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Refugees and Migrants: Royal Navy and NATO Interception in Mediterranean

Volume 769: debated on Monday 7 March 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence to an Urgent Question in another place on the announcement that the Royal Navy will join NATO forces in the interception and return of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean. The Statement is as follows:

“The scale of the migration challenge requires NATO, the European Union, and other European countries across Europe to work together to address both its symptoms—the constant flow of migrants and the conditions we see them face—and the causes in Syria and beyond. We must also work with local civilian authorities to tackle the gangs that profit from smuggling of migrants. The UK has already been engaged in this work for several months, with the Home Office’s ship “VOS Grace” deployed in the region since November with a detachment of Border Force officers. On 11 February, NATO Defence Ministers took the decision to participate in international efforts better to enable Turkish and Greek coastguards and FRONTEX to intercept the migrant boats and disrupt the smugglers’ business model. NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 arrived in the region within 48 hours of that decision, and has been conducting initial reconnaissance and surveillance of illegal crossings since then.

The NATO Secretary-General outlined in a statement yesterday evening that discussions between NATO, Turkey and Greece have agreed that NATO vessels can now operate in Greek and Turkish territorial waters. We have decided that the UK contribution is to send Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay” and a maritime Wildcat helicopter to the Aegean Sea. Their roles will be to support the NATO monitoring and surveillance task. They will work alongside three Border Force boats – the “VOS Grace”; the cutter “Protector”, which is on its way to the region; and a further Border Force cutter that is expected to start operations later this month. Together, they will support the Turkish and Greek coastguards and the EU FRONTEX mission.

The Prime Minister is attending today’s EU Turkey summit on migration. Contributing to the EU and NATO missions to counter smugglers is only part of the Government’s wider approach to tackling the root causes of irregular migration. We are providing up to £65 million of funding to the Europe-wide response. This includes a new fund of up to £10 million to meet the needs of refugee children in Europe. The UK is leading the way in tackling these issues at their source, providing significant amounts of aid to assist in stabilising troubled regions, lessening the need for people to leave. The Royal Navy contribution is an important part of the international effort to assist the Turkish and Greek authorities in breaking the business model of criminal people traffickers”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place as a Statement. It is right that we should do everything possible to help these poor people who have already suffered so much and now risk their lives again trying to make the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece, but will the Minister say more about our role?

The Statement said that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay” will be supporting NATO monitoring and surveillance tasks. Will the Minister confirm that “Mounts Bay” will be picking up refugees whose boats are at risk of sinking, if we encounter such craft? What will happen then? There are no international waters in that part of the Aegean. If we pick up in Greek waters, do we take the refugees to Greece; and is it the same if we pick up in Turkish waters—do we take them back to Turkey. Do we disable, impound or even sink the boats from which we rescue people? “Mounts Bay” will be supported by three Border Force boats—is it correct that we have just five? Where will the three for this operation come from? Are any coming from our own territorial waters? Are the other two vessels at sea or being repaired? Finally, will the Minister say more about the overall NATO plan to bring to an end this evil exploitation of migrants’ sufferings?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for his questions. The principal role of “Mounts Bay” will be to gather information and provide it, for example, to the Turkish coastguards to help them intercept migrant boats in their territorial waters and return those boats to Turkey. That can happen straightaway. In cases where RFA “Mounts Bay” needs to come to the rescue of a migrant boat in distress, we are working with the relevant authorities in order to get to a position where we can carry out returns.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to talk about the origins of this crisis. We believe we need to take a tougher approach in order to stem the flow of migrants into the EU. While the NATO deployment is currently a support and surveillance mission—it is important to emphasise that: it is not a search and rescue mission—we are considering the practicalities and legalities of returning any rescued migrants to Turkey. These are complex considerations, particularly given the various territorial waters. Discussions are ongoing today at the EU-Turkey summit, and Parliament will be updated in due course.

We are not alone in the efforts that we are contributing. The NATO operation is under German command. The German command ship FGS “Bonn” is already in the area. It will be supported not only by “Mounts Bay” but by a Canadian escort, the HMCS “Fredericton”; a Turkish escort, the TCG “Barbaros”; and a Greek escort ship, the HS “Salamis”. The key thing will be to spot the migrant boats as soon as possible after they leave the Turkish shore, and preferably before they do so. That, of course, is the role of the Wildcat helicopter and the other helicopters in the area. I shall need to write to the noble Lord on some of his detailed questions about the exact location of the other British ships that I mentioned.

