I beg to move,
That this House has considered unaccompanied children.
It is a great pleasure to secure the debate and to open it. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who supported the application to the Backbench Business Committee, but especially the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who helped to secure the debate.
Sadly, the issue of unaccompanied children has in many ways become a focal point of consideration in Parliament, not least in the House of Lords. We will shortly consider the amendment tabled by Lord Dubs in relation to the campaign for 3,000 unaccompanied children to be accepted in addition to previous requirements. This is the sad reality of the situation facing children as they take a precarious route across Europe. Only yesterday there was a report that 400 migrants and refugees died when their boat capsized; they were travelling from Egypt to Turkey. The reality is that today another two children will probably die while crossing the Mediterranean. That is the context and it is a focal point of concern.
The focus of this debate, although hon. Members will no doubt want to deal with issues around it, is our responsibilities for separated children as they arrive in this country, whether they come by means of a formal resettlement plan—we can talk further about where that could take us—or whether they come via irregular routes into the United Kingdom. I want to have a long-term plan. My hon. Friends will know all about the mantra of a long-term plan, particularly in relation to economic plans. I want to get that mantra into the parlance on this issue: would it not be wonderful if Parliament had a long-term plan for separated children? I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Minister about that. We need a long-term plan for some of the most vulnerable children.
If we look at the statistics, we see that it is right for Parliament to be concerned about these children. In February 2016, children accounted for more than one third of all refugees and migrants, compared with just one in 10 in June 2015. There has been a 57% increase in the number of these children seeking asylum in the past year in the United Kingdom. Undocumented unaccompanied children are often beneath the radar, certainly before they get anywhere near the age of adulthood. There were 2,168 asylum applications from such children in the year ending June 2015. That was an increase of 46% on the previous year. The Minister for Immigration will be very much aware, not least because it is on his desk, that this is an issue of increasing importance for the Home Office.
It is important that we are compassionate. The word “compassion” is mentioned a lot these days, and rightly so. We must have an ambition properly to accept our fair share of unaccompanied children. The Minister was very much leading in relation to the announcement on 28 January. We look forward to hearing further details on the commitment in the coming days. There was a promise to step up efforts to reunite lone children with their families in Europe and the United Kingdom. There was a commitment to bring children who are on their own in conflict zones straight to the United Kingdom to prevent them from making perilous journeys, and there was a promise of more expertise and resources to help to protect child refugees in Europe and the United Kingdom. It is important that we have the right ambition, and I look forward to hearing those details.
As well as the compassion in terms of the length of commitment, I want to look at the breadth and depth of that compassion. We should be in this for the long term. That is an issue for children as they arrive here. I want to see how that looks and what it could look like, to ensure that we meet the concerns that have been expressed, not least by the Children’s Society, to which I pay tribute and which I thank very much. Those concerns formed the basis of my application and that of others to hold this debate. Its recent report, “Not just a temporary fix”, makes the point in the title, highlighting the need for a lasting outcome for unaccompanied children in the UK. This issue can often be missed in debate. These children, who come from some of the most appalling backgrounds and are often traumatised, are at risk of exploitation, not least as they make these journeys. As they come into this country, we need to ensure that we have the right package of support for them.
A point highlighted in the report that I have mentioned is the transition to adulthood. That is unsettling and unpleasant for all children, but particularly for separated children who have fled war and persecution. They have faced exploitation and destitution and have no parent or carer in this country to safeguard their best interests. We need to step in to support them to avoid their being at risk of further exploitation and destitution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on attracting such support for this very important debate. I am glad that he is talking about long-term stability. Does he share my concern, which I think he was touching on, that we may have arguments about the number of children we welcome into this country, but we need to address the rights of those children when they become adults, particularly if they have been in care? They do not qualify for housing. They do not qualify for the Staying Put scheme. They do not qualify for various benefits. They do not qualify for loans if they want to go on to higher education. Their vulnerability does not change on the day they become 18, nor the danger they are in if they go back to their country of origin. We need to have a better long-term plan for those children as they progress into adulthood in the safety of this country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend: he is already talking about a long-term plan for separated children. Undocumented children may well not even make an application for asylum, not least because they are under the cover of being children and have the protection of the state, but as they get close to the age of adulthood, an application needs to be made. Their status becomes insecure and uncertain and they are very much at risk of going through the care system and, sadly, out on to the streets, where they are prone to further exploitation. I will touch on that issue as well.
