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Child Refugees in Europe

Volume 605: debated on Monday 25 January 2016

The Government are at the forefront of the international response to the unprecedented migration flows into and across Europe. We want to stop the perilous journeys that are being made by migrants, including children, which have had such terrible consequences.

In respect of the majority of refugees of all ages, the clear advice from experts on the ground is that protection in safe countries in their region of origin is the best way of keeping them safe and, crucially, allowing them to return home and rebuild their lives once the conflict is over. That is why we are providing more than £1.1 billion in humanitarian aid for the Syria crisis, but it is also why we have a resettlement scheme for the most vulnerable Syrian refugees—those in the most need. Some 1,000 arrived before Christmas, about half of them children. A further 19,000 will be resettled by the end of this Parliament, and many of those will be children too.

Our resettlement scheme is based on referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We already consider referrals of separated children or orphans under the Syrian resettlement scheme where the UNHCR assesses that resettlement is in the best interests of the child. The UNHCR has a clear view that it is generally better for separated children and orphans within the region to stay there, as they are more likely to be reunited with family members or to be taken into extended family networks.

Last week the International Development Secretary announced an additional £30 million for shelter, warm clothes, hot food and medical supplies, including for 27,000 children and babies. This assistance will be distributed to aid agencies, including UNICEF, the UNHCR, the Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration, to support vulnerable people, including children on the move or stranded in Europe or in the Balkans.

We have heard calls for the UK to take more unaccompanied children from within the EU. The Prime Minister has committed to looking again at this issue, and it is currently under review. Such a serious issue potentially affecting the lives of so many must be considered thoroughly, and no decisions have yet been taken. The Government are clear that any action to help and assist unaccompanied minors must be in the best interests of the child, and it is right that that is our primary concern. We take our responsibilities seriously, and this issue is under careful consideration. When this work is completed, we will update the House accordingly. I commend this statement to the House.

The aid for refugees, particularly children, is of course welcome, but Save the Children has estimated that 26,000 children have arrived alone in Europe: some who fled alone; some who have been trafficked by gangs, perhaps into prostitution, slavery or the drugs trade; and some separated from parents or family along the way, such as the 10-year-old whose case I heard of who was separated from his parents as a gang pushed them on to a lorry, and they now do not know where he is.

The Government have said repeatedly that they are looking at the call from across parties and from Save the Children for Britain to take 3,000 lone child refugees, but there has still been no answer, and we hear rumours that they will look only at helping child refugees from camps in the region. That is not enough. In Greece, in Italy and in the Balkans, the reception centres and children’s homes are full, and children are disappearing. The Italian authorities estimate that about 4,000 children who were alone in Italy disappeared last year. I met 11 and 12-year-olds in Calais who were there alone with just one British volunteer looking after them. That is a similar age to my children, and they should not be there alone.

We should especially be helping those who have family in Britain who are desperate to care for them. Last week, a tribunal ruled that three teenagers and a vulnerable adult should be able to stay with close relatives here while their asylum cases are heard rather than being alone in France because the French system and the Dublin III agreement are not working for lone refugee children. May I urge the Minister to see this judgment as another reason to reform the system so that it helps child refugees? One case that was due to go to the tribunal was unsuccessful—that of a teenager from Afghanistan whose sister lives here. It was unsuccessful because he died, suffocated in a lorry just a few weeks ago, taking crazy risks: because he did not wait for the lawyers; because he was 15 years old and that is what teenagers do.

This week, many of us will sign the Holocaust Memorial Day book of commitment. Our colleague in the House of Lords, Lord Alf Dubs, was saved from the holocaust by the Kindertransport many generations ago. Now he is asking us, through his Lords amendment, to back Save the Children’s campaign to help a new generation of vulnerable children. Please will the Government agree to this before more children disappear or die? Please let us do our bit again to help child refugees.

I say to the right hon. Lady that this Government are taking a number of steps to assist child refugees both in the region and, with some of the specialist support we are providing to process asylum claims, in countries such as Greece and Italy. Indeed, looking at the situation in Calais and northern France, the support the Government are providing to the French in identifying those who are victims of slavery and trafficking is a key part of the agreement reached last August between the Home Secretary and Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Minister of the Interior.

It is important to acknowledge the right hon. Lady’s point about the role of trafficking and of those seeking to sell false hope who are very directly putting lives at risk. The way in which traffickers seek to place refugees in appalling conditions—literally not caring whether they live in die—is quite horrific. In that context, it is notable that work by Europol indicates that about 90% of those coming to Europe have been trafficked in some form or other by those involved in organised immigration crime. That is why the work we are doing in setting up the organised immigration crime taskforce is so important in working with Europol to confront and combat the heinous acts of the traffickers.

