Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Report from the European Union Committee Operation Sophia: a failed mission (2nd Report, HL Paper 5).
My Lords, I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to debate the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee report Operation Sophia: A Failed Mission this afternoon. Today’s debate is very timely given the recent news reports we are again witnessing in the media. Operation Sophia is the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean. Its aim is to disrupt the business model of human smuggling as well as the trafficking networks that operate in the central Mediterranean. This report is a follow-up to our earlier report Operation Sophia, the EU’s Naval Mission in the Mediterranean: An Impossible Challenge, which was published in 2016. The follow-up report considers the progress made by Operation Sophia since then up to July 2017.
I have had the honour of serving as chair of the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, and I extend my thanks to all members of the committee for their expertise and their valuable contributions to the report, to all those who have provided written and oral evidence to the committee, to the committee’s secretariat—Eva George, Julia Ewert, and Lauren Harvey—for their assistance with the inquiry and the preparation of this report, and to Jennifer Martin-Kohlmorgen for preparing for this debate and ably taking over as clerk to the committee.
I am sure noble Lords will recall last year’s extremely distressing scenes of migrants crammed into unseaworthy boats crossing the Mediterranean. These boats are run by people smugglers and criminal gangs and organisations. While, due to other global events, we may not have been exposed recently to the continuing trend of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean, we had a stark reminder of them this week, with the Italian Government refusing to grant a charity rescue ship crammed with 629 migrants, among them pregnant women and small children, permission to dock.
This is very much a live issue. The migrant crisis continues. The report being debated today considered the timeframe between January and July 2017, in which 84,879 irregular migrants used the Mediterranean route crossing from Libya to Italy. It is estimated that in that time 2,150 lives were lost at sea. The figure for the whole of 2017 is estimated at 2,853. We published this report in July last year to feed into the Government’s and EU member states’ discussions around the renewal of Operation Sophia’s mandate, which was due for extension on 27 July 2017. It is in this context that your Lordships’ House has to view the report. It is good to observe a perceptible reduction in the number of deaths at sea, but much more work still needs to be done to ensure disruption in trafficking networks, and it is equally important to deter the flow of migrants.
In these two areas, the report found that the mission had failed. People smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous, inhumane and unscrupulous business. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late. That is not to say that Operation Sophia has not been a humanitarian success; it remains critical life-saving search and rescue work that needs to continue. However, it has failed to meet the stated objective of its mandate: to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. As of March 2018, Operation Sophia had apprehended 137 smugglers and neutralised 537 vessels, but witnesses confirmed to our inquiry that the people arrested,
“were mainly lower down the food chain in the criminal gangs”,
and that, while the smugglers’ business model had been impacted, it had not been broken.
All future UK and EU action must focus on tackling people smuggling in source and transit countries. Outreach work and law enforcement co-operation will also be vital. The EU’s current aims to improve development in source and transit countries are small steps in the right direction but much more work needs to be done, the results of which will be delivered over long periods of time as there is no quick fix. We must persist in providing a sustainable long-term focus. Libya, as the last stop-off point on the migration route across Mediterranean waters, has the potential to play a key role. However, in the absence of formal consent from the Libyan Government or a UN Security Council resolution, Operation Sophia has not been able to move to the next crucial steps—that is, to move into Libyan territorial waters and eventually on to Libyan soil.
As the Government have also remarked in their response to the report, the later stages have the potential to have the greatest impact against the smugglers’ business model. However, at the moment there is no expectation that the political and security conditions in Libya will improve to enable Operation Sophia to move to its next phase in the near future. It is that realisation that has prompted us to conclude that we saw little reason to renew Operation Sophia’s mandate. Having said that, it is our view that search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean are vital and must continue. The same goes for the EU’s training of the Libyan coastguard. However, Operation Sophia is not a precondition for such training to take place. It could be equally delivered outside the operations framework.
I thank the Government for their response to our report. I am pleased that they agree that we need to prioritise interventions upstream in countries of origin and transit. I invite the Minister to comment on any recent efforts that the Government have taken to engage with Libya to stem irregular migration flows either bilaterally or through the EU. The Government have told us that planning is under way for a civilian mission in Libya, focusing on the southern land border. Could the Minister provide the House with updates regarding the current state of planning for these missions?
We are very concerned about the dangerous conditions and human rights abuses that many migrants continue to face in Libya, and welcome the Government’s work in providing funding through respected NGOs and international bodies to improve those conditions and support voluntary returns from Libya. What is the Government’s assessment of the current human rights situation in Libya, and how do they see the Libyan Government working with these external bodies in monitoring the welfare of migrants? We also remain concerned about reports of human rights abuses by the Libyan coastguard. Will the Minister provide us with an update on the inclusion of specific human rights elements into the training of the coastguard? What progress is being made in monitoring any abuses committed by the Libyan coastguard?
Of course, the UK’s departure from the EU places a question mark over our future participation in common security and defence policy missions such as Operation Sophia. When does the Minister expect negotiations on the future of UK/EU relationships in the area of common foreign policy and security policy to commence? How does she see UK interests as a third country participating in these negotiations? Are the Government working on how they will continue to engage proactively and constructively with our EU partners in the forthcoming negotiations, recognising that the UK and the EU face common challenges and that these are best tackled together?
What mechanisms does my noble friend see as critical to these workings? Does she agree that it is high time that when we talk about migrants, we see them as people taking on extremely difficult, dangerous journeys for better economic opportunities? I hope that much more can be done at source and that the UK remains a world leader in demonstrating our full intention to support economic growth in some of the poorest places in the world. In recent days, the language around and references to migrants have become extremely toxic, but I hope that will start to change. Given the trauma and heartbreak that these people experience in taking these horrible journeys, I hope that the UK will keep in sight and take leadership for the need for economic growth in their countries. I hope that my noble friend will assure the House that she will talk to Ministers in DfID and the Foreign Office to ensure that we tackle these issues at source rather than wait for people to take dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean.
My Lords, I speak as the very new girl on the block in the sub-committee, having attended just one meeting last Thursday. Therefore, what I shall say goes back some years but notes the progress that, believe it or not, has been made since I stood in no man’s land between Jordan and Iraq, where the only natural resources were scorpions, snakes and sun. I remember the efforts that we made through the Foreign Office to look after those migrants in those days—without very much cash, to be quite honest. Therefore, my request to the Minister is that we persuade the Department for International Development, which has a better budget than I ever had, that we should be spending at least some of that budget on the preventive issues referred to by my noble friend Lady Verma. I agree with every word that she said.