The support for those vulnerable children who have found their way by so-called irregular means differs from support under the formal resettlement programme. I pay tribute to the Government for the vulnerable persons relocation scheme and the 20,000 commitment. I think that 1,500 people have been resettled. That is part of a package that is not just about numbers. It is a serious package of support involving local authorities and communities. I understand that at the recent meeting in Geneva, attended by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, the British Government were praised as an example of good practice that other countries need to follow for their serious commitment to long-term support for these vulnerable people. That needs to be matched, including for those who arrive by different means. People may not arrive through that formal scheme, but they are no less vulnerable; their concerns and needs are no different. It is important that we do not in effect discriminate against them because of how they arrive.
When a child arrives by means of a formal resettlement programme, they are offered a five-year humanitarian protection visa. The Government have previously responded to concerns about what happens when such children turn 18; the likelihood is that they will be granted indefinite leave to remain. However, undocumented children, particularly those who arrive in the United Kingdom unaccompanied and by irregular means, are granted unaccompanied asylum-seeking child leave. That leave fails to represent the long-term solution that we all want, as it is granted for a period of 30 months or until the child is 17 and a half years old, whichever period is shorter. At that point, whichever comes first, the child is treated as an adult migrant and is not subject to the same protection that they had, but their needs have not suddenly changed dramatically just because an age threshold has been reached or they have reached the end of their UASC leave. We will fail that vulnerable person unless we provide long-term support.
The Children’s Society has found that the widespread granting of UASC leave, with further determination delayed sometimes until just before the child turns 18, does not serve the best interests of children and leaves them open to risk. We need to look carefully at who we are dealing with, because UASC leave often fails to represent a long-term solution, and it leaves young people anxious and uncertain about their future, which will store up problems. Such young people are transitioning to adulthood, and they want to have a say. Any child wants safety, support and a loving home, which continues as they get older—for these children probably even more so, given their background. The Government increasingly do that for care leavers. This is not just something that ends at 18; it is a longer-term commitment. So many of these vulnerable people, wherever they come from, need longer-term support.
We must have a different understanding of children. We should not rely simply on their reaching the high threshold set by refugee conventions and the established legal understanding of “refugee”; we should also recognise the needs of separated children who may not necessarily meet that threshold. Such children are at particular risk. We have seen across Europe that, appallingly, some 10,000 children—we do not know the exact numbers—have gone missing, many sadly into the hands of traffickers and exploitation. Such children are at risk, and they must be treated as such. We must consider how to categorise and support them properly with a child protection status that recognises their inherent at-risk status, which will not end just because they have come to this country and a place of safety. That status continues because of their background and their need for support so that, when they reach the age of 18, or if their ordinary application for asylum fails, they do not run the risk of further destitution and exploitation. It would be an appalling dereliction of our duty if, after we help to provide sanctuary from the risk of exploitation and destitution, they face that same cycle of risk in this country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation and as a Kent MP. Kent County Council has an overwhelming case load of unaccompanied, vulnerable and needy children for whom to care. Does he agree that not enough local authorities will help out and take those children identified by Kent and that much more co-operation is needed between local authorities?
There is a proper long-term duty that has a disproportionate impact on Kent County Council. A case has been made in previous debates for how we could find a new way of enabling a fair distribution across the country. We recognise that local authorities have been willing to come forward, along with many community and other organisations. Towards the end of my speech I will mention some organisations that want to share the burden with local authorities. Communities want to come alongside to provide that long-term support.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his commitment to the issue. When unaccompanied children are settled here and a parent is later found, does he agree that they should have the same rights to family reunion as adult refugees? I know that is a controversial subject, but other countries seem to manage it without any fear of abuse. There are fundamental rights to family reunion that should be upheld.
Family reunions are currently prevented by the rules on unaccompanied children, which are not in line with the rules for adults. The position that children cannot sponsor their parents or carers to join them means that they do not have the same rights as adults, which is a particular concern. The Government, considering their own and international legal obligations to protect the best interests of children already in this country, should not be in a position where they are effectively denying a child the right to be reunited with their family and to be safe.