On the issue of reunion, the Dublin arrangements are in place. The right hon. Lady mentioned the court case last week, which was specific to the four individuals concerned. Although we will look at the judgment, which has not yet been received, to understand the court’s decisions and the reasons it has set out for the order it made last week, it is important to recognise that a claim of asylum still had to be made in France to ensure, as we understand it, that the reunification arrangements were operative under the Dublin arrangements. We will wait to see the judgment.

On the Save the Children report and its request for us to consider taking the 3,000 children, I have already said—the Prime Minister said the same in the House a short while ago—that we are actively considering the proposal. We will obviously return to the House when we have investigated and concluded our consideration of that matter.

It is important not to stretch the analogy with the Kindertransport too far. We need to remember that on the last train, which was disrupted by the war, only two of the children survived and the rest, along with their families, were killed. However, there are some clear parallels that we need to address. We need to remember the enormous contribution that the Kindertransport made to this country: distinguished doctors, surgeons and Members of both Houses were saved by it.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister is looking at this matter again. He is quite right to try to keep children in the region, but to use one of those phrases, we are where we are. There are children at risk, and I urge the Government to look carefully at that. After all, today is 25 January. A month ago, we were celebrating that great Christian festival of children, and I hope that that spirit lingers beyond Boxing day.

My right hon. Friend is obviously right to recall Holocaust Memorial Day, which we will mark on 27 January. I was at the Home Office earlier this afternoon for our own recognition of that very important event, given the context of what happened then and the need to ensure that the lessons of the past are remembered today.

Our focus is clearly on trying to assist the children who are most in need and the refugees who are most in need. That is why we have taken the approach of providing aid assistance and of having the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. The resettlement scheme is aimed at the issues of vulnerability, part of which is about children and about orphans, and it is very much focused on those who have suffered most.

The thought of any child alone in a foreign country is abhorrent to any parent, but for them to be alone in dangerous conditions—without food, warmth, comfort or protection—is genuinely terrifying. Sadly, that is the reality today for thousands of Syrian children and those fleeing other conflicts. The truth is that some of these frightened young souls are on our own doorstep, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition saw for himself at the weekend. No child should be left to fend for themselves, whoever they are and wherever they are. I have no doubt that, when faced with this issue, the vast majority of British people would see a moral duty to act, as the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) has just said.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on asking the question and welcome the Minister’s commitment to look seriously at the issue, but may I press him on some of the points that my right hon. Friend made? In particular, will he consider children who are here in Europe, as well as those who are in the camps? The Government’s policy to date has been to take only refugees from the region, rather than those who have crossed the sea. Does he not accept that, as the crisis develops, that distinction is becoming harder to maintain?

There are 26,000 unaccompanied children in Europe today. They cannot, as the Government claim, be described as the fittest and the strongest. They are instead highly vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of abuse. They urgently need someone to reach out a hand. I appreciate the concern that doing so could create an unhelpful precedent and an incentive for families to send children alone, but surely that can be dealt with by making it clear that this is an exceptional move and by working with the UNHCR and others to identify children who are genuinely alone?

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war, but instead of playing our full part, the Prime Minister has spent recent weeks stomping around Europe with his own list of demands. Does the Minister not accept that, to countries that are trying to deal with the enormity of this crisis, that might make us look a little selfish and blinkered? By doing more to help our partners in Europe, might not the Prime Minister build good will and get a better hearing for his renegotiation demands?

As others have said, this week we will remember the awful events of the holocaust and the Kindertransport. Surely now is the time to take inspiration from those British heroes of the last century and act to change the course of history in this.

This country can be proud of the record that we have maintained and the work that we are doing to provide aid and assistance to vulnerable people in the region. Some £1.1 billion has been committed.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with the UNHCR on the resettlement programme and in our consideration of this issue of children. The UNHCR and UNICEF have made it very clear that the best way to help children is to work in the region itself, because that is often where the connections with family are.

The right hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of Europe. We are acting in solidarity in Europe by providing expertise to the European Asylum Support Office; providing support to Frontex for the search and rescue operations; and supporting Europol and the activities in the Mediterranean to confront the people traffickers and smugglers to deal with this issue at the border. We are also working beyond the borders of Europe in the source and transit countries to provide the long-term stability and security that are fundamental to dealing with all of this.