I cannot understand why we have not made more progress in recent years. I apologise to my colleagues for being critical, but having seen this situation develop over almost 30 years now, I believe that we have a long way to go before we can really help the illegal migrants—which is what they are, be they economic or simply social migrants—to have a better life in their countries of origin.
I have seen some very successful pieces of work carried out in the Far East, the Middle East and Africa, but it has not been very popular to do. Now that it is on our doorstep and in our countries within the European Union, perhaps we can get better action. It is the very effect of Italy’s decision in recent weeks which has woken a few people up to what can be done. We should note the generosity of Spain, and Spain may need help from countries which have already dealt with this problem for a long while to deal with the migrants who will come across that very choppy crossing into southern Spain.
The report clearly shows that the work of border guards must be improved in Libya. Such work also needs to be done in the European countries to which the migrants come. I say that because, to be realistic, migration will not suddenly stop. Therefore, countries receiving illegal migrants need help, as well as the countries from which they come. I hope that in the coming months, we will see more activity within Libya. That requires quite a lot of activity by the Foreign Office to try to get the two sides in Libya together. But it also requires further action, particularly in Africa, with those regimes that are not conscious of what they are encouraging by their own domestic actions.
I therefore hope that we can concentrate our efforts on training police, prison officers and those who can influence the many people who come, so that they realise there is no easy way to cross a continent, not just from the point of view of being a traveller, but because of the resources you will need after crossing. There simply is not the knowledge in north-east Nigeria of what a migrant could face, so there is an education role here too. I hope that the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Libya opened a door for us to do work there, but every Minister—in DfID or the Foreign Office—who deals with Africa has a lot of work to do in the countries from which these illegal immigrants are coming.
The committee has done an excellent job. I am not sure that the mission is a failed one; it has highlighted a number of other actions to be taken. It may have had too ambitious a role, and that is why we see a reduction but not the cessation that people in the European Union really wanted to see.
So let us be realistic about what can be done and use the skills that the Department for International Development undoubtedly has, through the police, through the army, and through the ability to detect smugglers. Alongside a people smuggler there is very often a goods smuggler, a drugs smuggler and even people who smuggle plants, insects and animals, all of which are a problem for the receiving countries. We have the experience—please let us convince Ministers that we have to use it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the excellent and thoughtful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, one based on experience. The noble Baroness may be the new girl on our committee, but I speak for the whole committee in saying that we look forward very much to her presence.
I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for her excellent work in chairing the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee. I congratulate her on a detailed and comprehensive speech on the report on Operation Sophia; she asked a number of questions, many of which I can now score off my speech this afternoon. It is also important to acknowledge, as the noble Baroness did, the work done by the committee staff in steering through these often highly complex issues, ensuring that we heard the views of a range of experts and compiled and analysed the evidence before us effectively.
As the noble Baroness indicated, the report is a follow-up to the earlier report, tabled two years ago, by the same committee when the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, chaired it. I have been a member of that committee for exactly three years, and I have to say that both this report and its predecessor provide exactly the sort of critical thinking and scrutiny that committees should do in our role in providing effective oversight of government/EU decision-making.
For as long as we remain a member of the European Union, it is important that we should on occasion play the role of critical friend. Where EU policies result in unintended consequences, we should point them out, as I believe we do very effectively in the report before us this afternoon. While carrying out this inquiry, we had some intense conversations about the conclusions to be reached in this report. Understandably, there was some anxiety about one of the main conclusions, which we did not want to be misinterpreted in any sense as saying that we should leave people to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. There is a vital role for search and rescue, as tragically this week has again illustrated all too clearly, with the migrant ship trying and failing to dock in Italy. Indeed, the report describes search and rescue as a “vital humanitarian obligation”, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and others have pointed out, the stated aim of the Operation Sophia mission is,
“contributing to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean”.
It is in that regard that we believe the mission has failed.
The vast majority of the witnesses we heard from during the inquiry acknowledged that the mission has been inadvertently assisting people smugglers by providing a level of certainty that the people being trafficked across the Mediterranean will be rescued by naval vessels if their boats get into trouble. So, instead of using stronger wooden boats, all too frequently the people smugglers are now using unseaworthy dinghies, which are often seriously overcrowded, making it extremely unlikely that they will be able to cross this wide and unpredictable stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. Both the report before us this afternoon and the earlier report from 2016 concluded that,
“a naval mission is the wrong tool to tackle irregular migration which begins onshore”,
and that by the time people have set sail from the coast of Libya,
“it is too late to undermine the business of people smuggling”.
I want to make three additional points in this afternoon’s debate. First, the mass movement of people, caused by war, famine and economic necessity, is an issue that will not go away. As the world population continues to grow, and resources become ever more scarce, these trends will continue to grow in the years ahead. According to the United Nations, in 2015 there were 244 million international migrants globally. Additionally, over 65.6 million people were displaced, mainly by conflicts. Displacement due to climate change and disasters has on average affected 22.5 million people since 2008.
This mass migration of people is unfortunately fuelling the rise of populism in Europe—most notably perhaps in Hungary with Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Government, and in Italy with the newly constituted populist Government. Perhaps that is not surprising because Hungary and Italy are two of the EU member states most directly affected by this mass movement of people on their land and sea borders.
However, we in this country have also witnessed migration becoming an increasingly emotive issue, particularly during the EU referendum campaign with those now perhaps notorious posters used by the leave campaign showing boats filled with migrants. The fears of people have been fuelled by myths and misunderstandings in some of the media, with the rise of migration and the mass movement of people being conflated with the rise of individual acts of terrorism, which in reality often have deeply complex and psychological causes. In the context of the UK, there is a certain irony in the same media that encourage myths about migration also campaigning against downstream assistance and development aid for the source countries of this migration.
My second point is about the people smugglers. This is now a billion pound business peddling in human misery, vulnerability, and the economically motivated movement of people, and—in the context of Operation Sophia—the chaos and political instability of Libya. According to the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, in 2015, migrant smuggling networks made between €4.7 billion and €5.7 billion trafficking people to Europe, according to its 2017 report.
A Syrian colleague and friend of mine has told me stories of how social media are now extensively used by the people smugglers to advertise their services, indicating the latest, safest and most effective routes, with a price list attached. It surely must be possible to trace these people smugglers more effectively and to prosecute those at the top of the chain. Can the Minister say what international co-operation is currently taking place to follow and trace the international bank transfers involved?
My third and final point is to recall the source of the name Operation Sophia. Baby Sophia was born on 24 August 2015 on a German frigate to a Somali mother who was rescued alongside another 453 migrants and was named after the German princess of the same name. Behind each of the statistics on migration are individual human stories and lives. The individuals on the boat trying to land in Italy this week, as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, included pregnant women and babies. These are hugely complex issues, which cannot be solved by any one member state; they require an international approach by the EU and the wider international community. Merely hoping that these issues will go away and attempting to pull up the drawbridge will just allow the people smugglers’ business to flourish.