It is important that we consider the situation more broadly, such as the issue of dependency in relation to families. Who is the family? There should be a broader understanding of dependency. It might not be the father or the mother; it might be a brother. I have visited Calais, and I have seen the appalling conditions at the Dunkirk camp. I spoke to a young person from Afghanistan who was fleeing a war-torn area, and he was desperate to be with his brother—this was when the French police were dispersing people, and he was at risk of being dispersed into the hands of traffickers. We need to find ways of providing safety for such people, and of recognising that his dependent relationship was with his brother. We need to find practical ways of supporting such people.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. It is good to see Members from so many parties here. Does he agree that funding for local authorities should be increased so that they can do the necessary child protection work so that we can speed up the reuniting of children with their parents?
There will be significant financial costs, and I hope that we will see the details of the commitment to relocate more unaccompanied children. The financial costs need to be clear. We need a proper package to be able to make that commitment—the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme included a financial commitment to local authorities—because we must take account of the additional costs of working with highly traumatised, vulnerable children.
In the childcare system, more than 24,000 missing children were reported from January 2012 to December 2013. Given that figure, we need to ensure that the care system is up to speed and fit for purpose so that children who risked going missing on their journey or, indeed, in their own country do not face the same risk of exploitation and destitution in this country. It is important to work with local authorities to find the best long-term solution, and I particularly draw attention to undocumented children who may never apply for asylum. We need to bring those children out into the open to show them that there is a future and a pathway for them in this country, rather than their waiting until the very last moment and becoming stuck in a system that lacks advocacy. They might then be prone to being outside the system and falling into the hands of those who may abuse them.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is important to a great number of us. Does he agree that, in this almost impossibly hard policy area, we must be driven by our heart and our head? We must focus on what works in the longer term for these children. We must be driven by evidence-based programmes led by experts, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for a long-term, enduring commitment to some of the most vulnerable families caught up in this tragic conflict. That would be something of which we, as a nation, could be truly proud.
I agree. We need to be guided by the UNHCR on vulnerability and on its assessment of children at risk. It is encouraging that the Government’s approach has focused on vulnerability, and that approach needs to continue for those in the region, in Europe and in this country. That must guide us throughout.
I share with everyone else an admiration for the hon. Gentleman’s securing of this important debate. We know that children of Vietnamese origin are much more likely than not to go missing. Does he agree that there should be a specific focus on that group of children, who are absolutely at risk from exploiters and traffickers, and that, at the moment, we are failing them by not having that focus?
I agree that we need to do that. The right hon. Lady and I are both members of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, and I share her concern. Following the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, we need to make sure that we recognise the inherent risk faced by such children and that there is a package available to do more than the current care system to provide help. We must end the uncertainty on the status of those children and ensure that there is a long-term commitment to their protection. Those children in particular are struggling, and there was a debate during our consideration of the Immigration Bill on restrictions on unaccompanied children receiving leaving-care support provisions, such as access to accommodation and subsistence, as well as foster placements, education, training and legal advice. Whether those children are applying for immigration or for asylum, we need to recognise that those needs continue.
On the issue of advocacy to which my hon. Friend referred, children are being trafficked younger and younger, facing loneliness and bewilderment. Does he agree that implementing a child advocate scheme similar to the one recently trialled by the Government could bring not only clarity to local authorities but the certainty and continuity of a long-term plan for children?
Yes, certainly. I championed child trafficking advocates along with other Members across the House, and we were pleased when they were eventually included in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The scheme has been piloted with mixed results, but it is important to recognise that trafficked children have a similar profile to separated children coming to this country. In his response, will the Minister confirm a link with the advocates who help those at risk of being trafficked, as well as their relevance to separated children? If the scheme needs to be expanded, let us hear the details, but the national roll-out must properly include unaccompanied children.
I appreciate that a number of hon. Members want to contribute, so I will not hog the debate. I draw attention to the commitment made by the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees at the Geneva summit. He said that we need
“to harness the generous offers of support from the UK public by developing a community sponsorship scheme.”
That is welcome, and we need to see how it might work, particularly for separated children. For example, Home for Good, a fostering charity, has signed up more than 10,000 UK households willing to provide a home for such children. We need to use that welcome offer of support, which goes beyond what was happening back in September—“I’ll give my house.” It is a practical offer of long-term fostering support from an excellent organisation. Home for Good, among others, asks the Government to tell us how they will use the resources offered by charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to support unaccompanied children. I look forward to hearing the debate, particularly if it focuses on a long-term plan for separated children, and I welcome all hon. Members’ contributions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on presenting his case and giving us all a chance to participate in this debate.
