Solidarity takes many forms | Rob Luke

The UK is often criticised for showing lack of solidarity on the migration front. British High Commissioner Rob Luke however argues that ‘solidarity’ means more than just ‘burden sharing’

British High Commissioner to Malta, Rob Luke. Photo: Ray Attard
British High Commissioner to Malta, Rob Luke. Photo: Ray Attard

The United Kingdom has been in the international spotlight quite a lot recently: what with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II this week breaking Queen Victoria’s record as the longest-ever reigning monarch, as well as a Labour Party leadership election that has evidently captivated attention outside the confines of Great Britain.

For all this, it is the UK’s stance on migration – in particular, its refusal to participate in the EU’s plan for the ‘relocation’ of Syrian refugees among different EU member states – that has attracted the most criticism. 

When I met Britain’s High Commissioner to Malta, HE Rob Luke, for this interview last Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron had not yet formally announced his country’s withdrawal from this plan. Even so, the UK’s position on this issue had already been painstakingly foreshadowed. 

Slightly less clear, however, was the same country’s position regarding the crisis that has unfolded closer to our own shores. Cameron had also declared that the UK would not participate in the EU’s earlier life-saving operations in the Mediterranean: arguing that this would create a ‘pull-factor’ for more irregular migration.

And yet, Britain currently is conducting search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean: having deployed two naval warships for this very purpose.

All things told, there is evidently some confusion surrounding the UK’s actual position on the complex migration issue. High Commissioner Rob Luke however rebuts the criticism that his country has in any way abdicated its responsibility to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis arising from the Syrian civil war. 

“One way or another, it is true that this crisis is one of the biggest challenges – if not the biggest challenge – facing Europe as we speak,” he tells me in the British consular offices in Ta’ Xbiex. “And of course, one of our first priorities should be to ensure the right humanitarian response to this situation. The UK has been very prominent in this response: the first element is search and rescue at sea, and initially that contribution was through the presence of HMS Bulwark, and subsequently through HMS Enterprise supported by an RAF Merlin helicopter. So those significant British military assets have been involved in search and rescue, and the current estimate is that they have been directly involved in saving the lives of around 6,500 people…”

This, he adds, must also be seen in the context of a much broader humanitarian response. “The UK has been prominent in the question of resettlement, too – we have given sanctuary this year to over 5,000 Syrian refugees, and the Prime Minister announced on Monday that there would be an addition 20,000 places made available in resettlement programmes during the rest of the present government’s parliamentary term.”

But all along, the High Commissioner argues that such initiatives, though necessary, do not add up to a comprehensive approach to the phenomenon.

“Having said this, we believe it is just as important, if not more important, to tackle this humanitarian crisis at source: which ultimately means by working in the region, and in the countries to which Syrian refugees – if, for the moment, we are talking about the Syrian crisis – have fled. To that end, the UK has contributed its largest ever humanitarian crisis response in financial terms: spending over £1 billion on humanitarian aid specifically on Syria, and focusing on support activities for refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.”

Even this, he adds, falls short of addressing the issue in its entirety. “The UK believes that the sustainable long-term solution lies ‘upstream’: that is to say, we have to work to improve the conditions in the country of origin of these individuals, so that they no longer feel persecuted and have to flee as refugees; or indeed that they no longer feel motivated to move as economic migrants.

“Here, too, I believe the UK has a good story to tell in that regard. It is the only major country in the world which lives up to its commitment to spend 0.7% of its GDP on development aid; and the Prime Minister has made it clear that increasingly, our development aid will be focused on those countries where the migratory challenge is greatest. Ultimately, our aid target is to improve the situation in countries of origin, so that people are no longer motivated to set off on treacherous and in many cases tragic voyages.”

In practical terms, however, such goals are difficult to pursue. Certainly there is no magic wand solution to the ongoing conflict in Syria; and other countries of origin (and transit) are comparable in terms of chaos and turmoil. Even Libya – country of departure for untold thousands from all parts of Africa – is now rife with internal turbulence. How does one ‘improve the situation’ in such places, if not through direct military intervention?