Sadly, this well-intentioned mission—that is, Operation Sophia—is in reality further assisting these international criminals in exploiting often desperate people in their quest for a better life. The mission should and must be re-examined in light of the facts, while maintaining the vital role of search and rescue. For that reason, I commend the report’s recommendations to the House.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, who has made clear just how much we are talking about a human tragedy as much as a European Union policy. I speak as chairman of the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, which deals with migration, which is deeply relevant to the work of Operation Sophia. I am glad that we are discussing Operation Sophia for the second time. It is absolutely right that we should be doing so, because the issues with which it deals are so important. It really is an extremely important attempt to deal with an almost insurmountable problem—one of the most difficult and, I fear, long-lasting problems that the world faces at the moment—that of migration.
Like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and her committee on the report and on the speed with which they introduced it. I take issue with only one point, and that is the title. In one sense, Operation Sophia is a failure, because it did not succeed in what it was trying to do; but it could not succeed in what it was trying to do because the issue that it faced has just been, and remains, too difficult for an operation of this kind to sort out on its own.
I mentioned one task, but in fact there are two separate but intertwined tasks and issues here. There is migration driven by conflict and utter deprivation, people forced to leave their countries because it is not safe to stay, and there is economic migration, driven by people, understandably, looking for a better life, and attracted by the richer countries of the West. I accept that those are not easily separable but they can be separated, at least intellectually, and in deciding on the right approach we need to treat them, if we can, as separate issues.
The nature of the problem with which we are dealing is shifting, too. The numbers of migrants have declined sharply over the last few years, and I welcome that. They have declined sharply from the high figures of 2015, which were very much in our minds when we last looked at this issue. The sources of migrants are changing, too. As the Commission made clear in its recent report, the main nationalities so far this year are, in descending order, Eritrean, Tunisian and Nigerian. Last year they were also, in descending order, Nigerian, Guinean and Ivorian. They will continue to change. To take one example, if the new Government in Ethiopia continue to try to defuse the long-standing tension with Eritrea, we may find that the number of Eritreans declines, too.
But those shifting numbers and shifting source countries will not make the issue go away. For different reasons, there will be a constant pressure for migration, and there will be ruthless, well-organised and highly efficient criminal gangs exploiting the vulnerability of others and looking for—and, I fear, identifying—the weak links on the north African coast to exploit, too. There is no easy, obvious way to combat this—frankly, it is idle to pretend that there is. Operation Sophia has perhaps not succeeded but, as I said earlier, nor could it. But it was right to try and it was right for the UK to support it with naval assets. Although I accept the criticism in the report of the form of the naval assets that were used, I hope that, in future, when taking part in this kind of organisation, we will do better.
For the longer term, the solutions are I think much as they seemed when we debated this issue two years ago. We—by which I mean the UK, the EU and others—must continue to work for stability in the Middle East and north Africa, difficult though that is. We must also continue, particularly through DfID, to work for economic development in sub-Saharan Africa—I very much agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, said earlier in the debate on that point. I know it is difficult, but we must, as I suggested when we last debated this and suggest again now, try to establish safe havens in refugee camps in north Africa, working through and with the United Nations—that is a crucial part of this—where sufficient political stability exists. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether that looks feasible at the moment, and how the EU’s proposed CSDP mission to create a degree of stability in Libya, for example, is progressing.
We must try, hard though it is, to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants, to return economic migrants to their home countries and to provide legal routes to permanent safety for genuine refugees—and we must treat genuine refugees with the generosity and humanity shown, for example, in the last many years by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who I know is speaking later in the debate. None of this is easy, and much of it is controversial. None of it can be done quickly, and it can be done only by countries working together.
Like others who have spoken today, I do not think that the Italian Government were right to ban the migrant ship “Aquarius”, and I rather share President Macron’s view of that. I applaud the Spanish Government’s response in saying that the migrants would be welcome in Valencia—though I have to say that, at the back of my mind, there is the feeling “What would the reaction have been here if ships with this number of people had tried to land migrants on the south coast of Britain?”. I think we have to be careful not to be too complacent about our view of others faced with difficulties such as these.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way; I am listening to his speech with great interest. Can he tell the House what his view is of the Australian system, under which migrants are turned back—though with the necessary fuel, water and so forth—to the places from which they originated?
I do not think it is right to turn people back in those conditions unless one is absolutely certain that where they are going back to is a suitable place. That is why I think the idea, and it is only an idea, of some kind of UN-sponsored camps in, say, north Africa, where economic migrants—not refugees—could be turned back to is worth exploring.
The response of the Italian Government and the reaction of the Spanish Government show only that the European response to migration as a whole is increasingly fractious, and I very much regret that. The only possible response to a crisis as serious as the migration crisis today is working together, in or outside the European Union. As the Spanish Foreign Minister said yesterday:
“This is a shared problem and it has to be treated as a shared problem”.
Sir Alan Duncan said in his reply to the report that we are debating:
“Although we are leaving the EU, we continue to cooperate with European partners, including through Op SOPHIA, on these shared challenges”.
That is a welcome statement as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough of course. Perhaps the most important question to ask the Minister this evening is whether she can confirm that we shall continue to work with our European partners through and indeed after the proposed transition or implementation period, for only by such co-operation, in our own interest, can we hope to solve the problems which Operation Sophia has tried, nobly, to solve.
My Lords, I apologise to the House for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate because of a previous and inescapable commitment, about which I have told my noble friend on the Front Bench. I thank my noble friend Lady Verma and the staff of the committee for their usual extremely effective and thoughtful work.
I agree with the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, that, in effect, Operation Sophia could not succeed. We entitled our first report An Impossible Challenge; if you have an impossible challenge, by definition you cannot succeed in it. The noble Lord may be interested to know that Sir Alan Duncan said in the government response, which I am sure he has read:
“Operation SOPHIA has not delivered all that we had hoped”—
which is a rather more diplomatic way of putting the point we tried to make in our report.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, who is on the committee with me, pointed out, it has not been a humanitarian failure. Indeed, 39,000 migrants were saved, 12,000 of them in UK assets—so we can be proud of that side of the story. Where the operation failed was in the fact that it did not reduce the migrant flows, and clearly it did not disrupt the traffickers’ operation, which was the ultimate objective of the proposals. It did not succeed because it came too late in the pipeline; that was the difficulty. When people are literally within swimming length of safety, you are hardly going to stop them at that point.