The migrant crisis was undoubtedly one of the defining issues of 2015, and it will undoubtedly be a defining issue this year as well. It is impossible to avoid it, and hard to find a member of the public who does not have an opinion on it, whether we consider the negative consequences seen in Cologne or the positive stories of relocated refugees settling successfully into a new society. It is a major issue that will take some time to resolve. In Belfast and in Northern Ireland, we have had our first refugees, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has encouraged them to relocate and be part of Northern Ireland. Church groups have also gathered around to ensure that that happens.
We have all seen the images of what ISIS or Daesh do: they behead, rape, murder and pillage. It is not hard to understand why any human being would want to get as far away from that as possible. More than 14 million Syrians in the country are in need of help, 7 million of whom are internally displaced, and nearly 5 million have fled abroad, including the hundreds of thousands making their way into Europe. Nevertheless, it is important to be rational and not let our emotions make us lose the run of ourselves. Syrian nationals were the fourth largest group of asylum applicants in the year to September 2015.
We cannot ignore the heart-breaking plight of genuine refugees. In 2015, some 3,043 asylum applications were received from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, 56% more than in 2014 and 141% more than in 2013. More than half of all applications were from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Albania.
I want to underline the plight of Christians fleeing Syria. Some 900,000 Christians have been displaced in Syria, many of them families and children. Although we focus on Syria, it is clear that there is quite a spread of people seeking to come to Europe. We must be careful to do the right thing and have a compassionate approach, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned.
Regardless of our approach, we must ensure that refugees are processed correctly, in order to give genuine refugees the dignity that they deserve and root out potential criminal elements or security threats. We have all seen the distressing images from the Mediterranean. The news last night referred to the unscrupulous people in Libya and elsewhere who fill boats full of people, often without regard to safety. They are an obvious threat to people making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe.
When it comes to children, especially unaccompanied children, we must act. We must be compassionate and do the right thing. The Syria crisis, in addition to the political situation across the middle east and north Africa, has resulted in an ever increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children making their way to Europe. Concerns about such children have been raised, not least after Europol warned that at least 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing since entering Europe. We must ask ourselves where those children are, what has happened to them, whether we are concerned and whether we are doing our best to find them.
People will know that I am a Christian and have strong views on these issues. From a compassionate point of view, I would say: where are those children, and what are we doing about them? Our Saviour said:
“Suffer the little children to come unto me”.
What are we in this House doing as Christians? What is this House doing as a leader of society to help those children?
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that it is important that registration occurs at the point of entry, so that we can track children and ensure that appropriate child protection measures are in place?
I wholeheartedly agree.
At least 3,000 displaced children will be resettled in the UK, but the problem is that the Government initiative to relocate child refugees will not include those already in Europe. It is not the case that the whole of Syria is marching into Europe, although sometimes people listening to the news might think that it is. That is not how it is; let us keep things in perspective and focus on the important issues. The European Commission’s chief spokesman said that 60% of those arriving in the EU as part of the movement were economic migrants rather than refugees. We must empathise with genuine refugees.
I am conscious of time, so I will finish with this comment. We should do what we can do to help. There are screening and security issues to be addressed, but we need to be part of the humanitarian effort, most definitely with regard to children. I can only hope that this debate will put pressure on the Government to reconsider and start helping with the efforts to assist unaccompanied children who are already in Europe. We need to get the right approach, reconsider the current one and be part of the humanitarian effort to help those poor children, who absolutely need and deserve our help.
I will start with a quote that some Members may have heard before. On 14 December 1938, Mr Noel-Baker asked:
“Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these children in Germany in many cases are in really terrible conditions, without adult protection and without the means of finding food, and is he aware that the machinery of the Home Office for granting visas is so inadequate that the visas cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities to save their lives?”—[Official Report, 14 December 1938; Vol. 342, c. 1976.]
Unfortunately, 78 years on, not a lot has changed. We do not have much time to debate that issue, or indeed to debate what we could most effectively do to help children in the camps surrounding Syria, for instance, because this debate, secured by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), rightly focuses on what we can do for children who are already in the United Kingdom. As a minimum—the hon. Gentleman touched on this—we should provide a five-year humanitarian protection order, in line with those people being relocated under the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme. That approach is needed simply because it provides security for the children and because it also makes the job of local authorities much easier, regarding what they have to plan for in the future for those children.
We also need the Home Office to extend the guardianship pilots for trafficked children to include unaccompanied children. I know that the Children’s Society is keen that the Minister for Immigration provides an update on the child trafficking advocates pilot, as well as clarification of whether he recognises the importance of there being an independent advocate for separated and unaccompanied children, particularly in their transition to adulthood and in providing support with regularising their immigration status before they turn 18. Indeed, there are strong arguments for extending that support beyond 18 to 21, as is the case with care leavers.
