The United Kingdom’s Home Office has provided more than £3m in funding to Turkish border forces in the last year to prevent migrants from reaching the UK, an investigation for the Guardian has found.
Funding for Turkey’s border force operations has increased substantially from 2019, when £14,000 was given to Turkish police and coastguard for maritime border security training, according to documents obtained through freedom of information (FOI) requests. That figure rose to £425,000 in 2021-22 for training and equipment and up to £3m this year for “return and reintegration assistance” training and personnel.
The funding was diverted from the official development assistance (ODA) budget and delivered through Home Office International Operations, part of the department’s Intelligence Directorate.
In addition to funding, the Home Office has also supplied Turkish border forces, including the National Police and the Coastguard, with equipment and training. In June 2022, nine vehicles were handed over by the UK’s deputy high commissioner to the Turkish National Police on the border with Iran.
Last year Turkey said it “turned back” 238,448 migrants at its eastern border with Iran. Video evidence seen by the Guardian shows cases of extreme violence and force used against Afghan migrants attempting to cross the border into Turkey. This includes the authorities firing live bullet rounds as people flee, including at the feet of children; beatings using rifle butts; robberies; humiliation tactics and pushing people back to the other side of the border.
Mahmut Kaçan, a Turkish lawyer working on asylum and human rights abuses, said the deaths and pushbacks on the border began escalating two years ago. “The UNHCR never criticizes or mentions what Turkey is doing at the border. They are complicit in the deaths of these people, as are the EU and other countries that are giving money to Turkey for border security.”
A source with knowledge of the Home Office International Operations team said Turkey had become “a country of emerging importance [to the UK government] in the last two to three years and is now seen as strategically crucial to border securitisation.”
“We offer our expertise and provide officials [locally] with evidence, showing the routes we think illegal migrants or gangs are operating along,” the source said. “It’ll probably be along the lines of: ‘This is a route smugglers and illegal migrants use to get to the UK, we need to do more to stop it.’ The Turkish government will then respond by saying: ‘This is what we need to be able to do that,’ and then we fund it, basically.”
The source added: “We don’t tend to hold local forces to account with any targets, but certainly if we say: ‘We need to bolster X area of border security,’ Turkey might respond by saying they need Y in order to boost border officer numbers and we’ll help them to do that.”
Another source familiar with the work of the Home Office International Operations unit said: “Us paying for stuff like that builds our soft power credentials in other areas, such as possible returns agreements. It’s like a mini FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] inside the Home Office.”
Sources added that Home Office operations overseas involved intelligence gathering through interviews with migrants who had arrived in the UK. Information from those interviews is then passed on to border forces locally to “put an operational plan in place to stop it.”
Documents obtained through an FOI request also show that the Home Office has increased its number of staff deployed to work at post, with sources from the FCDO saying Home Office staff now outnumber diplomats working in Turkey.
“The Home Office is seen by international partners as quite hostile, quite adversarial,” said a senior government source with knowledge of the department’s operations in Turkey. “The FCDO, on the other hand, is viewed as relatively collegiate and collaborative. In this context, there are obvious tensions in the approach and the culture among staff.”
The department’s 2025 Border Strategy states that one of its key priorities is to “improve our use of upstream illegal migration countermeasures to prevent irregular entry into the UK.”
It also stipulates the department will “prevent entry into the UK through improved border security and through work with source and transit countries to support them in addressing irregular migration challenges within their region.”
Mary Atkinson, campaigns and networks manager at JCWI, said: “This government has shown that it will break international law to prevent people from exercising the fundamental human right to seek safety.
“Whether on the border between Turkey and Iran, or those of France or Belgium, this government is covertly funding others to do its dirty work, while at the same time ramping up its xenophobic rhetoric against the few that do finally make it here.”
In response to the findings of the investigation, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Like many other European states, the UK works tirelessly at home and abroad on a range of priorities, including tackling illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and modern slavery. This includes mutually beneficial close working with our operational counterparts in a range of partner countries, like Turkey, to tackle these and wider socially damaging issues.”