This has been realised, particularly by the Italian Government, which has to bear the burden of all this, and improvements have been made to the overall approach since we reported. First of all, the training and support for the Libyan coastguard service has been substantially improved, both in terms of the skill set required and the financial asset—simply the salaries and wages. Paying people properly helps them to do their job rather than not doing it properly. One is led to believe that the Italian Government have dealt directly—this is a rather tricky area—with some of the traffickers to change the incentives they look for in their business model, and that has had some effect. Therefore, there has been some reduction from last year in what is happening this summer, which is good news.
The result of that is that more people have been detained in detention centres, which is a problem. There are 48 centres at the moment, 34 of them controlled by the Libyan Government, and the UK Government fund 22 of them. They are helped by the UNHCR and the European Union. Effort is therefore going into establishing once again opportunities for employment and so forth in those camps. I can say quite frankly, as the House will understand, that the quality of life in those camps varies considerably, from the appalling to the not too bad, and that is a matter of concern.
The next step is to deal with the issue on the southern borders of Libya. We said in the report, rather interestingly:
“Both King Idris (who ruled Libya until 1969)”—
this is going back a long way—
“and Colonel Gaddafi had ‘recognised and used the existing tribal system along the land borders’. They had used border guards, intelligence and security officials and ‘border social-security’, in the form of ‘donatives and flows of money and investment from the centre to the regions to keep the border populations on side’”.
That is what happened to keep the borders quiet during that period—and clearly it was, to a degree, successful.
Keeping the border tight is now being tackled by the European Union under the auspices of its emergency trust fund for Africa. The EU has set aside €46 million for an operation to improve matters there, and the Italian Government, in collaboration with the European authorities, have sent out an assessment mission to look at that. But the problem is that security issues in Libya are preventing it being effective and the operation has been delayed at the moment because of those problems. Therefore, there is a real issue there.
Beyond that, as my noble friend Lady Chalker pointed out succinctly from her own experience, we should tackle this issue by trying to prevent migrant flows at source. I have no doubt that a great deal of good work has been done in this area in many countries—Nigeria has already been mentioned, as have others—but, frankly, some countries are almost impossible to deal with. Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, for example, are under the heel of appalling dictatorships, and how you get some sort of sensible relationship, backed by international aid from the UK, I do not know. That is very much work in progress.
Therefore, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jay, that none of this is at all easy. We are looking forward to seeing what measures are put in place at the June Council of the European Union—but so far the preliminary discussions have not gone particularly well. Chancellor Merkel of Germany described this issue at the Council as an existential question. In more senses than one, it is.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for her leadership. It was a privilege to serve under her and to be on this committee.
Many years ago, before I became a Member of this House, I worked in the refugee NGO field. I was a member of an NGO delegation that went round the Caribbean looking at the situation of Haitian refugees, who at that time were fleeing from a very tyrannical regime in Haiti. I remember going to one Caribbean country where the Minister of the Interior said to us with glee, “One more Haitian on this island and this island will sink in the sea. I am determined not to let that happen”. He then went on to say that a sinking boat of Haitian refugees had tried to approach the harbour. He told us, “I ordered that boat to be pushed away because I was determined not to have any more Haitians here”. The only country in the Caribbean which at that time seemed to welcome Haitians was the United States. It did not turn boats away; it accepted them and showed humanity. Maybe Americans are different now but certainly at that time it was remarkable that the whole Caribbean seemed to hate the Haitians and it was only America which provided them with safety and accepted any boats that arrived.
I tell that story because the history of inhumanity is not new; sadly, it has been there for quite some time. So perhaps we are not shocked, even if we are dismayed, at what happened to the boat in the Mediterranean that the Italians would not take and that went to Spain. I was shocked that this should happen and that, if the Spaniards had not said they would take them, those people might have drowned, as so many already have.
In a wider sense, I like to feel that Europe could move towards a Europe-wide policy on migration and refugees. I am bound to say that the need for that is clear but the likelihood of it happening at this point in time is very small. I believe that, unless all European countries share responsibility, there will always be some buck-passing, and the unfortunate victims of that buck-passing will drown in the Mediterranean.
We have to look at this under a number of headings: first, Europe’s response; secondly, the situation in Libya, which is one of the key areas from which people are coming; and, thirdly, the situation in the source countries. As has been said already, Operation Sophia may have saved lives but, paradoxically, it has also made the task of the smugglers easier. All they have to do now is have an even less seaworthy boat, push it 12 miles offshore, and then get someone to phone up and say, “Help, these people are drowning”. We have saved a lot of lives but, alas, we have made the situation for the smugglers somewhat easier. Of course, the report says that a naval mission may not be the right and most suitable way of dealing with this, so maybe we have to look at other methods of going forward. But let us be clear: the naval mission has saved lives, even if the smugglers have also benefited.
We learned a lot about the abuses of human rights in Libya itself and by the Libyan coastguard. We also learned that people smugglers are operating in Libya—they keep migrants in conditions of servitude and make money out of that as well. It is a very depressing and miserable situation. It is important that all western Governments, Britain included, do all we can to try to generate a bit of stability in Libya. There are wars and different regimes in Libya, and if we could only get a bit more stability, maybe the situation could be significantly improved. I know we are trying to do that—the British Government have said so—but we need to put more effort into it.
I turn now briefly to the source countries. I have heard from the NGOs that most of the women who have fled across the Sahara have been raped on that journey. It is a terrible journey and by the time they get to Libya they face even more appalling situations. Last year, I was at a conference in Malta which looked at the movement of people across the Mediterranean. At that conference were representatives not just from European countries but from some of what we call the source countries in Africa. The source countries pleaded for economic help so that their young people would have an economic future in their own countries and would not be forced to make that dangerous journey in the hope of trying to find some way of sustaining themselves.
There is nothing unworthy about being an economic migrant, but there has to be a higher level of human rights support for people who are fleeing from persecution. We have to somehow manage that duality. At the moment, the two seem to be somewhat confused. I wonder what the Spanish Government are doing with the boat load that has arrived and whether they will try to separate those who have a claim to refugee status under the Geneva convention and those who are simply migrants trying to better themselves. It is no good telling the economic migrants that they have to go back, unless we do more to ensure that the economics of the source countries are such that people have a decent future. It is quite a challenge to us all to look at people and decide whether they are refugees or not. In theory, we do that, and it is quite difficult—but maybe it is the way forward.