The provisions for transfers or disposals need to be addressed very early on. The worst that can happen to a child is that they remain in one place for an extended period only to be moved on much later. Action needs to be taken very soon on where children will be relocated within the UK.
We need effective and improved co-ordination mechanisms. My understanding is that in London, which was mentioned in an intervention earlier, the Greater London Authority is taking responsibility for co-ordinating certain aspects of the arrival of children, but that the mechanisms are not working very effectively. As I understand it, the latest figures suggest that a maximum of 10 children have been distributed through those mechanisms. Clearly, more action needs to be taken at a London level, so that co-ordination is in place and the boroughs can tap into what has been organised.
We also need to ensure that where family ties exist, every effort is made to ensure that family members in the same local authority area can provide support to unaccompanied children where appropriate. As well as improving conditions for the child, that approach has the advantage of reducing the burden on local authorities.
We need to make sure that there is better resourcing for foster carers, and we would like the regional assessment hub model to be explored further, although that is not a call to reduce the scrutiny of foster carers. A national register would also make a substantial contribution, because it would enable foster carers who move from one local authority area to another to remain available to provide foster care. Of course, the need to check things such as the foster carer’s new home would remain; a national register would not deal with such issues.
Some authorities are clearly on the frontline in providing funding—Kent has already been mentioned. The Home Office needs to model scenarios to compensate local authorities that step up and take responsibility for unaccompanied children. The Government also need to identify which authorities are currently overburdened and have to rely heavily on out-of-county options for their own looked-after population before they take on any additional unaccompanied children.
The target advocated by Save the Children and others—including my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who has outlined his blueprint for 3,000 children—is attainable, and it would make a substantial contribution towards dealing at EU level with the 30,000 or so unaccompanied children who are already in the UK. However, we need many of the measures that I and previous speakers have discussed this morning, to ensure that the framework—the support network—is in place before those children can be supported.
I very much welcome this debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing it.
I imagine that we are all here today because we want Britain to play its part in dealing with the refugee situation and in looking after the unaccompanied children in this country, and across Europe and the middle east. The debate is very much about how we do that and how we ensure that we do it well.
I visited Calais last year—I think it was in October— and clearly I saw awful conditions there. There were very few children; the few children I saw were with their parents. However, we know that there are some unaccompanied children there and that those children who are there are usually in their teens, although some may be younger than that. I have also visited a refugee camp in Turkey, where I saw pretty good conditions—okay, it was a refugee camp that the Turkish Government chose to show visitors. However, I spoke to people there who were living in relatively good conditions, and without exception they wanted to come to Europe all the same.
I also represent a constituency in Kent and as my neighbour—my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who was here earlier—has already mentioned, we have a large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent. It is one of the areas that is feeling the effect of this issue particularly heavily, but we also have experience of how to deal with it well.
In the limited time available to me, I will just make a couple of other points. The first is that in addressing this problem of unaccompanied children, we must absolutely be compassionate, but we must also avoid being emotional and failing to think through the unintended consequences of whatever choices we make. And we must realise that we are making choices.
In the debate as to whether we should bring 3,000 unaccompanied children over from Europe, for instance, we should be mindful that, although we usually talk about Syrian refugees, about half of the unaccompanied children in Europe are Eritrean, and many others are from Afghanistan and Albania, although there will be some Syrian children among them. We need to be conscious that those who are calling for more children to be brought here are calling for children of many nationalities to be helped. That would be one decision, and a different decision from choosing, for instance, to focus our efforts on helping children who are fleeing Syria. I am not saying that the children from other countries do not need help; any unaccompanied child needs some help. I am just saying that there is a decision to be made.
My hon. Friend has, in fact, just answered the question that I was going to ask. Does it make children any less vulnerable or at risk that they are from a country other than Syria? However, she just answered that question, for which I thank her.
Indeed I did, but I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s point and thank her for it.
My second point, which is very much in keeping with the tone and focus of this debate, is the importance of doing a really good job by those who come here. The worst thing is to raise hopes among young people—in fact, it is even worse to encourage them to come here—and then to let them down and not do a good job. Having talked to organisations that are active in Kent in looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I know that it is difficult to do a good job. Children need an enormous amount of help, and they really need foster homes; they need to be placed in a family environment, and to be given health, mental health, schooling and all of that.
