U.K. aid for migration crisis has unintended consequences, watchdog group says

The Italian Navy rescues migrants on a rubber boat some 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Libyan capital, Tripoli. (Credit: AP)

U.K. initiatives that aim to stem migration across the Mediterranean need more careful consideration, according to an independent watchdog group.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) analyzed existing and proposed programs that are funded by U.K. foreign aid money and identified the potential for success, as well as unintended consequences. One area of particular concern is the support for Libya’s coast guard to intercept boats carrying migrants.

“We are concerned about the risk of unintended harm to vulnerable migrants, particularly in difficult operating contexts such as Libya, and we have urged the government to do more to identify and manage these risks,” ICAI Chief Commissioner Alison Evans said in a press statement. “U.K. aid’s focus on irregular migration is at its early stages, but at the moment our review found it is some distance from making a measurable impact in the central Mediterranean.”

Libya emerged as the main route for migrants traveling to Europe following the closure of travel from Turkey to Greece. More than 1 million migrants and refugees live in Libya – many waiting to cross the Mediterranean for Italy. People found in intercepted boats are returned to Libya where they are held in overcrowded detention centers.

ICAI’s report warns that U.K. foreign aid is enabling the problematic system. Further, the government did not consider the impact of preventing people from reaching Europe, especially asylum seekers. There may be “unintended harm” caused by supporting the capture and return of some people. Migrants held by Libya can access assistance to return to their home countries, but that is not a solution for every person.

“We are concerned that the program delivers migrants back to a system that leads to indiscriminate and indefinite detention and denies refugees their right to asylum,” the report stated. “We are also concerned that the responsible departments were not able to provide us with evidence that an Overseas Security and Justice Assistance human rights risks assessment or equivalent was carried out prior to the support to the Libyan coastguard, as required by the government’s own Human Rights Guidance.”

There are programs that show promise. A partnership with Ethiopia is working to create 50,000 jobs in order to prevent people from migrating for labor. The £125 million refugee and migrant program in the country partners mostly with NGOs, leading to savings on overhead spending as compared to partnering with the U.N. Refugee Agency. Other checks on the program help ensure that the money is spent efficiently and effectively.

Jobs can help prevent migrants from leaving Ethiopia for other countries, according to an analysis of migration in Ethiopia by the London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute. Its open asylum policy draws thousands of refugees to the country each year from neighboring countries.  Eritreans in Ethiopia would benefit from stronger labor rights and more jobs. The program with the U.K. could help.

The positive assessment comes with a caveat. The jobs program is starting up, meaning there is no evidence of impact. It may have all the right pieces for success but fail for other reasons. Despite that, the report is encouraged by the innovative nature of the partnership and the considered approach to undertaking it.

“The aid that is currently being directed at reducing irregular migration has the potential to make a difference but only if it is tailored to the realities that migrants and refugees face,” Marta Foresti, managing director at the Overseas Development Institute, said in a statement. “There is a real risk aid is seen as a silver bullet that resolves irregular migration to Europe, but our research shows this will not be achieved without expanding legal pathways to better manage migration.”

Before determining solutions, the U.K. needs to have a better understanding of the ongoing migrant crisis, according to the ICAI report. It recognizes that the unpredictable number of people making the journey across the Mediterranean makes work more difficult. But the report stresses the need for a thoughtful approach that minimizes potential harm. It recommends that the U.K. invest in monitoring and evaluation in order to determine the effects of programs.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.