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Child Refugees: Calais

Volume 606: debated on Monday 29 February 2016

Last Thursday, a judge in France ruled that the authorities in Calais could proceed with clearing the tents and makeshift accommodation from the southern section of the migrant camp located there. Over recent weeks the authorities, working with non-governmental organisations, have ensured that the migrants affected by the clearances, which have begun today, were aware of the alternative accommodation that the French state had made available. For women and children, that means the specialist accommodation for about 400 people in and around the Jules Ferry centre, or the protected accommodation elsewhere in the region. For others, this means the recently erected heated containers that can house 1,500 people.

The French Government have also, with the support of UK funding, established more than 100 welcome centres elsewhere in France where migrants in Calais can find a bed, meals and information about their options. To be clear, no individual needs to remain in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk. The decision to clear part of the camp in Calais is of course a matter for the French Government. The joint declaration signed in August last year committed the UK and France to a package of work to improve physical security at the ports, to co-ordinate the law enforcement response, to tackle the criminal gangs involved in people smuggling and to reduce the number of migrants in Calais.

Both Governments retain a strong focus on protecting those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and have put in place a programme to identify and help potential victims in the camps around Calais. The UK is playing a leading role in tackling people smuggling, increasing joint intelligence work with the French to target the callous gangs that exploit human beings for their own gain.

The UK shares the French Government’s objective of increasing the number of individuals who take up the offer of safe and fully equipped accommodation away from Calais so that they can engage with the French immigration system, including by lodging an asylum claim. It is important to stress that anyone who does not want to live in the makeshift camps in Calais has the option of engaging with the French authorities, who will provide accommodation and support. That is particularly important for unaccompanied children. When an asylum claim is lodged by a child with close family connections in the UK, both Governments are committed to ensuring that such a case is prioritised, but it is vital that the child engages with the French authorities as quickly as possible. That is the best way to ensure that these vulnerable children receive the protection and support they need and the quickest way to reunite them with any close family members in the UK.

The UK is committed to safeguarding the welfare of unaccompanied children and we take our responsibilities seriously. No one should live in the conditions we have seen in the camps around Calais. The French Government have made huge efforts to provide suitable, alternative accommodation for all those who need it, and have made it clear that migrants in Calais in need of protection should claim asylum in France.

This morning the French authorities started to move people out of the southern part of the Calais refugee camp, in theory into container shelters and reception centres elsewhere. The charities say that there is not enough alternative accommodation and around 2,300 people have nowhere to go. That includes many from Syria and Afghanistan, and over 400 children and teenagers with no one to look after them, such as the 12-year-old boy I met from Afghanistan with a huge scar across his face, which had happened when his home was attacked.

Unaccompanied children are not allowed into the new container shelters and the Jules Ferry centre for women and children is full. The tents and volunteer support network are about to be bulldozed and there is no safeguarding plan in place at all. There is a massive reality gap between what the Minister said and what is happening on the ground. Save the Children warns that things are extremely chaotic and this is making

“an appalling situation for children even worse.”

This is dangerous. The Minister well knows that there is a serious risk that those children will now just disappear into the hands of traffickers, criminal gangs or prostitution—another 400 children on top of the 10,000 who Europol says have already disappeared in Europe.

Some of those children have their closest family here in the UK. Citizens UK estimates that there are up to 150 such children. That is why they are there, rather than heading to Germany or Sweden, and the Government say they agree that child refugees should be reunited with their family. They also agree that if their closest family is in the UK, they should be able to apply here for asylum, and have promised funding to help that happen. A court case confirms that relatives in Britain should be able to look after children while they apply, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered to process cases and speed things up, but that is not happening for the kids in Calais. Even if they manage to apply, their cases are taking nine months. They do not have nine months—their remaining tents are being bulldozed now.

So will the Minister make urgent representations to the French Government to provide immediate safeguarding support for children and young people, and not to remove their accommodation until there is somewhere safer for them to go? Will he accept the offer from the UNHCR to help process applications and set up a fast system to reunite children with family who are here? Finally, will he agree to Lord Dubs’ amendment to help child refugees?

The Minister has talked a good game on stopping trafficking and modern slavery, and he is right to be appalled at the criminal gangs, but this is where it gets real. The Minister has the power now to stop the trafficking of hundreds of children on our doorstop. Will he do it?

We do take our responsibilities seriously, as I indicated in the statement that I made to the House. On the level of alternative accommodation, I mentioned the welcome centres that are available around other parts of France, which now number more than 100. Around 2,500 people have left those camps to go to the reception centres. I stress the importance of getting asylum claims into the system in France.