“Syria is an extremely complex and multi-faceted crisis in itself: the UK is a strong supporter of taking steps to ultimately resolve the conflict; but the reality is – let’s also be honest about this – that there is no consensus among the international community on how this can or should be done. And the people who pay the price for this lack of consensus are the Syrian people…”

Libya, he adds, is a slightly different case: “But nonetheless, also a very challenging context at the moment. To address the migratory challenge, the reality is that we do need political stability: which ultimately means a government of national unity. The UK, along with its international partners – including the government of Malta – is working very hard to bring the Libyan parties together to deliver a national unity government…”  

Naturally, not everyone necessarily shares this particular ambition. “There are various actors working antithetically to that interest – not least, the Islamic State – and that is why the international community’s response, in itself, has to be multi-faceted: addressing the security and economic prosperity dimensions, but also factoring in the migratory and humanitarian aspects of the situation as well.”

The international community’s actual response, however, has not been terribly effective so far. In June the EU launched a plan to respond to the crisis in the central Mediterranean: which involved in part a strategy to counter human trafficking by targeting boats leaving from the Libyan coast.

And yet, the ‘upstream’ approach favoured by the UK would surely have to look further inland than the coast of Libya. Human trafficking networks operate all over Africa, and – as we all saw last week, with the discovery of 70 dead bodies in a truck in Austria – now even within Europe.

What, therefore, is the UK’s response to an EU plan which seems to focus only on the tail end of the migration network?

“The view that this challenge needs to be addressed upstream is one that the British government will entirely agree with. These journeys, and the criminality involved in supporting these journeys, goes all the way back along the chain: which is why we are extremely strong supporters of the focus placed on the external dimension of the migration challenge at the Valletta summit [2-12 November].

“The mandate of that summit is very much to look into these issues: what more can be done to improve the situation in the countries of origin? What more can be done in the countries of transit? What can be done to tackle and break the business model of the immigration criminal networks? As you say, the networks do not start on the Libyan beaches, but all the way down the chain. Sometimes they have a European dimension as well: both in terms of supporting onward travel, but also in many cases in controlling the activity taking place in Africa. I certainly agree that working upstream is a necessary, though not sufficient, part of addressing this. Once again, the UK is very prominent in that picture.”

In the shorter term, however, there are operational setbacks to the success of the European Commission’s plan.

“There is talk now of moving onto the next phase, which would enable more assertive action to disrupt the traffickers’ activity: a strategy based very much on organised crime combating techniques. But the reality is, and it’s blindingly obvious, that one needs a measure of Libyan consent to be able to undertake activity in Libyan waters. As things stand, this Libyan consent does not exist. That is all the more reason why the political negotiations taking place with Libya are so important, because we hope that will help unlock the question of greater Libyan collaboration.

“Nonetheless, there seems to be appetite in Europe to undertake whatever activity can be undertaken in international waters: to disrupt the boats, to intercept them, and to glean as much information from that process as can possibly be gleaned, in order to tackle the organised immigration criminals who are at the heart of this tragic traffic in human misery. I think the portents for that particular dimension are good.”

On the subject of the Valletta summit: what are Rob Luke’s own personal expectations from this intergovernmental meeting, and how optimistic is he that the outcome will be positive? 

“We would like to see Valletta mark a step-change in the EU’s engagement on the upstream migration agenda. Our level of optimism? Moderately high, because I think there is a huge imperative, a huge groundswell of political and public opinion, that suggests this challenge needs to be addressed.

“Also, there seems to be a measure of consensus: the ‘upstream agenda’ is in fact the part about which everybody agrees. One has to do more work and support development in countries of origin, in order to gradually reduce the number of departures. Everyone also agrees that organised immigration crime is a blight that needs to be addressed; that those who profit from human misery need to be tackled with the utmost severity. All that seems to me to be rather positive…”

Naturally, there are also areas of disagreement: which the British High Commissioner describes as ‘inevitable’, given the complexity of Europe’s political realities. 

“The migratory reality varies from member state to member state. I would say for example that, insofar as this relates to the UK and Malta, our views and approaches to the issue of migration are actually very similar, despite differences in a few areas. The main difference between our two countries is that we lie at different points of the migratory chain. Malta is primarily a country of transit; the UK is most often a country of ultimate desired destination.

“That dynamic is true across the European Union. And that is why, let’s be honest about it, you are not going to get a commonality of view, at all points, about all elements of Europe’s response to migration. The UK’s position is that we need a comprehensive approach. Yes, we need to ensure an effective humanitarian response; yes, we need to do more to tackle organised crime involved in migration, both outside and within the EU; yes, we need to work upstream, and also need to ensure that the rules we currently have are applied effectively.”