We have to be very careful that the stance that we take does not make an extraordinarily difficult situation even worse. We know that the people traffickers exploit anything that we say and twist it in a perverse manner to encourage more people to travel and put more lives at risk. That is why we are looking at this issue very closely to determine what is in the best interests of the child, to ensure that more lives are not put at risk and to see how we can support this activity. I have highlighted the direct support that we are giving to provide aid and assistance to children and refugees in flight across Europe and in the Balkans.

The combination of approaches that we have taken sets a clear record, but as I have indicated, we continue to look at this issue very closely.

I do not think that it helps to confuse this issue with reform of the EU.

Notwithstanding the considerable aid that we have given to displaced Syrians in the area, which is the right thing to do, there is a humanitarian case for helping the children who are in limbo and very vulnerable to traffickers, the elements and so on. Given that doing so will be fraught with problems, and that there is a record high number of children in the care system in this country already and a shortage of foster carers, what assessment has the Minister made of our capacity to take these children and to give them the specialist support that clearly they will need in the absence of the networks that they have been used to?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the figures for asylum applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children show that last year there were 2,500. That is already putting strain on a number of local authorities, and Kent in particular has been bearing a lot of that burden. We are working closely with local government, and he may be aware that in the Immigration Bill, which is currently in the other place, we are also seeking to set out a mechanism to distribute that burden more fairly across local authority areas.

May I associate myself with the comments about Holocaust Memorial Day? Today we mark Robert Burns day, for one of Scotland’s great humanitarians. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) has already quoted the lines:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

How do the Government think this looks? The proposal to take our fair share of children from Europe has been around for months, so when will they stop prevaricating and reach a decision, before more children continue to die in the freezing cold of the European winter? Are the Government considering taking children from Europe and not just from the camps? Can the Minister say a bit more about the support being provided to European countries to support these children, who are lone and vulnerable, and victims of a crisis that they did not create?

I have already set out the additional funding that DFID has committed to support those across Europe and how some of that money is being provided to UNICEF, for example, to look at how we can best support children in that overall approach. I want to underline the fact that UNICEF itself has emphasised

“the importance of first and foremost assessing the individual situation of unaccompanied children, and their best interests, before any actions are taken; noting that in these situations children who may appear unaccompanied are in fact being supported by family members, or others, and decisions on how they are cared for should take this into account.”

That is precisely the approach the Government are taking.

No one doubts the humanity of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—it is very difficult to argue against it—but surely the duty of Government is to balance natural emotion with hard-headed realism. Net migration into this country has been far bigger in last 20 years than for any other country, and we are at the limit of what the public will accept. We are also spending more than the whole of the rest of Europe put together on helping people in Syria. For every child refugee we take from a camp in Dover or Calais, we will simply have to take many other people who will come as part of the family. I urge the Government to stick to their present policy—their humane and correct policy—of spending money to help in the region and not to listen to the Leader of the Opposition and his daft policy of taking people from Dover and Calais.

We want to see children who are affected by this appalling crisis given help and assistance at the earliest opportunity. That is why we have committed the aid and support that we have in the region. It is also why in Calais, for example, we have been giving support to the French Government to ensure that claims can be made as quickly as possible. The French Government have set up 78 new centres away from Calais to help migrants to make their claims as quickly as possible. That way, we see people get help at the earliest chance.

Last year, 300,000 child refugees entered through Greece and 16,000 entered through Italy. The problem has been that the countries at the EU’s external border are just not given the support they need from the European Union. As a result, reception centres have not been opened up in places such as Greece. Will the Minister tell us what has happened with the deal made between the EU and Turkey, which would have provided Turkey with additional resources to try to help us to deal with this terrible crisis?

Work is continuing in respect of Turkey and the Government have a commitment to providing funding in support of that. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue of the external border in countries such as Greece and Italy. This country has provided more support for asylum processing, in terms of experts, than any other country in the EU, and that sense of how we can support the external border is very much at the forefront of our work.

As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, Kent is already looking after hundreds of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Kent has asked other councils to help to look after these children, but few have been forthcoming. We have to do a good job with the young people who are already here seeking our help, so as we rightly consider whether we can help more Syrian child refugees, can my hon. Friend assure me that he will press on with ensuring effective dispersal of the young asylum seekers already in the UK?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Home Office is working closely with the Department for Education. I have the Minister for Children and Families on the Bench alongside me. To see that children are given the support they need in counties such as Kent, which are taking on a considerable burden, we are working with the Local Government Association and others, as well as maintaining that backstop provision in the Immigration Bill to ensure a fair allocation of young people in need of support.