I also believe that we have to look at public support for what happens. I have felt all along that, on issues to do with refugees, it is important that the public understand what we are seeking to do and why, rather than us imposing policies on ordinary people in the street without that understanding. I have already said that the aim should be for a Europe-wide policy on refugees, even if we are a long way from getting agreement for that. Before the recent Italian elections, I was talking to an Italian Member of Parliament who said that, if nothing was done, the hard-line right-wing parties would win the next election—and that is exactly what happened. She was saying not that she wanted to turn the boats away but that more help was needed from other European countries. That is why I have been shocked by the attitude of the Visegrád countries—Hungary in particular, and Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Their policy seems to be: refugees are not our problem and we are interested only in white Christians. What sort of Europe is that? Maybe we do not have much standing to criticise other European countries if we are leaving the EU, but it is pretty depressing to look at the effect of the movement of people on the politics of various European countries. We have seen it in Germany, Austria, the Visegrád countries and elsewhere, and perhaps even in France. It is rather depressing that extreme right-wing parties are capitalising on this. We have to be much more skilful and clever at getting public opinion on our side so as not to allow the extreme right-wing parties to capitalise.
Migration pressure will continue, whether it is for economic reasons or because of climate change or the need to flee persecution or the threat of torture and death, and if we do not all get together and decide how we are going to deal with the issue, it will become more and more difficult. We have a responsibility to look after our fellow human beings, and we are not doing that very well at the moment.
My Lords, it is a great privilege and honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who brings to the debate enormous knowledge of migration, human rights and refugees. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and the other members of her committee for bringing forward this important and excellent report following up on the 2016 report from the EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs. It is slightly unfortunate, however, that it was not tabled earlier, particularly as Operation Sophia has been renewed until December of this year.
As is made clear in both reports and as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Chalker and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, migration is not a one-off issue caused by the Arab spring and current instability in sub-Saharan Africa—it will be with us long-term. We are so aware of it at the moment only because of the humanitarian tragedy that has taken place in the Mediterranean since 2016. The EU cannot solve, and perhaps should not seek to solve, the motivation for individuals to flee conflict or seek a better life for their families. We need to keep that in mind when considering any action the UK or our EU partners are taking. As I have said, despite these excellent reports, Operation Sophia has been renewed to the end of this year pretty much as it was through 2016 and 2017.
Operation Sophia was launched, correctly, in response to a humanitarian tragedy but its terms of reference, as we have heard, were far too broad. The men and women who have served in the operation have done a remarkable job in saving thousands of lives in the Mediterranean, as we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Horam. However, a pretence that the operation would deal with the fundamentals of the issues around people smuggling was unrealistic from the beginning.
We need to be aware that, despite the work of Operation Sophia, already in 2018 it is estimated that 500 refugees have drowned in the central Mediterranean area because of the fundamental issue at the crux—the people smuggling network. With a budget of €36 million and the enormous and immediate task of saving lives, Operation Sophia was never going to destroy the business model of the people smuggling networks that are bringing these desperate people to the Mediterranean.
The evidence suggests that, other than their excellent search and rescue role and the training of coastguards, those involved have not been equipped with the tools to properly disrupt the existing business model. A naval force cannot do that, especially in conjunction with what is a failed state in Libya and an increasing flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Serious cogs in the people smuggling wheel do not join the migrants when they go to sea in a perilously ill-suited dinghy. We will therefore not be able to disrupt the people smuggling and capture those who run these lucrative organised criminal gangs—which is what they are—as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie.
I should like to hear from the Minister to what degree the Government have considered focusing future input into Operation Sophia purely on the search and rescue programme and the training of coastguards, avoiding a situation where we try to enforce a remit that is impossible to deliver on to an operation that is doing a good job. In my view, the ongoing focus of the EU and the UK must be on the source of the problem: the destruction of people smuggling gangs. That can be done only through a collaborative, sophisticated and land-based option.
The Turkish model of an existing state basically being paid to keep refugees out of the EU will not work in the north African context we currently face. I also suspect that the model is not sustainable in Turkey over the medium term either. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, expressed so well, what would work is a focus on working with partner nations in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa to bring about a two-stage environment. The first stage would be to create safe havens and conditions for those people who migrate and try to keep them out of the hands of the people smuggling gangs who transit them to north Africa. The second would be serious investment by DfID, as my noble friend Lady Chalker intimated, in the source countries to create a sustainable and safe environment so that people can stay in their country of origin. At the same time, serious investment needs to be made for an international criminal investigation into and the pursuit of those who are making so much money from other people’s tragedies. I look forward to my noble friend’s answer on this point.
As we have heard, Operation Sophia may have failed in its remit, but it has done an enormous humanitarian job by saving thousands of lives. It is now up to us and our European partners to ensure that we focus on creating safe environments for those who are fleeing their countries, while at the same time disrupting and destroying these criminal gangs.
My Lords, on these occasions it is customary to thank the chairman of the relevant committee, to note the significance of the contributions and often to point out that it is a timely debate. Naturally, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and the European Union Sub-Committee on External Affairs for their excellent report. Slightly perversely, I want also to thank the usual channels for conspiring to produce a debate that is actually of significant timeliness, despite the fact that it has come a whole 11 months after the report was completed and nine months after the Government responded to it, which is quite extraordinary. Often when we debate committee reports, we hear expressed the frustration that the Government have not made their response—“It has been more than two months and we still have not had a response”. Given that on this occasion the Government have given their response, the questions I wish to put in this debate relate not only to the report but to some of the comments made by the right honourable Sir Alan Duncan in his response because, some nine months on, there are questions about what the Government have been able to achieve.
The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, thanked the committee secretariat. We in the International Relations Committee have poached one of the clerks, Eva George, but she is present in spirit because she is currently in Washington with some members of that committee. I am a member of that committee but I am speaking in this debate because she sent a note to remind members of our committee that, if we were not in Washington, we could debate this excellent report. We are grateful that the EU sub-committee has allowed Eva to come to the International Relations Committee because she has reminded us about an issue that is of significant importance internationally; it is not simply a European matter, rather it is one of global significance.
Several noble Lords have pointed out that mass migration is not going to go away and that it is not simply a European question. It is a matter of great humanitarian concern. Some three years ago when Operation Sophia was first introduced, we were seeing pictures of tragedies occurring in the Mediterranean. Our television screens were full of images of people drowning. There were significant reactions. In 2016 the television screens were somewhat similar. But in the intervening period one could have been forgiven for assuming that the migration crisis had been solved. Where were the pictures of people drowning? We did not see them or hear about them because the 24/7 media coverage had moved on. Other issues came to the fore. President Trump’s latest tweet about whatever it might be took up the front pages of the newspapers. Brexit was taking up the bandwidth in the United Kingdom. Migration and the tragedies we had seen of people coming through north Africa and trying to get to Europe through the Mediterranean did not go away.
