Commission initiatives, the Government fully support the Commission’s hotspots proposal, which aims to address these issues at the border. In our view the hotspots can contribute to better management of the EU’s external border by securing the rapid return of those without a legitimate asylum claim. It is important that we do not focus exclusively on facilitating relocation but fulfil this wider security objective. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to the fact that these hotspots had taken too long to set up, and we concur with that. At the meetings I have mentioned we always urge our colleagues to work faster, in addition to providing additional support. We have announced £65 million of help for our European colleagues in this situation, a significant proportion of which—£45 million I think—is to go to Greece.

A number of Lords referred to the key issue of organised crime, which is a staggering problem. Europol last week estimated that of those arriving in the European Union in search of asylum 90% had paid a criminal gang to get here. That gives us an idea of the scale of the problem. Since last year, UK law enforcement has disrupted more than 170 organised crime groups involved in organised immigration crime. Since April 2015 immigration enforcement has disrupted 94 organised crime groups involved in organising immigration crime, 12 of which involved people smuggling. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked for an update on that. These cases are currently being processed through the courts. To give one example, however, one group that was disrupted in December involved 23 people from Sweden, Austria, the UK and Greece, and was responsible for bringing 100 migrants a day into Greece. This group had made an estimated €10 million in the process. These are significant issues.

I can reassure, I hope, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on some of the points he raised about the Prüm issues, which we have opted into. We are working with our colleagues in communicating information about the second-generation Schengen information system, which we are part of, the European arrest warrant framework, which we are part of, Europol, with which we work, and the European criminal record and information service, which is part of that. We want those data to be collected as people arrive in those hotspots, so that the data can be shared with us through the Dublin process. We can then ensure that our borders are secure. That is also a reason why we want to take more people from the region. As my noble friend Lord Smith said, when people come here they have often genuinely lost their documents in their struggle to get here, and sometimes they have chosen to destroy them to avoid their identification. That poses a particular risk. That is one reason why we want to take more people from the region, because there, through the UNHCR or the International Organisation on Migration, we can identify them, and then we have an additional layer of verification through the Home Office systems before someone qualifies for membership in the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme.

My noble friend Lord Higgins also referred to Turkey. The UK Government have committed £250 million to securing that crucial southern border to the region to tackle that issue. The House will be updated on progress on that.

Time is running out on this debate, but I want to communicate one message. First, the UK Government are absolutely committed to working with our European partners to resolve this issue. This is not a UK problem, it is a European problem—in fact, an international, worldwide humanitarian problem—and we need to work together. That is happening daily. Secondly, we are not being complacent but putting resources behind that through the European Asylum Support Office, hotspots and finance, and bringing people to the UK from the region, to provide that safe alternative route to undertaking the perilous journey that we want them to avoid.

I again thank my noble friend Lord Higgins for securing this debate and all those who contributed.

My Lords, the whole House will have benefited from the excellent documentation that the Library has produced. I think it will be of wider interest than just to those who have taken part. I thank all those who spoke for their interesting contributions, particularly my noble friend. I do not doubt that this is a subject to which we will return soon, and I hope that the usual channels can make suitable time available.