I commend the Minister for his statement about our responsibilities to some of the most vulnerable children, but may I also make a plea for the very poorest in each of our constituencies, who already have almost no hope of getting a decent home, who find social services under huge pressure when it comes to meeting their needs, and have almost no chance of ever getting a place at a school of their choice? When the Government are considering the priorities and the needs of those children, will they also consider that they are committed to bring in 20,000 refugees, and ensure that any proper concessions on this front are taken from that total of 20,000?

As I have said to other right hon. and hon. Members, we are closely considering the issue of children. I have already indicated that of the 1,000 refugees who arrived through the resettlement scheme before Christmas, around a half were children. We are very conscious of the need for support for local authorities. We have announced additional funding to meet the needs under the resettlement scheme for years 2 to 5, recognising the pressures that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined.

We were told that 100,000 people would be admitted to this country each year. In fact, 320,000 people have been admitted in the past year. If we admit another 20,000 people over the next five years, or 4,000 per year, does that mean that 4,000 are not admitted from other parts of the world?

The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is meeting our rightful obligation to respond to the crisis that we see in Syria, which is the basis for the figure of 20,000 that we have outlined for the course of this Parliament. Obviously, we have certain other arrangements with UNHCR, but we need to meet that commitment and respond to the crisis that we see before us.

Volunteers to Calais talk of refugee families struggling with a dilemma—whether to buy black market substances to dope their children, or to face the prospect that they will reveal the family to the authorities in transit across the channel by crying in fear. Surely the Government can better safeguard children by also adopting proper selection and identification processes for families before they reach the UK to avoid these terrible situations.

The most effective way to do that is to see that those families claim asylum in France. There have been around 2,800 claims of asylum in and around Calais. The French Government have put in place the new arrangements that I described so that people can be moved away from Calais into better reception centres. That is the clear message that I would give, which may well identify some of the family reunion issues that the hon. Lady has highlighted.

Many Members of this House are suggesting that we rescue unaccompanied minors from other European Union countries and bring them to Britain. Does the Minister agree that one of the dangers of that is that their relatives will appear, and human rights lawyers in this country will insist that they have a right to join those minors in the UK because they have a right to a family life?

We need to consider these issues carefully. What is at the forefront of my mind is not seeing more children being put at risk and their lives being put at risk. That is what the people smugglers and traffickers will do, and why we need to act with such great care so that we do not make the situation even worse than it is.

I wholeheartedly support the call from Save the Children and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), but I want to ask the Minister specifically about the treatment and dignity of children asylum seekers and their families when they arrive in this country. He will be well aware of the concerns expressed about Clearsprings, which operates accommodation in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), stigmatising asylum seekers by forcing them to wear red bands, but I have heard reports of short-notice evictions, lack of female housing workers and asylum seekers being forced to sign documents before seeing properties. Shockingly, I was told by the Home Office that a manager may enter an individual’s bedroom without consent. Will the Minister investigate that company and find out what exactly is going on in the treatment of those vulnerable individuals?

Order. If we were playing cricket, which we are not, the hon. Gentleman’s bowling would be a little wide of the wicket, but I am sure the Minister is dextrous enough to deal with it sensitively and pithily.

I will certainly try to do so, Mr Speaker. As I indicated to the House in response to the urgent question last week, I expect the highest standards from all contractors, including no stigma being attached to those under their care. If there is evidence to suggest that that is not the case, it will be treated with the utmost seriousness.

I apologise for my vocal frailty; I will struggle through my question.

The Government’s response to the crisis has at times been frustratingly slow and has appeared to lack compassion, but I support it and believe that the Minister is on the right track. I was bolstered at the weekend by the view of Kofi Annan, who believes that the UK Government’s approach is in the right vein. I support the reconsideration that the Government are undertaking on refugee children, but will the Minister give a timescale for that, bearing in mind that a knee-jerk reaction for selfish political gain that is not based on the right interests or the best interests of the child will be wholly fruitless and counter-productive?

It is right that we take some time to consider the issue properly because of what the hon. Gentleman highlights: the best interests of the children. The advice we have had from the UNHCR is that the best way is to help children in the region. The aid investment we have given in the region, and the focus on education to ensure that children there have hope, have that sense of compassion behind them. That is why assistance has been structured in that way.

As a primary educator, my heart was broken on Thursday when I saw the conditions of the children in the Jungle camp in Calais. It would be the same for people no matter what side of the argument they are on. From a round table with Secours Catholique and the Caritas Social Action Network, we understand that 200 to 300 families with many children probably have leave to remain in the UK but do not know their legal rights. Will the Minister commit to putting a legal resource into that camp to help those families to avoid the traffickers, because they have the right to come here in the first place?