As the report so admirably points out, Operation Sophia’s activities have had a partial success in reducing the number of people who drowned, but they have not done the fundamental job of breaking the people traffickers’ business models. The models have adapted. What seems to have been suggested by at least one of the contributors to evidence in the report, Mr Hobart, the migration envoy of the European directorate of the Foreign Office, was that something needs to be done. The inference was that Operation Sophia is something, therefore this is what we should be doing. We have heard this evening that Operation Sophia, which has had an impossible challenge from 2015 onwards, is not capable in and of itself of dealing with migrant smuggling and people trafficking.
The questions that arise for Her Majesty’s Government and the EU as a whole relate to what work is being done to deal with activities upstream. The right honourable Sir Alan Duncan suggested in his response of September last year that the Government are aware of the need to deal with the issue, but I was slightly concerned when reading responses from the Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, in the House of Commons. He essentially suggests that the Government are considering what impact we are having through Operation Sophia, but he did not get any further. He did not say whether that meant that the Government’s policy needs to change.
I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what Her Majesty’s Government are thinking about for the British contribution to Operation Sophia and what they envisage the contribution will be when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. The right honourable Sir Alan Duncan pointed out that, while the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, it remains the case that we are still working with other European countries through Operation Sophia. In September 2017 he did not seem to suggest in any way that the United Kingdom’s position would change once we left the European Union. Could the Minister tell us what the Government are thinking about how they would like to contribute to Operation Sophia or its successors? How do they envisage co-operating in the longer term with other Governments of the European Union? The challenges facing the United Kingdom and the humanitarian crisis we are seeing will not go away when the UK leaves the European Union, but some of these questions appear to be on hold.
What are Her Majesty’s Government doing? What negotiations are the Government having with the EU 27? The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lady Suttie pointed out that in Hungary and Italy we are seeing some populist challenges. In the light of those, what bilateral conversations are the Government having? Are they working with other member states to see what collective solutions might be available? What do the Government think their role is, and that of the United Kingdom, after 2019? Do they still plan to and seek to play a role? If so, do they expect to have a seat at the table? If so, what is David Davis asking for in that regard?
Finally, in line with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, what role is DfID playing in the Government’s thinking about upstream responses? As so many noble Lords have said, naval solutions might deal with the immediate problem of people drowning but they do not deal with the upstream problems: those require much more activity in-country in countries such as Nigeria or in countries of north Africa, not least Libya, a failed state, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, pointed out. What is DfID going to be doing? What are Her Majesty’s Government going to be doing? What role will we play in future in working collectively with other European countries to deal with these humanitarian crises?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for her excellent introduction to this debate. No doubt last week we wrote one speech in preparing for it, but then of course recent events may have influenced what we have to say tonight.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, put it, people smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous and inhumane business. As we have seen in recent days, once the boats have set sail it is too late. The need for the humanitarian search and rescue operation is even more vital. As the noble Baroness said, the first six months of 2017 saw more than 84,000 migrants picked up on the Mediterranean, a 20% increase on the first half of 2016.
The stranded rescue ship “Aquarius” has sparked a fresh refugee crisis in Europe. Italy has refused to allow it to dock, with its new populist Government arguing that it bears the brunt of new arrivals—something that was, of course, reflected in the report. Yesterday, the EU Commission announced a tripling of funding for dealing with migration. This will include the renewed asylum and migration fund, which will support member states in three key areas: asylum, legal migration and integration, and countering irregular migration and returns. The EU, and the European Parliament in particular, have always said that we must tackle the root causes of migration. This is where the EU’s foreign affairs work plays a much larger role. French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday accused the Italian Government of a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility for refusing to let the “Aquarius” dock in Italy.
There is a focus on the EU institutions, but what are countries such as the UK doing in the European Council to persuade countries to work together on practical solutions? Until now the United Kingdom Government have kept quiet on this issue in the Council, hiding behind more vocal countries in southern and eastern Europe, hoping, I suspect, that others will deal with the problem. As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, unless there is a collective EU approach to sorting out the problem, we will only see more cases like the “Aquarius”. So what representations, if any, have Her Majesty’s Government made to Italy’s representatives? How do Her Majesty’s Government envisage being able to influence any future events similar to this once the country is outside the EU and its formal decision-making structures?
The government response contained up-to-date figures on the situation. It cited 110 smugglers apprehended, 475 vessels put beyond use and more than 39,000 people rescued—12,000 of those, as we heard in the debate, by UK assets. One witness quoted in the report said in relation to the search and rescue element of the operation that,
“there are better ships to do that—not only cheaper but more suitable”.
Can the Minister tell us what analysis has been carried out by departments of the suitability of the UK assets that have been provided? Does she believe that our contribution has represented value for money for the taxpayer?
The noble Lord, Lord Jay, put it extremely well: if you are set an impossible task, it is no wonder you do not succeed. When the report was published—some time ago now—senior diplomatic sources in Brussels said:
“Everyone is aware that this mission faces difficulties … but there is continued determination to make it work”.
That is the point: there is no other show in town. We have to work at it.
Operation Sophia’s mandate was extended in July 2017 to the end of 2018. The mandate was amended to set up a monitoring mechanism of trainees to ensure the long-term efficiency of the training of the Libyan coastguard; conduct new surveillance activities and gather information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya; and enhance the possibilities for sharing information on human trafficking with member states’ law enforcement agencies. Given that any further extensions to the mandate—or, indeed, any replacement missions—will come immediately before our exit from the EU next March, can the Minister confirm whether the UK plans to continue to provide assets and expertise?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, highlighted, the committee was concerned,
“by reports of serious abuses of the human rights of migrants by the Libyan coastguard”.
As we have heard, in response, the Minister, Sir Alan Duncan, wrote that the Libyan coastguard,
“must be equipped with the skills required to manage search-and-rescue activities properly, which includes respecting human rights. The training package being delivered therefore embeds knowledge of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. We have made clear to the LNCG senior leadership that Human Rights violations are unacceptable”.
Does the Minister believe that a warning of this nature is sufficient to ensure that human rights obligations are upheld? The government response also blames the political and security conditions in Libya for Operation Sophia not being able to move into its later planned phases.
The Government have stressed the importance of achieving a new political settlement in Libya to,
“create greater security and the governance that is needed if we are to successfully tackle illegal migration”.
Following last month’s meeting of Libyan leaders in Paris, the Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said:
“There is a window of opportunity for progress in Libya, and we urge all of her leaders to seize it by engaging fully with UN-led efforts to facilitate a more inclusive political settlement”.
Does the Minister believe that this window of opportunity can bring about change on the ground and at sea during the operation’s current mandate?