The right hon. Lady highlights, rightly, the interests of children in and around the camps. We are obviously aware of the containerised accommodation adjacent to the Calais camp. Priority, we understand, is being given to women, children and other vulnerable migrants. This is in addition to the 400 places in heated tents already available for women and children.

In response to the right hon. Lady’s point about close family members, I can tell her that we remain committed to our obligations under Dublin III. The UK and France are running a joint communication centre at the camp, which informs individuals of their rights to claim asylum in France and gives them information on family reunification.

Equally, to assist in the handling of such cases, the UK and France have established a senior-level standing committee and agreed single points of contact with respective Dublin units, and the UK is about to second an asylum expert to the French administration to facilitate the improvement of all stages of the process of identifying, protecting and transferring any relevant cases to the UK.

The right hon. Lady referred to a period of nine months, but it should take nowhere near that amount of time. We remain committed to seeing an efficient and effective process for what we judge to be a small number of cases that might have that direct connection to the UK. She will also be aware of the broader family reunification provisions, over and above Dublin, that would allow children to be reunited with their parents, with direct applications not only from France, but from elsewhere in Europe and, indeed, from the region, where there is that direct link. The Government have also committed an additional £10 million through the Department for International Development to support better reunification and to assist children in transit in Europe, but we are very cautious not to make an already difficult situation even worse.

Therefore, the emphasis is on giving practical support to the French Government, who are leading in this regard, and providing expert support. Equally, there is the support that we are giving in Greece, Italy and countries in the region so that such children are more easily identified and helped at the earliest opportunity.

My right hon. Friend is right that the best way to protect the maximum number of vulnerable children is by minimising the number who are taken to live in squalor in the camps outside Calais in an attempt to make a dangerous and illegal crossing to this country, and the way to do that is by maintaining our close co-operation with the French authorities and doing what we can to strengthen the Dublin convention. Does he agree that the worst thing this country could do is anything that would disrupt our close relationship with the French authorities on this matter?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. We have established a very close working relationship between the UK and French Governments, and between the Home Secretary and Bernard Cazeneuve. There are regular meetings at that level and at operational level, highlighting the exchange of expertise to which I have already referred. My right hon. Friend is right; we will need to maintain that sort of support in the months and years ahead.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for raising this issue. The Opposition have repeatedly raised the plight of the 26,000 or so unaccompanied children in Europe, who are in desperate need of protection. I listened to what the Minister said this afternoon, and I have listened to what he has said before, but there is, as my right hon. Friend has said, a reality gap here.

I have been to see the camps in Calais and Dunkirk for myself. The squalor is hard to describe, and it is worse in Dunkirk than it is in Calais. There are 300 or so unaccompanied children in Calais, and they are not there by choice. In Dunkirk the conditions are such that the volunteers—there are only eight of them—are so busy trying to keep people safe and provide them with somewhere to sleep that they cannot even count the number of unaccompanied children. There is no process on the ground for these children, there is no meaningful advice for them and the reunification rules are not working. That is the reality on the ground. We have to start from that position. That was all borne out by the judgment of the upper tribunal in January.

The situation is now urgent because of the action that has been taken today. I urge the Minister to look at the issue again and consider what practical support can be given in the next 24 hours to these desperate children, who until now have not had the support they need.

The joint declaration signed between the UK and French Governments last August actually provides for the direct financial support that we are giving to the French Government to provide the centres outside the immediate area of Calais. Indeed, as I have already highlighted, there is the Jules Ferry centre, and there is the work we are doing on a regular basis to identify and highlight the appropriate support that is there. I stress again: there is no need for people to be in those conditions. There are services—[Interruption.] There are facilities and services away from the camps that are available to support people. We take our responsibilities seriously, which is why—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) keeps interjecting from the Opposition Front Bench. We are working closely with the French Government to see that there are experts in place, and I have already indicted that an additional person is going out next week to see that there are procedures in place so that there will be efficient and effective reunification for what I judge to be a small number of cases. However, support and alternative accommodation are available in France, and I would urge people to take up those choices.

I am glad the Government put a high priority on reuniting children with their parents, or orphans with close relatives—that is the best answer. However, is it not the case that the European Council’s conclusions at its last meeting were very clear: the best way to help is to prevent these things from happening in future, by ensuring that the EU enforces its border controls when people first enter the EU and provides safeguarding and support for those who need it when they first enter the EU, rather than putting them through the ordeal of a long journey across the whole of its territory?

