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Overseas Territories: Illegal Immigration

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to support the Overseas Territories in the Caribbean with the challenge of illegal immigration.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind your Lordships of my interest as the honorary colonel of the Cayman Islands Regiment.

I salute my noble friend for his contribution to the overseas territories. The Prime Minister has been clear that supporting the overseas territories is a top priority for this Government. That includes supporting Caribbean overseas territories tackling irregular migration. I am working closely with colleagues across government to strengthen our collective support for the OTs. The Turks and Caicos Islands face particularly high levels of irregular migration from Haiti. The UK’s support package includes FCDO-funded work to introduce electronic borders and procuring a maritime surveillance aircraft.

My Lords, last month I visited the Turks and Caicos Islands with the Chief of the General Staff to see the work of the TCI regiment, which is supporting the countermigration challenges the islands face. It is a very real problem. So far this year, some 1,599 Haitians have been intercepted—which, for an island with a population of just 60,000, is an enormous challenge. Notwithstanding the work of my noble friend, who I know is committed to the OTs, I must say that I was underwhelmed by the response of His Majesty’s Government. It really is a challenge. The problem seems to be that other government departments here in the UK view the OTs as not their problem but an FCDO problem. However, the FCDO does not have the levers to pull to help the overseas territories, for example in policing. If the FCDO is unable to support the OTs, should responsibilities be transferred to the Cabinet Office to ensure a whole of government approach to supporting our overseas territories?

My noble friend raises an important point; I know I am expected to say this, but I am genuinely grateful to him for raising this issue, which is not raised enough in this place. The problem he described is serious, but he is semi-right in relation to the FCDO. The FCDE is air traffic control for the OTs; the levers of delivery belong to other departments of government. But I pay tribute to the team in the FCDO, given that it is the department, notwithstanding what I just said, delivering the most for the OTs. We commissioned a serious crime review before the situation escalated in TCI, and urgently requested the deployment of UK police—and funded this. It is true, as has been noted, that UK police pulled their officers out and chose not to provide operational officers at the time they were needed. That was a mistake on their part, but the Foreign Office then secured further UK police capacity-building team and separately procured a 16-strong operational serious crime team for TCI through commercial routes, and that team is in place and making a big difference today. The FCDO also requested and funded the support of a Royal Navy helicopter at the height of the crisis in the TCI. The Foreign Secretary has been working with the Prime Minster and myself to ensure that all government departments understand their role in supporting the overseas territories. The noble Lord makes an important point that this is not someone else’s problem. The OTs are part of the UK family and the message has gone out from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, and to individual Ministers from me, that the Government need to step up across Whitehall.

My Lords, the international medical charity MSF has underlined that gang violence has spread to every part of Port-au-Prince, displacing many residents who are now living in dire conditions. Hospitals, clinics and schools have been forced to close, worsening already appalling food shortages and limiting access to clean drinking water. What steps are the UK and UN taking to help address the violence and humanitarian situation, and to support those fleeing the country to find safety?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Of course, Haiti is not an overseas territory, but it has a big impact on neighbouring overseas territories, as we have been discussing. We are obviously very concerned. We used our platform in the UN Security Council to support the UN sanctions back in October. We continue to engage in Security Council discussions, including considering Haitian requests for security assistance, and we want stability and security as soon as possible in Haiti. We are supporting it through contributions to the UN and other international agencies that have a strong presence on the ground, including the World Bank, and we are working with the UN office in Haiti and the international community to support a peaceful, democratic and Haitian-led solution for the Haitian people.

My Lords, the Minister knows that the OTs operate their own visa regime, which is separate from that of the United Kingdom. Given the violence and climate crises in that near neighbourhood, there are no safe and legal routes for seeking asylum. Are the OTs fully covered by the proposals in the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which means that they will now have to detain and then remove to Rwanda any of those individuals? What are the mechanisms for providing support for detention facilities within the OTs and supporting the cost of flights to Rwanda that the Government are now going to insist the OTs carry out? What was their response? I assume the Government and FCDO consulted them. What was the response to the consultation?