In recent weeks we have seen disagreements between UK and EU negotiators on matters relating to security, defence and information exchange. The Chancellor has warned that the UK may “go it alone” in relation to the Galileo project, and the UK’s technical note on the exchange and protection of classified information cast doubt on our “ongoing commitments”, including Operation Sophia. Is the Minister able to offer a categorical commitment today that the UK will continue to work alongside EU partners to address this migration issue post-Brexit, or is this another area that remains a matter for negotiation?
My Lords, first, may I say that I have genuinely enjoyed this debate? It has been interesting and stimulating and I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. I join all your Lordships in thanking my noble friend Lady Verma for tabling this debate. I thank her and all the other members of the European Union Committee for their detailed report. I say to my noble friend Lord McInnes and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that I realise that this debate is many months after publication of the report. As your Lordships will be aware, significant pressures have prevailed on this House in relation to workload but, as the noble Baroness pertinently pointed out, there is still a relevance and currency in discussing these issues, so it is timely that we are doing that this evening.
I also thank all noble Lords for their different contributions to the debate, and I shall try to respond to them. Before I do that, I would like to remind the House of the Government’s approach to illegal migration and the situation in the central Mediterranean. As noble Lords well know, migration is a phenomenon as old as humanity itself. People have, since time immemorial, left their homes in search of peace, stability and better prospects for themselves and their families; so it is today. What is different about this crisis is that, as a number of your Lordships referred to, organised criminals are exploiting these age-old vulnerabilities for profit with little or no regard for the well-being of the people passing through their hands.
My noble friend Lady Verma rightly referred to the distressing images we have all seen in news footage and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, vividly described the evil of that activity and the challenges in addressing that matter. This is where the real blame for this crisis lies. These criminal gangs are responsible for the deaths in the Sahara, the drownings in the Mediterranean and the conditions endured by migrants in Libya, including modern slavery.
I thought the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was fair in acknowledging that, while not perfect in all respects, Operation Sophia has saved lives. It has had successes: smugglers can no longer operate with impunity in international waters. It is not a search and rescue mission, but over 45,000 migrants have been rescued and more than 500 smuggling vessels destroyed.
As noble Lords know, tackling human trafficking and modern slavery is certainly a priority for the Prime Minister. We are committed to working alongside international partners to address this and the wider challenge of illegal migration. The Government maintain that the best policy is a whole-of-route approach. I was very interested to detect that many of your Lordships share that analysis, because the aim is to reduce illegal migration, tackle criminality and trafficking, and protect the vulnerable by making concerted, co-ordinated interventions at all stages of a potential migrant’s journey. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, spoke eloquently about that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins; they also spoke about working with international partners, which I agree is vital. Our policy complements the EU’s comprehensive approach to migration, which ranges from addressing its root causes in source and transit countries to humanitarian assistance and to tackling the smugglers.
My noble friend Lady Chalker spoke with great pith, punchiness and authority on that issue of root causes, the countries of origin and how we address these matters. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also commented constructively on this aspect, as did the noble Lord, Lord Jay, my noble friend Lord Horam and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
Operation Sophia is just one part of this EU approach. I will come on to that in a moment, but I think it might be useful for your Lordships if I indicate what the UK has been doing. It has allocated £175 million since 2015 to the response to the Mediterranean migration crisis. This includes a new £75 million humanitarian programme over the next three years focused on the central Mediterranean.
For the benefit of Members, many of whom expressed an interest in this, I think some detail about the DfID programme might be helpful. The programme will be delivered by partners—the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, the British Red Cross and a consortium of NGOs—and will specifically target vulnerable migrants in west and north Africa, including Libya, as well as communities affected by migration. More specifically, programme activity will take place in migrant source and transit countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Sudan. That illustrates the UK’s wide-ranging vision in trying to deal with this critical issues of countries of origin and the root causes of people undertaking these dangerous journeys.
Part of the programme—up to £5 million-worth of further assistance—is committed to Libya. It will include healthcare and psychosocial support for migrants. We will also continue to provide humanitarian relief and to monitor conditions in Libya’s detention centres. Through the International Organization for Migration, we will also fund urgent humanitarian assistance and protection services for migrants while working to ensure that support is also given to those wishing to return. Indeed, we have helped migrants wishing to return and reintegrate into their countries of origin as part of our whole-of-route approach. We have also funded communications campaigns to warn potential migrants of the risks and realities of taking the route to Libya. We are exploring further opportunities to work with EU partners or to complement their activities in the Sahel. We are also continuing to support the creation of the regional operations centre in Khartoum. This will help to share intelligence about people smuggling and will support the work of our organised immigration crime task force. That was an issue which my noble friend Lord McInnes raised, and I hope that reassures him that this matter is under consideration.
Turning to Operation Sophia, the Government accept that it has not been wholly successful, but I want to make clear that we do not accept the committee’s conclusion that a naval mission was the wrong tool, nor should we overlook what the operation has achieved. The facts speak for themselves. As I said earlier, smuggling gangs no longer operate with impunity in international waters, more than 500 smuggling boats have been put out of action and the number of migrants attempting the journey is falling. In the first five months of 2018, numbers were more than 70% lower than in the same period in 2017, and we are confident that the involvement of naval vessels through Operation Sophia contributed to this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, raised efforts to trace smugglers. That is an important issue. Specifically in relation to Libya, on the Foreign Secretary’s last visit he announced a package of additional support to help Libya deal with the terrorist threat and to tackle illegal migration. It included an increase in engagement with Libyan law enforcement authorities to tackle organised crime and trafficking, building on the work the UK is already doing with European partners.
It is also worth noting that Operation Sophia is additionally tasked with the important work of implementing the UN arms embargo on Libya on the high seas. Military vessels are vital for this task, which prevents deliveries of arms that would further destabilise the fragile situation in Libya. I was pleased to hear that the UN Security Council renewed the authorising resolution on Monday. The UK continues to support Operation Sophia, and we have had a vessel, currently HMS “Echo”, on task since the operation began. We also provide staff to the operational headquarters and have supported the training of the Libyan coastguard.
My noble friend Lord McInnes sought slightly more information about the future of Operation Sophia, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I shall deal first with the coastguard training issue. The training really matters because an effective Libyan coastguard will be a vital part of the long-term solution to the migration crisis. Operation Sophia has trained over 200 members of the Libyan navy and coastguard on human rights, gender and search and rescue in order to improve their conduct and effectiveness in these areas. It is positive that the Libyan coastguard is now better able to rescue migrants at sea, and this is reflected in the reduced numbers of crossings of the central Mediterranean into Italy. I alluded earlier to the fall in the first five months of this year compared with those of 2017.
