Exclusive: Company convinced Afghans to ‘avoid potentially deadly encounters on the journey to Europe’ months before the Taliban takeover.
The government has given more than £700,000 to a company that advised Afghans not to flee the country before the Taliban takeover.
An investigation by The Independent revealed that the Home Office has handed the “migration behaviour change” firm at least £702,000 since 2016, and it may have been given even more money by the Foreign Office during the same period.
Despite the funding, Seefar’s name has never been mentioned in the Houses of Parliament, and the Home Office has refused to detail the work it commissioned.
The government said it “makes no apology” and wanted to highlight the risks of irregular journeys using people-smugglers.
#Seefar is behind multilingual websites including “On The Move” and “The Migrant Project”, which claim to “enable migrants and potential migrants to make informed decisions”.
Earlier this year, the Hong Kong-based company said it had conducted a “migration communications campaign in Afghanistan” between February and December 2020.
A press release said it had “successfully resulted in more than half of consultees making safer and more informed migration decisions, and avoiding potentially deadly encounters on the journey to Europe”.
An unknown number of people left trapped in Afghanistan after the end of Britain’s evacuation operation in August have been murdered by the Taliban, and a promised scheme to resettle 20,000 refugees has not yet started.
Seefar said it used “unbranded media outreach” to influence Afghans who wanted to flee before the takeover, and advised European governments not to publicly link themselves with such campaigns.
“You should not brand your campaign with the name of the donors [such as governments] and/or international organisations if possible. Instead, your campaign will benefit from a standalone brand that is trusted in the communities,” said a “best practice” document published earlier this year.
The government is due to give Seefar up to £500,000 more public money under a contract for a new “organised immigration crime deterrence and influencing communications strategy”.
A public record of the deal, published in March, said it “includes proposals to deter migrants and signposting migrants to credible alternatives … through a multilingual website and telephone service”.
The document gave the contract’s value as £500,000, but said the number was a “ceiling figure” rather than a committed spend.
In August, Seefar was awarded a separate three-year contract to provide a “training provision framework”, for a department that “delivers strategic capability development programmes overseas on behalf of the Home Office”.
Different companies have been given responsibility for different areas, and Seefar was handed the “borders, migration and asylum” section. The value of the contract has not been publicly disclosed.
Appearing to pose as non-profit organisations, Seefar’s websites focus on “the risks of irregular migration” and encourage people to use “safe and legal alternatives” – without giving details of how to claim asylum or apply for resettlement in the UK.
“You have a choice,” reads the On The Move website. “Don’t risk your life and waste hard-earned money trying to reach the UK.”
The Home Office paid Facebook and Instagram over £23,000 for targeted adverts linking to the website between last December and April, as part of a campaign aiming to dissuade migrants from attempting Channel crossings.
On The Move discloses no link to the British government in its “about us” section, which reads: “On The Move provides migrants in transit with free, reliable and important migration information. Reliable and trustworthy information on migration is very difficult to find.”
Seefar’s company website lists supporters including the governments of Britain, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands, along with the European Commission.
The company was founded in 2014 and describes itself as “a recognised leader in understanding migration behaviour change”, with “extensive experience developing and deploying innovative monitoring and evaluation approaches for irregular migration communication campaigns”.
A Seefar booklet aimed at potential customers listed services including “Scripting lines for politicians to deliver, providing information and counselling face to face, over the phone or online, unacknowledged support to news media and documentary makers” and “advertising on billboards, television, radio or the internet”.
Public Home Office spending records list 12 separate payments and grants to Seefar between 2016 and 2018, of up to £120,000 each, but do not detail what they were for.
They are listed as from the Home Office’s “capability and resources group”, or for “advertising, media and publicity”.
Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “We have seen this year the tragic consequences of what happens when ministers waste money on a hostile policy of trying to keep people out, rather than keep people safe.
“The government must spend less time on these murky schemes and more on creating effective safe routes for refugees to claim asylum here.”
The Home Office said it has robust processes in place to check projects are good value for money, and that spending records are published in accordance with regulations.
A spokesperson added: “While lives are at risk, we make no apology for using every possible tool at our disposal to provide potentially lifesaving information to migrants.
“Last month’s tragedy is a devastating reminder of the dangers of Channel crossings. Highlighting the threats of these deadly journeys is vitally important in making clear that people risk their lives if they turn to people-smugglers.