Different OTs have different challenges and problems. We began the conversation about TCI, where the migration problem is on a scale that is incomparable. If it was translated into UK conditions, it would be like 4 million or 5 million people crossing the channel every year, and clearly that is a major problem for a small island with a small population. What we are helping to do in TCI is helping the country return those refugees to Haiti where possible. Similarly, we have a problem in Cayman, where large numbers of people are fleeing from Cuba. The answer there is to return people wherever possible to Cuba. The only issue that seems to be of interest to Parliament at the moment relates to the British Indian Ocean Territory, where we have a particular problem with refugees, mostly from Sri Lanka, who are inhabiting an area that is effectively uninhabitable. There we have particular issues and it is in those circumstances where the Rwanda option may be the best one.

My Lords, when I had the good fortune to do the Minister’s job in the other place, I was able to visit most of the OTs. One of the consistent themes was the lack of capacity, experience and training across the Governments of the OTs. One way to address this is to put in place twinning arrangements with local authorities in the UK. One such partnership was between the TCI and Hertfordshire County Council to exchange and train staff, move people and embed them and, above all, build that crucial capacity. Is that twinning arrangement still going? What plans do he and HMG have to put in place further such arrangements?

There are actually quite a few arrangements of the sort that the noble Lord describes—on education, policing and a wide range of issues. There are too many for me to regale now in the short time that we have, but I am happy to write to him and detail some of the most effective arrangements in place. I would emphasise the point made in the original Question. Different government departments need to recognise that we have a constitutional responsibility to the overseas territories. While the FCDO is a key central organisation in ensuring that that delivery happens, different government departments need to recognise that the inhabitants of the overseas territories are no less His Majesty’s subjects than we are in this place.

My Lords, HMS “Medway” was deployed to very considerable and very good effect in the Caribbean in 2022. Why cannot it or a vehicle of a similar class be deployed in the Caribbean in support of the overseas dependencies in 2023? If it cannot, is that not a good argument for having a permanent naval presence in the Caribbean?

The noble Lord makes a good point and I agree with him that HMS “Medway” and the auxiliary ship RFA “Tideforce” were of huge assistance in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. “Medway” then supported the Cayman Islands in response to Hurricane Ian. HMS “Dauntless” will be in the region from 1 June this year to provide a consistent maritime presence in the Caribbean, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response support. It is our intention and duty to ensure we have that presence when needed, particularly during the hurricane season.

My Lords, if flights to Rwanda are an option for the Caribbean, overseas territories and beyond, who picks up the bill?

The noble Lord raises what I think is currently an academic question. The Rwanda option is being explored in relation to the refugees I mentioned earlier who have landed in Chagos—Diego Garcia. We have a particular issue there, given that the facilities are not appropriate. The area that the refugees currently occupy is not strictly inhabitable and we need to return as many of those people as possible. I would add 130 individuals have already voluntarily returned home and the numbers are now pretty small.

My Lords, on the issue of assistance from HMG to the overseas territories, can the Minister confirm that carbon emissions from overseas territories count under the UK’s net-zero target? What support are the Government providing to those overseas territories to tackle their carbon emissions?

The key value of the overseas territories is related less to carbon—their emissions are minuscule—than to the fact that 96% of UK biodiversity is in the overseas territories. That is an enormous source of pride for the UK, and rightly so. We provide a lot of financial support through Darwin Plus, which we expanded to £10 million annually. We have £2 million also available this year to the OTs through the CSSF. We have the Blue Belt programme, which has grown—Anguilla joined a few months ago and another overseas territory will be joining. I long to tell the House about that but I cannot do so yet. That programme continues to grow. We are focusing a lot of effort and energy in helping the OTs to protect and enhance their biodiversity. I did not answer the question about whether emissions are included, because I am afraid that I do not know the answer. My colleague here no doubt does.