It is also about ensuring that there is support in and around the region to prevent people from going out in boats, putting children’s lives at risk. That is why the work done at the London conference, in providing additional education to ensure there is a sense of positive hope, was absolutely the right thing to do. That was backed up by our £2.3 billion commitment to aid and assistance in and around the region. My right hon. Friend is right about ensuring that the hotspots initiative is in place to see that help and support are given at the first opportunity, and that is what the Government are committed to doing.

Does the Minister not understand that France’s Dublin procedures for unaccompanied children are just not fit for purpose and that it takes up to a year even for take charge requests to be issued? In that light, should we not be welcoming, rather than challenging, the recent tribunal decision in ZAT to shortcut the admission of three children from the horrendous Calais camps so that they can join their families here? As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) suggested, should we not be looking to welcome the other 100 or so Calais children identified by Citizens UK as having family in the UK, so that they, too, can be reunited with their loved ones? Just how much public money has been spent on litigation in this case in an attempt to prevent refugee children in Calais from reaching their families here? Would not that money be far better spent on ensuring that Dublin III processes are fit for purpose and on safeguarding those children?

The most appropriate thing to do is to see that those young children receive help and support at the earliest opportunity, which is why I emphasise again the need to see that asylum claims are made quickly in the French system. The Dublin III arrangements can operate effectively; indeed, senior French representatives have told us they see no reason why appropriate claims cannot be completed within a period of two months. There are clear processes and procedures that should be adopted, and we urge everyone to get behind them and make them work effectively.

As other hon. Members have said, the conditions in the camps are awful, and action did need to be taken by the French Government—as long as it is not heavy-handed. However, when I spoke to migrants there, they were very wary of the French Government and French officials. I welcome the fact that the Government are working so collaboratively with the French, but will my right hon. Friend advise us what outreach the Government are doing to encourage people to apply for asylum through the French system, so that they can come here legally if they have a right to do so?

The number of asylum claims made in and around the area of Calais over the recent year or so is about 2,800, and there has been a significant increase, which we support and encourage. We have people who go into the camps to deliver and make very clear the message about the need to make claims quickly so that assistance can be provided.

On our visit to The Hague last week, the Home Affairs Committee was told that 90% of migrants who enter the European Union had been able to do so because of criminal gangs. Will the Minister tell the House how many people have been prosecuted by individual countries as a result of that smuggling? The long-term solution is the proper operation of the hotspots that have been created in Italy and in Greece, and, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, the tracking of children before they have to make the long journey to Calais. The short-term solution is for the Minister to ring his opposite number in France to see whether a more humanitarian approach can be arrived at, because this is the fault of the French Government, who have been warned about Calais and have done nothing about it.

I think that is an unfair criticism. The French Government have taken significant steps to provide alternative accommodation and to see that there is information so that people are able to make their asylum claims effectively. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the role of organised crime. The figure of about 90% that he highlighted has been confirmed by Europol, so the work we are doing with our organised immigration crime taskforce is absolutely right. By getting intelligence to Europol, we are taking action against gangs that, frankly, do not care whether these young people live or die.

I have a great deal of time for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Will my right hon. Friend outline the UNHCR’s role in Calais?

We are working closely with the UNHCR in relation to the resettlement programme, particularly through work in-region to see how unaccompanied children could potentially come to this country. The UNHCR is monitoring the situation in and around northern France but, as far as I am aware, has no formal remit.

The Minister is aware that for 12 years we have had juxtaposed immigration controls in the northern ports of France. How does he think one official will be able quickly to determine the asylum claims to be refugees here in Britain of the 50 children identified by respectable charities as having family in the UK? One person cannot do that job.

The right hon. Lady should be aware that there is not just one person but a senior-level connection between officials in both Governments, so broader teams are working on these exchanges. If there is information to support a claim highlighting a close family connection under the Dublin III regulation, we will stand by our obligations.

I strongly welcome the considerable efforts that the Government have made to keep children and families together close to places where many of the refugees come from, such as Syria. However, if 300 minors were living in a squalid camp in Dover, they would be taken into care and given a place of safety, and there would be an investigation into the adults responsible for getting them there, so why is that not happening in France?

I cannot comment on the operations of the French Government, but I can say that we stand ready to support them in joint efforts to see that children and other refugees are appropriately housed and supported. We are providing funding to identify vulnerable children and ensure that the necessary facilities are there. We have given and will continue to give the French Government that support.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, if these were British children, the test that would have to be applied to the Government’s actions would be that of the best interests of the child. The Minister is describing colluding with the French Government in a process that will push these children into the hands of people traffickers. Is he really saying that we apply such a different standard to the children of refugees compared with our own?