Ultimately, those are matters for the French Government, but we have committed resourcing in terms of arrangements in people’s own country. I underline that claiming asylum in France means that assistance will be provided at the earliest opportunity. We have committed to support the French Government in that activity. We have provided funding to assist them in creating those reception centres outside Calais so that people can travel away from the area and get the support they need.

When will the Government decide to support Lord Dubs’s amendment? I ask because when I was in the Calais camp on 21 December, I met a former Afghan interpreter for UK forces who was trying to look after some of the unaccompanied children, including 15-year-old Masud. By the time I recounted that visit in Westminster Hall on 6 January, Masud was dead. Time is of the essence. Would not this Wednesday—Holocaust Memorial Day—be a suitable date for the Minister to make up his mind and let the children in?

The appropriate thing to do is to consider the best interests of the child and get further input from the UNHCR and others, because of the risk of making the situation worse, and the risk of seeing more children put their lives on the line by making those perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. That is at the forefront of our minds, and why we will consider the matter in that way.

Putting victims of exploitation and trafficking first was at heart of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In this case, it is clear that unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable victims of exploitation and trafficking. Will the Minister say exactly what is happening to identify very vulnerable children who have been trafficked and who are at risk of exploitation, and to take a decision to get them to this country?

As part of the joint declaration that was signed last August, we are providing specific financial assistance to fund a project aimed at the most vulnerable people in and around Calais. That project aims to increase observation in the camps to identify vulnerable migrants; to provide medical help and protection where required; to put in place a system to transfer them briskly to places of safety; and to ensure they are offered the appropriate advice and support from the French system.

Can I ask the Minister not to listen to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), with his separation of rationality and emotion on this issue? My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) laid out the facts and we are merely responding to them—the hon. Gentleman has no monopoly on rationality here. Does the Minister recall—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady is asking a question and she has referred to a Member who is listening courteously, but a conversation is taking place between two other Members who think that what they have to say to each other is more important than what she is saying to the House. Mr Bridgen, your remarks can wait for another time, man. We are discussing a very sensitive matter. Your thoughts have been heard: let us hear others.

Ms McGovern, please feel free to start again and go through your question. This issue is important, and courteous attentiveness is also important.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will not detain the House by repeating my entreaties on rationality, but we are talking about the facts. It is a fact that two years ago on 29 January 2014 the Government refused our calls to join the UNHCR scheme for the settlement of refugees, and it took a brave media to change their mind. I simply say to the Minister, “Don’t leave it too long again. Open our doors now.”

The focus of the Government is providing the most appropriate support to the vulnerable. That is why we have established the resettlement scheme and are providing aid assistance in the region. It is about helping the most people possible. We do that most effectively in those areas and through some of the additional funding that I have outlined to the House this afternoon. In all honesty, we are considering the issue carefully, but it is right that we get it right, rather than running to any specific timetable, because of the issues involved and because we are talking about children.

This is of course an extremely difficult issue, and our hearts go out to the poor children in the Jungle in Calais. But we need to be careful about confusing the clear message of the UK’s aid effort that it is in children’s best interests to remain in the region, where hundreds of millions of pounds of UK aid is available, and not encourage them into the clutches of evil traffickers who frankly do not care if they live or die.

My hon. Friend has made his point concisely and well. It is that risk of the exploitation of people traffickers that we have at the forefront of our minds. Equally, social media is being used to sell false hope and false opportunity, putting lives at risk.

I thank the seven colleagues from seven different political parties, including the Conservative party, who signed a joint letter to the Prime Minister on this subject. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) also signed it. We obviously welcome the fact that the Government are still considering this issue, although we would like them to do so with a greater degree of urgency. If the Government are considering taking the 3,000 children, I hope that they will not suggest that that should happen over five years, because then some of those children would be at risk of freezing to death for the next four years or falling into the hands of traffickers.

Childcare Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)


That the Order of 25 November 2015 (Childcare Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.

(3) Proceedings in Legislative Grand Committee and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.—(Mr Gyimah.)

As I informed the House on 26 October, before a Report stage begins on a Bill I will seek to identify in advance those changes made in Committee which I would expect to certify, together with any Government amendments tabled for Report stage which, if passed, would be likely to lead me to issue a certificate. My provisional certificate, based on those changes, is available on the “Bills before Parliament” website and in the Vote Office. At the end of the Report stage on a Bill, I am required to consider the Bill, as amended on Report, for certification. As I informed the House on 26 October, I have accepted the advice of the Procedure Committee not, as a rule, to give reasons for decisions on certification during this experimental phase of the new regime. Anybody wishing to make representations to me prior to any decision should send them to the Clerk of Legislation.