The particular challenge that we have in Kent is that foster homes are full. We have around 800 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are under 18 and around 400 to 500 care leavers, so we have a huge number of children to look after. We need a national drive to find more foster homes, to ensure that children who come here can be looked after and British children who need foster homes can also be found places in foster homes. There is a limited supply of such homes.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said that 10,000 foster homes were available through the Homes for Good charity. That sounds like a fantastic supply and there needs to be some way of matching the demand with what appears to be the supply; I hope that the Minister can pick up on that point.
Finally, we need a plan for what happens when these children reach 18, and for care leavers. In Kent, we welcome the extra funding that the Government have provided for under-18s, which has made it more feasible to look after under-18s, but there is a question about care leavers, as they still need extra help, which requires extra money.
The most important thing is that when we bring unaccompanied children here, we do a good job. We must not raise hopes and then dash them; we must do a very good job by those children, so that they have a really good start in life.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) because her points about emotion and about our fostering and adoptive care provision are crucial to the debate. Those points need to be focused on, not just by us in the debate but by the Minister, and I hope that he will use the debate and the contributions offered to formulate his policies and plans—I say this with the greatest respect—before Monday. If we are removing emotion from the debate, Parliament should not cajole the Government. If on Monday a vote went against the Government, and Parliament cajoled them into a position that they were either unprepared for or unwilling to engage in, it would be a disaster for unaccompanied children.
I will focus a tad on emotion. I recall that back in the summer I felt that the Government’s position was callous and heartless, and that it lacked the compassion of which we, as a country, should be proud. That was my emotional position at that time and I now accept that it was wrong. It was misplaced. It would have been wrong to resettle vulnerable people in this country without provisions such as homes, schools and GPs. Those things give them the best chance to assimilate, and so too with young unaccompanied children. It would be no justice to those who need the support, help and friendship of this country to bring them here without adequate support mechanisms in place. I hope, therefore, that the Government will take the opportunity not only to formulate their plans but to seek and receive the endorsement of Save the Children and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that we know that what we do has both the helping hand and the endorsement of organisations and NGOs that respect what this country is doing and recognise the contribution that we can make.
We have a proud history in this country, and the important point that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent made is that when we consider today those many thousands of young people elsewhere who need our help it would be remiss of us if we did not also consider those in this country. If we could encourage more families to come forward as prospective adopters or foster carers, that would be a wonderful achievement for us, as a nation. If you take the Scotland and England figures together, there are more than 7,000 children in care homes so the idea that we would bring others to add to their number—and in many cases, their plight—is not something I can support. In building that support and that help, and in opening up the opportunity, I hope that this discussion can be of benefit not only for those seeking to come to a country of safety and sanctuary but for those who currently live without the true love and support of a family in this country.
I will conclude now, Ms Vaz, to give you some extra time for others. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, not just in his response to the debate but over the coming days and, with any luck, in advance of Monday, about just how best we can get a scheme that we can be proud of and that does justice to those who so much need it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing the important debate. When he started his speech he made some cracks about needing a long-term plan, and I want to talk about time, because one of the problems with the immigration system is that it does not recognise how important timeliness is in a child’s life. A week, a month or a year in a child’s life, in comparison with an adult’s, is an enormous amount of time. One of the problems is the lack of timely intervention and support for vulnerable children, in France and also when they are in the UK.
In the case of ZAT et ors in the immigration tribunal, the judgment said:
“Insufficient and inappropriate reception conditions for unaccompanied asylum seeking children”—
“were considered to impair their effective access to the asylum procedure”.
We also learned that the children in that case were not eligible for legal aid, and that there was an endlessly bureaucratic process for their cases even to begin. I hear about Home Office officials being sent to France to help sort out those things but I do not see the speeding up of individual applications as a result, so that is the first step we should take.
The second step is trying to help local authorities that are acting on the issue. A number of Members have spoken about the situation in Kent. I attended a presentation by Philip Segurola from Kent and, strikingly, in September last year, instead of the usual 20 or so individual unaccompanied children more than 200 arrived there in a single month. We need to support local authorities better to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
Beyond that, we know that child advocates work—the mixed results claim about the advocacy trial is spin. The independent University of Bedfordshire analysis of the outcomes of the trial was overwhelmingly positive. It showed that children experienced someone being on their side. That is the most essential thing. With overburdened social workers, children do not have an experience of anyone being on their side in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of asylum seeking, and it is urgent that we ensure that every child at risk of trafficking or who has been trafficked, and also asylum-seeking children, get access to an advocate who can be on their side. Although it is true that some of those children went missing, in almost every case in the trial it was before they were allocated an advocate. A number of the case studies in the Bedfordshire report showed that it was the child advocate who found a child who had gone missing. That is the second area where we need to act urgently.