We are concerned about allegations against the Libyan coastguard, including over the mistreatment of migrants, something that a number of contributors raised. We have made clear to the Libyan Prime Minister and to the Libyan coastguard’s senior leadership that any human rights violations are unacceptable. I reassure noble Lords that all coastguard trainees are vetted to exclude anyone found to have committed human rights violations. The operation’s monitoring mechanism for the coastguard will also help to provide greater assurance.
As I said earlier, Operation Sophia is just one part of the wider EU maritime effort, which is also supported by UK assets. For example, Border Force cutters, deployed as part of the FRONTEX-led search and rescue Operation Themis, have saved more than 4,800 lives in the central Mediterranean since this crisis began. I make clear that the UK remains committed to Operation Sophia, including the deployment of HMS “Echo”, until the end of 2018. The Government will take a decision on future support in due course.
A number of noble Lords—my noble friend Lady Verma, the noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—raised issues about participation in the CSDP post Brexit. In line with the withdrawal agreement and the March European Council, the UK will be able to continue to participate in CSDP operations and missions, including Operation Sophia, during the implementation period. No decision has been taken regarding our exact contributions during the implementation period. Our future contributions to CSDP, as part of the wider UK-EU security partnership, after the implementation period, are of course a matter for the negotiations, and I think noble Lords will understand that. The Prime Minister has offered the use of British assets and capabilities as part of a partnership—
I imagine that our partners would be grateful to know at the earliest opportunity whether they can count on our continuing support for Operation Sophia after March next year. On what kind of timescale do the Government expect to make a decision on this?
I think the noble Lord will understand that that has to come within the ambit of the negotiations. I do not have a crystal ball or a magic wand to wave. What I think is universally recognised, and I have already referred to this, is the strength of a partnership approach to these challenges. The strength of that approach is mutually understood not just by the UK but by our friends in the EU. I would hope that that was conducive to fertile discussions in the negotiations.
Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was saying, we will continue to work with European partners on the shared challenges of illegal migration, people trafficking and modern slavery now and after we leave the EU.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister once again but this is a very important point. The Government have said that in certain respects our participation in joint activities after Brexit—for example, in the area of Europol and the common arrest warrant—is unconditional; we will be unconditionally committed on a continuing basis to work together with our present EU partners on those subjects. I think that the Minister has said that our continuing participation in Operation Sophia is conditional, not unconditional, and that it is part of the negotiation so it is going to be set off against various objectives that we are trying to achieve. If that is the case then it seems doubly important for us to come to a conclusion very soon on that matter. It is simply not fair not to let our partners know until the last minute whether they can count on the support of the central British element in a continuing operation.
I think the spirit of our intentions is crystal clear. I referred to what was discussed at the March Council. As to further detail, I can give no further information. The noble Lord may be reluctant to accept that, but that is a part of the ongoing negotiations.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the recent issue of the ship “Aquarius”. The UK will work with EU member states and institutions to find a sustainable resolution to the issue of search-and-rescue co-ordination in the Mediterranean. We have previously held informal discussions with EU partners, as well as discussing the issue at multiple levels with the Italian Government, and remain confident that a solution can be found.
The Government agree with the committee that a political solution in Libya is an essential prerequisite in the fight against the smuggling gangs. The current political and security vacuum provides a permissive environment for extremists, including Daesh, as well as criminal gangs trafficking migrants to Europe. That is why achieving security and stability in Libya is a priority for the UK and a key issue for European and regional partners.
My noble friend Lady Verma asked what the UK are doing specifically in Libya. The UK Government have allocated more than £10 million this financial year for assistance to Libya, through our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. This will help boost political participation and economic development and support improvements in security, stability and resilience. Specifically, EUBAM, with which I know your Lordships will be familiar, now has a light presence in Tripoli, allowing engagement with Libyans. This is an important step in making progress.
The UK has one of the most active diplomatic missions in Libya. Our re-established permanent presence means that our diplomats can make contact with a wide range of Libyans, including political actors at the highest levels. The Foreign Secretary visited Libya twice last year, and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right honourable friend Alistair Burt, was there as recently as April. We continue to work closely with EU member states and others to end the conflict and bring the parties together through the UN-led mediation process, and the UN action plan.
We agree with the committee that action concerning Libya’s southern border should be explored. EUBAM is mandated to assist the Libyan authorities in the fields of law enforcement, broader criminal justice systems and border management, including reducing pressure on Libya’s southern borders.
Looking to the future, the EU will release its next strategic review of operations in Libya in the next few months. This will set the context for any future mandate of Operation Sophia and will also cover EUBAM. It would not be right to speculate about the review’s recommendations, but I can assure the House that the UK will play a full role in its preparation and any decisions taken as a result, and the Government will keep the committee informed.
In conclusion, the Government remain committed—now and after we leave the EU—to working in close partnership with member states to address the challenges of unmanaged migration across the Mediterranean. We remain committed to supporting stability and economic development in migrants’ countries of origin to reduce the drivers of migration, and we remain committed to supporting United Nations-led efforts to bring peace and stability to Libya, and to building an environment that is no longer conducive to people smugglers, terrorists or criminal gangs.
Altogether, this will bring benefits not only to the citizens of Libya and of Europe but to potential migrants themselves. That is a goal worth striving for, and that is certainly what this Government will continue to do.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. The Minister was right: it has been an extremely well-informed and well-tempered debate. My noble friend has not managed to answer a number of questions; if she reads through Hansard, I am sure that she will find them and then put them in writing and put copies in the Library for us to read.
We have all recognised the importance of Operation Sophia—but, as all noble Lords have said, it does not fulfil its mandate. At the end of this year, when the Government, along with the other 27 member states, review whether to renew the mandate, we hope that they will seriously consider whether the operation is succeeding, what its failings are and whether it should continue with the mandate that it has been given.
My noble friend the Minister said that it is saving lives. Absolutely—not one noble Lord in this Chamber would want the humanitarian side of Operation Sophia to be halted. However, it needs to look at whether we are putting even further at risk people who are trying to travel across the Mediterranean in boats that are less safe now because they understand that they will be picked up.
I am really pleased that we have my noble friend Lady Chalker, with all her experience, on our committee. Her contribution demonstrated her years of experience and her ability to look at issues with a mature and sensible eye. The departments that work for us need to take heed of and advice from this committee and others, with their experience, in looking at the source of these problems. They are economic problems and yes, there will be problems involving genuine refugees—but if we are the humane nation that I hope we are, we should take these issues into consideration. We have always led the world in showing how such things should be done; the British people have been the most generous when it comes to giving.
In that spirit, I hope that the Minister will tell her colleagues that, if we are going to take the Operation Sophia mandate forward, it must be done with much more vigour to break the business model as well as address the humanitarian side.
House adjourned at 7.07 pm.