I utterly reject the right hon. Gentleman’s assertion. The joint working that our enforcement agencies are engaged in in confronting the people traffickers, going after the gangs and seeing that there is not such exploitation is part of the joint agreement that was signed last August. We are supporting the French Government to identify the vulnerable and see that they are given support, and we will continue to do so.

Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that children and young people who have a legitimate claim to be in the UK because of having close family relatives here will not be disadvantaged by starting their asylum claim in France? Although he has made it clear that there is not currently any formal process for the UNHCR to be involved in processing such claims, will he consider that for the future?

I can certainly say that if there are children who qualify under the Dublin regulation—in other words, if they have close family here—we will stand by our obligations. We will ensure that they are processed efficiently and effectively, which is precisely why we are taking the action we are with the French Government.

My hon. Friend highlights the issue of the UNHCR’s role. There is a clear process, and we are working to ensure that it operates. As I have said, we believe that it can be made to operate efficiently and effectively, and we will work with the French Government to achieve that.

I must be mishearing, because the Minister seems to be implying that it is the responsibility of children to declare themselves to the relevant authorities. That cannot be correct—it is our responsibility here to make sure that children are cared for. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, the UNHCR has offered to set up a fast process for us. The Minister has implied, but not yet said, that he has told it no, so will he be specific and say whether he has told it yes or no?

French non-governmental organisations operate in the camps to help identify unaccompanied children and to help them to register with the authorities so that they can be properly looked after. That is the right approach, and it is precisely what the French Government seek to do. There is a process between the French Government and the asylum system, and that is the way in which assistance can be given. I strongly urge everyone to get behind that process, to ensure that children in need receive the care they require.

The fact that there are many unaccompanied children wandering across Europe without any effective means of support is the biggest stain on how the European Union is operating its border and asylum policy. Will the Minister confirm that many thousands more children would be in such an awful plight were it not for the fact that this Government are providing such a huge amount of aid to Syria and neighbouring countries so that other children do not make this perilous journey?

I entirely support what my hon. Friend says about the impact that aid assistance is having on the region. There is a sense of support, hope and opportunity for young people to get the education they need and to be well looked after. Equally, we will continue to work with other European partners on the entry points into the EU, to ensure that the people who have made journeys are processed and that children with claims of settlement are reunited with their parents.

May I politely say to the Minister, and through him to his French counterpart, that this response is just not good enough? The real danger for children is now, during the demolition and dispersal of the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, when they are at real risk of being picked up by the gangs responsible for child sexual exploitation and people trafficking. Will the Minister get on with putting in place a proper and coherent registration system so that children can be picked up by the relevant authorities and looked after as they should be?

My understanding is that the French Government are approaching this work on a phased basis. Places of worship and schools will not be subject to the clearance as a consequence of the court ruling, and the French authorities are focused on areas with unoccupied tents and are encouraging migrants who remain to move to the new accommodation in Calais or elsewhere in France. On children in need of support, I underline again the need to ensure that claims are made, and the NGOs are going in there and helping to identify children in need of help.

The Minister will remember the evidence given by the Mayor of Calais to the Home Affairs Committee and what she has said in public, which is that the majority of those in the camps have been informed that they need to claim asylum in France, but they do not want to do so because they want to come to the UK. Does he agree that it is incumbent on the French Government and the Calais authorities to ensure that children, who cannot make asylum applications on their own, are assisted in doing so, and that adults are informed again that they must claim asylum in France, which is a safe country?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Again, I underline the fact that there are French NGOs operating in the camp to identify unaccompanied children and ensure that claims can be made.

The Minister has said that for unaccompanied children with family connections claiming asylum in France, the process should take two months. How long do the UK Government say the asylum process should take for children with family connections in the United Kingdom, and what practical steps is he going to take to ensure that that is achieved?

In respect of asylum processing and deciding whether to uphold claims, we in this country have done a great deal to ensure that claims are properly assessed and that straightforward claims are dealt with within six months. The Government have done a great deal of hard work to introduce that effectiveness into the system, and that has been recognised in the recent independent inspector’s report.

Does the Minister agree that we and the French Government should make efforts to encourage people to seek assistance in France from the authorities, rather than living in squalor, vulnerable to criminal gangs? Does he also agree that we must make sure that we have strong security at our borders, so that people realise that it is not worth putting their lives in the hands of people traffickers, because they will end up losing their lives, as so many have done?

My hon. Friend knows from his constituency interests the work that the Government have done to secure the port area around Calais and the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles. We keep that security under review in a joint group with the French Government. He makes the powerful and important point that asylum claims should be made at the earliest opportunity so that help and assistance can be given at the earliest opportunity.