Thirdly, we need to change a procedure that has existed for decades. When a child applies for asylum, the Home Office does nothing—it does not take action; it does not investigate the claim; it waits until just before the child’s 18th birthday to take any action in relation to the claim. The process was described by the Home Affairs Committee as serving
“administrative convenience more than the best interests of children”,
and that is right.
I understand that it is difficult for a child to make a compelling case for asylum, but the state has a responsibility, at an early stage, to investigate the nature of the claim because three, four or five years later it is difficult to be able to support such a child. We are in a situation where children are failing to be supported in Europe, all over the place. In Lesbos they are being fed by sandwiches being thrown over a fence. That is unacceptable, and we should not be part of it.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about not knowing the full situation and about a number of children disappearing. In light of that, I have put parliamentary questions to the Minister about the number of take charge requests that have come to the British Government and I have been told that they cannot provide that information. It really troubles me that we do not have the information on which to even make the decisions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a huge problem? How can the Government reassure us if they do not even have the facts?
Indeed, and it is not only the UK that does not have the facts; strikingly, many Administrations all over Europe, including in countries we admire for being bureaucratically effective, such as Germany, do not have the statistics. We really are not looking after children. The state is the parent in those circumstances and, frankly, we are the kind of parent who, if we were a human being, should be facing court for failure to adequately parent. That is not acceptable, and action is needed urgently.
I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for bringing this important debate to Parliament, and I thank you, Ms Vaz, for chairing this debate. I hope I can get through my speech very quickly.
I will talk about the experience of refugee children who do not have parents to care for them, but first I want to talk about the situation with unaccompanied children who are given the opportunity to come to the UK and the Government’s record on that. To be clear, I am referring to Governments of all colours; I am not in any way making a party political point. The Government have pledged to do more, and I am glad, because their record up to now has been pretty abysmal. When unaccompanied children come to the UK, they are placed in local authority care. Local authorities and communities do their best to care for them, but as soon as they turn 18 the situation changes drastically: they can apply for naturalisation, and too many are turned away. The only place they have ever found safety and comfort turns them away.
We give these children a home and a family. They make friends and learn English. Then, when they turn 18, we send them back to the war zone they came from. Between 2008 and 2012, we sent nearly 2,000 children back to Afghanistan. In the same period, we sent 345 children back to Iraq and at least 22 back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2009 and 2010, we sent back children who were stateless. I do not even know how that works. They were stateless. No state was accepting responsibility for those children, and we sent them out of our country. A bairn who comes to our country as an unaccompanied minor and has no rights anywhere else is refused the right to stay after they turn 18. That is inhumane.
Things must change, and I am therefore pleased that we are having this debate today. The Scottish National party is calling for the UK Government to ensure that all separated children are allocated an independent legal guardian. I am glad that that point was made earlier. It is important that the kids have a voice and someone able to fight their side and navigate our incredibly complicated immigration system. We would like the UK Government to backtrack on the provisions in the Immigration Bill that discriminate against former looked-after children.
I will now turn my attention to the circumstances that displaced children and young people find themselves in throughout Europe, the middle east and other parts of the world. The other night, my four-year-old woke up having had a nightmare. I went in and gave him a hug and he went back to sleep. He had all his favourite toys around him. He had his own pyjamas on and was in his own bed. He knew that his mum and dad were just along the corridor, able to come in and give him the comfort and support he needed. The horror and terror that unaccompanied children must experience is unimaginable. Refugee children are waking from their nightmares and finding that real life is worse. Every day, every hour, displaced children are hoping and praying for comfort and safety. How can we, when we have the means to help them, justify leaving them in that situation?
I went to visit Kittybrewster primary school recently and the children there were talking to me about refugees. They were concerned for refugee children. They are passionate young people, and they grilled me at length about why the Government were not doing more to help children who are like them, but who are alone in a foreign country. They wanted to know what I was doing to help. They wanted to know what Members and the Government were doing to help. They wanted to know how dropping bombs on people in Syria would help to improve the lives of the many thousands of children who find themselves homeless and alone as a result of conflict.