My Lords, we welcome the inclusion of RFA “Mounts Bay” in the NATO maritime task force, and that of the Wildcat helicopter. Will the Minister tell the House, for the operation as a whole, what arrangements have been made for NATO ships to dock in Turkish ports should the need arise, and for the safe onward passage of migrants after the processing of their claims for asylum?

My Lords, if it became necessary for our ships to dock in a Turkish port for any overriding reason, I have no doubt that the Turkish authorities would allow us to do that—but not to disembark anyone that we may have picked up en route; it would be purely for the servicing of those ships. But I do not anticipate that that will be necessary. As regards asylum claims, it is important to understand that migrants cannot make claims for asylum in the UK on UK-flagged vessels outside UK territorial waters—lest that should be a concern of the noble Baroness. If we do pick up any migrants—again, I stress that that is not our primary role—we would take them to Greece in the first instance.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the degree to which we are liaising with the Turkish authorities? It really does seem that the Turks are much better placed to stop those ships leaving their coasts than we are to intercept them on their way.

My noble friend is absolutely right. This is why NATO is in a support role, as I emphasised, to alert the authorities in the Turkish coastguard and FRONTEX, which is the EU border control agency, to intercept the ships. It is not our role to intercept those ships; it is for the Turkish and, if need be, the Greek coastguard authorities. They have assets in the area which are well placed to do that.

My Lords, what degree of co-ordination will be maintained between the NATO mission and the EU’s anti-people-smuggling mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia? While the two have separate areas of operation they will both require access to strategic capabilities such as surveillance, reconnaissance and helicopters, which the noble Earl has mentioned, and which are in short supply. It would seem essential that a high degree of co-operation is maintained between these two operations if those scarce resources are to be used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right. As he knows, the UK has provided a significant contribution to the EU naval force operation countering migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. We have been doing that since July last year. HMS “Enterprise” remains committed to that operation over the winter, identifying potential migrant-smuggling vessels off the coast of Libya. He is also right to draw our attention to the whole of the Mediterranean as an area of concern. We must not forget that Operation Sophia is just one part of the overall, comprehensive approach to tackling the migrant crisis. The migrants who come up from sub-Saharan Africa are, by and large, those who leave the Libyan coast. In the main, those arriving at the Turkish coast stem from Afghanistan and Syria.

My Lords, what exactly did the Minister mean when he said that any migrants picked up by British ships would be returned or sent to Greece? Does that not put even more pressure on the Greek authorities, which are being overwhelmed by flows of refugees? Can the Minister also give assurances to the House that Amnesty’s recent report on serious violations of human rights affecting migrants within Turkey is being acted upon by the Government?

We are aware of the concerns mentioned by the noble Lord. That is exactly why I referred to the discussions ongoing today at the EU-Turkey summit about the legalities of returning these migrants to Turkey. In the mean time, the advice I have received is that should we pick up any migrants—I do not necessarily anticipate that we will—the default position at present is to land them in Greece. The Greek authorities have indicated that they are willing to accept those individuals.

My Lords, as my noble friend has said this is a welcome move, if a small and rather late one. But have we not now reached a position where Her Majesty’s Government’s policy is to rescue such refugees as they find with their lives endangered and then to abandon them, because they will not take a single one of the refugees now fleeing for their lives from the Syrian battlefields? Yet we are perfectly happy, of course, to criticise Europe for not being able to cope with a million of them. I am not allowed to use the word “hypocrisy” in this Chamber so let me confine myself to saying: does the Minister not find that, overall, that is a pretty discreditable policy?

My Lords, I do not share the noble Lord’s view. The Prime Minister has announced that we will resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees over the next few years. That will build on an existing scheme for Syrians, designed to support refugees based on their vulnerability. We have now settled more than 1,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees and, in addition to those 20,000, we have partnered with the United Nations refugee agency to identify vulnerable child refugees in the region for resettlement to the UK, where it is in the best interests of the child. The £10 million aid package to which I referred will be devoted to that.