The press are reporting this afternoon that riot police are using tear gas and water cannon to support the destruction of the “jungle” camp. I do not know whether that is what the Minister meant by the French authorities engaging with young people and encouraging them to move on. Given that there is plenty of money to provide fencing, and bilateral co-operation with the French, why can he not simply get together with his French counterpart, identify the young people who have a legal right to come to the UK and get them over here immediately?

It is a clear question of people claiming asylum, and children are being supported by the work of the NGOs that the French Government have put in place precisely for that purpose. We have taken a consistent joint approach, building on the agreement of last August, to support the French Government in their work to ensure that those in need of help get it.

Everyone has concerns for vulnerable children in the camps in Calais. When children have identified that they have relatives in the UK, how many of those relatives the UK Government are preventing from travelling to France to be reunited with the children? Why does he think refugees would rather be in the UK than in France?

These issues are often complex. The factor at the forefront of our minds is always what is in the best interests of the child. When we receive applications under Dublin or under family reunification, we always have to assess what is in the best interests of the child and whether the parents or other close family members can support the child. We give that focus to every case.

Exactly a week ago, I asked the Prime Minister for an assurance that the United Kingdom Government’s response to the refugee crisis would be driven entirely by humanitarian need and not influenced in any way by considerations of the impact that it might have on the referendum that is likely to happen at the end of June. The Prime Minister was either unable or unwilling to give such a general assurance last week. Will the Immigration Minister please give that assurance, at least in relation to these most desperate and vulnerable young people?

I think that the hon. Gentleman can see from the Government’s actions that we take our responsibilities very seriously. With the funding that we have committed not just in and around Syria but in Europe, and with the additional £10 million fund that the Department for International Development is operating to ensure that children in transit who are in need of help, counselling or other support can receive it, that is precisely what we will do.

Has the Minister had any discussions with his French counterpart to find out the reasons why the migrants in Calais did not claim asylum in the other safe countries that they travelled through before arriving in France?

The reasons are often quite complex. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee highlighted the role of people traffickers and smugglers, as well as those who sell false hope through a whole host of different means and networks, including social media. Other reasons may relate to the existing diaspora communities and the whole issue of language. Through the actions on which we are supporting the French Government, and indeed those that we are taking ourselves in the camps, we are giving the clear message that people should claim asylum in France.

I say to the Minister in all earnestness that there is precious little evidence of UK expertise on the ground in any of the camps. He was wrong in what he said about Christian places of worship, because one was wiped out by the French authorities just a few weeks ago. What advice would he give to the likes of the Caritas Social Action Network, Citizens UK and civil society organisations, as well as elected Members and anyone trying to help individuals who have the right of leave to remain in the UK or who have a close family connection, about how they can continue to give such help?

I would say to anyone in that situation that they should claim asylum in France, which will ensure that there is a direct connection and that we can make the system work. I stress that the fact that different messages are being given does not help the situation. In respect of the whole issue of the clearance of the camps, I understand that the court specifically ruled that it should go ahead with the exception of places of worship and schools. The French Government should therefore adopt that approach in the actions they are taking.

Before I entered this place, I worked as counsel on hundreds of asylum and trafficking cases. A core principle of the Dublin regulations is that the first country of entry should take responsibility for the claimant, which imports fairness and equity into the system. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House of his commitment to that principle, and confirm that to discard it without legal basis would be undemocratic and illegitimate?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the benefits and the strength of the Dublin arrangements. We believe that they should be upheld, not undermined. They include the core principle that those who make a claim should do so in the first safe country in which they arrive. Equally, the principle of family reunification for close family members operates under Dublin III, and the Government stand by that principle.

I recently met constituents from St Stephen’s church in Worcester who have been to the camp in Dunkirk. They describe the situation for children as appalling. There is very poor sanitation, and with men-only kitchens, there is a danger that children and the women looking after them are missing out on food. I completely agree with the Minister that everyone in the camps should claim asylum in France, but where that does not happen over a long period, what more can we do to reach out and get that information to the most vulnerable? How can we make sure that the humanitarian assistance that reaches the camps reaches the most vulnerable in the camps?

I again underline the specific facilities there, such as the 400 places for women and children, and the 1,500 places in the new containerised area. We are giving support at 102 centres away from the Calais area to which people can go to receive support, which will ensure that they can make their case. On the specific element of vulnerability, we are supporting the French Government and ensuring that the NGOs are in the camps. Equally, our own officers are going into the camps to reiterate the message that help and support can be given, and that the way to get it is to claim asylum. In that way, we can ensure that assistance is given as early as possible.