He concedes that this is no easy task. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that individual member states choose their own preferred parts of that toolbox; that is up to a certain extent what the EU is all about. What I find slightly – what’s the word? – challenging is this call for a ‘European solution’. It is correct to assert that Europe needs to find solutions to this migration crisis: but vague, generalised calls for Europe to find solutions do not help, if they don’t prescribe or identify specifically what those solutions are… and for it to be proved that those solutions are sustainable and effective in the longer term.

“This is why we are keen to work at all stages of the migratory chain. The reality is that dealing with people once they have arrived is not a ‘solution’ to the crisis: you are addressing the consequences, not the causes. Our view is that the EU needs to be more effective in addressing the causes… which is where we hope the Valletta summit can make a real impact.”

One area where consensus certainly does not exist is the issue of returning failed asylum seekers to their country of origin: a process that Luke describes as fundamental to the migration system as a whole.

“All of these migratory stories are individual stories of hardship and in many cases of tragedy. The reality is nonetheless that European countries are not in a position to offer homes to all those who would like to come to our countries seeking a better standard of living. If an individual has made the journey to Europe; has had his or her asylum application assessed according to law; and if the request for asylum was determined to be not well-founded… then I am afraid the consequences are that they should be returned to their country of origin.”

Europe, he adds, has not been very effective at doing that. 

“It is important now that we break the link between arrival in the EU, and the question of permanent residence in the EU. The reality is that some of these individuals will be found not to have the legal right to reside in the EU. More needs to be done by individual member states, and by the EU collectively, to return these people to their country of origin. Ultimately, that is also part of the comprehensive approach to migration: there should be an effective mechanism to return failed asylum seekers. I hope that will be part of the dialogue with our international partners at the Valletta summit…”

All along, however, part of what makes this international dialogue so difficult is that the terminology used is not necessarily uniform throughout. Often, for instance, people tend to use the word ‘refugee’ indiscriminately – forgetting that, by definition, to be a refugee means to have one’s application for refugee status approved. Likewise, the term ‘asylum seekers’ is correct only when applied to people who come to Europe specifically to seek asylum… which does not necessarily apply to all migrants equally.

“When talking about the impact of migrants in one form or another, specific use of terminology becomes important,” the High Commissioner argues. “No country is arguing for uncontrolled immigration, and no country is arguing to have zero immigration either.

“It then becomes a matter of seeking policy prescriptions for each EU member state which: a) meet our humanitarian obligations; b) also meet the needs of our labour markets, but; c), also ensures that we continue to support development in the countries of origin… which cannot be achieved by depriving those countries of the human capital which is so important to their future development.”

This is why his country has been so adamant to separate the issues of refugee resettlement, and relocation of asylum seekers as proposed by the European Commission (and rejected by the UK). Luke outlines the basic difference between these two scenarios.

“As earlier explained, the UK has agreed to ‘resettle’ an additional 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years. That means taking these people from where they are currently based outside the EU – specifically, the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – and resettling them in the UK. That’s rather different from ‘relocation’: where one is dealing with people who have already arrived in the EU… but the argument is that they should be moved elsewhere within the EU to ‘rebalance’ the arrivals.

“The UK does not support relocation, on the basis that relocation is tackling the consequences rather than the cause. Also, there is a very strong argument that relocation, in and of itself, does act as a pull-factor for further migration… and in some cases, for further illegal migration. The UK is therefore not playing any part in EU relocation mechanisms…”

And yet, mandatory relocation – or as we call it here, ‘responsibility sharing’ – has been Malta’s official position for years…

The High Commissioner acknowledges that Malta is entitled to its own position like any other country. But he stands by his country’s insistence on the importance of terminology regardless.

“‘Solidarity’ and ‘sharing the burden’ are very much a component of the discussion, but it is important to be precise in what we mean by those terms. Solidarity and burden sharing should not be restricted to relocation alone. The UK believes strongly that we do show solidarity, and we do share the burden… in terms of our resettlement activities, in terms of search and rescue… but equally, if not more importantly, the work the UK undertakes in humanitarian and development aid in the countries of origin.”