Why, when we have more than enough, are we do not doing more to help those who have nothing? The Government have not been flexible enough. I do not think we should be removing emotion from the debate. We should be thinking about these children as young human beings whom we have a responsibility to help. We need to be doing everything we can to take action now. We should be helping people with compassion and humanity and not simply considering these youngsters as numbers.
I add my voice to those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this debate. I will not talk about giving children a voice, because that has already been covered, as has supporting local government, which is hugely important, particularly in ensuring that no one area is overburdened at the expense of others.
When I visited Lesbos, an island that is not on the news most days, my first impressions were shocking in their tranquillity. It looked like any other Greek fishing village waiting for the summer trade to begin, but that belied what lay away from the port. The first camp was a functioning United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camp. There were huts, and people had few possessions—only what they could carry. Charities such as Save the Children were doing a sterling job, providing safe places for families and vulnerable children. The play scheme, like any play scheme, was noisy and messy.
I want to address two issues, predominantly: timeliness, to which the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) alluded, and procedural appropriateness. The second camp was less ordered. Infrastructure was sparse and the detention centre housed vulnerable children. The barbed wire looked less than comforting. It is practically impossible to monitor where a child is. Children travelling on their own are vulnerable at every stage, as we have heard repeatedly. The lack of safe routes once they have arrived in Europe is appalling and frightening—think of travelling up through Albania and the like. To protect a child, we need to know where they are.
I was struck by two things: the size of the problem and the inadequacy of the provision. Do not get me wrong; the Greek population are doing a staggeringly good job. They did not ask for their islands to be the front door to more than 856,000 refugees in 2015. Lesbos is the same size as one of our constituencies in population. Refugees do not have many choices of where to go, and the situation will not change any time soon, so we need to step up and assist. The island administration struggles to cope with the high volume. It has poor facilities and a lack of expertise. The hotspot we saw in January was a digger and a bloke. That is not much of a hotspot. The Greeks and other possible first points of arrival need practical help with expertise from a broad base of countries. The Greeks’ ability to cope is affected by the prefecture system of governance, a challenging economy and a lack of procedural competence, although all that is offset by the most enormous humanitarian response of basic decency and kindness by the people of the island and the country. Countries at the sharp end do not need fine words; we need to ask them how we can help. Vulnerable children need particular help.
I shared that experience with my hon. Friend, and I also saw the scale of the issue and the paucity of the response. There has been a rallying cry today around time, the right thing and the long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke powerfully about the exploitation and destitution of unaccompanied minors in our midst, especially that experienced by those who have come by irregular ways and means. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) agree that the right thing to do is, as she has outlined, to find a new gear in the process of identifying children and young people in Calais and likewise in Lesbos so that they can be reunited swiftly with their family? We also need to extend our work with vulnerable unaccompanied children in the region so that they do not make this perilous journey and risk an uncertain future.
I could not agree more. We have to ensure that we are not a magnet. The trade is absolutely immoral. We need to ensure that handling procedures for all vulnerable people are speedy and timely. We need biometric machinery so that people are registered where they arrive. Vulnerable children have no one to ensure that they are looked after on this journey. An increasing concern is that money given to Frontex is not being spent correctly. Improved monitoring is a must.
Young single people are at particular risk on all parts of their journey. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, they continue to be vulnerable once they are here, and we have a duty from the time they set sail. Taking people from camps in north Africa and Syria helps to show that assistance is there. A friend whose family comes from Lesbos said:
“It is not like an earthquake over in minutes. This is never-ending, like living on a motorway with daily car crashes. Some of the islanders can’t sleep and see boats when they are not there.”
The Greek people are tired, but I worry about having debates on numbers when we do not know the extent of the issue, when processing is not being done properly and when facts are scarce. Those things are critical. The amendment this week talks of 3,000 children, but as a mother, I have to ask: what about the 3,001st? Understanding situations properly is the key to sorting them, and we must ensure that councils are helped to provide the right support. Processing people quickly and decently is imperative, which brings me to the “jungle”. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) said, we need to do the same here. Keeping people in squalor is no deterrent; it merely dehumanises. The French authorities need to speed up decision making, ensuring that reunification of family members happens swiftly, if appropriate. To do the right thing should be possible in Europe.
It is being recognised that we in this country are making decisions more swiftly. That is to be welcomed, but I, like many other Members here, want to see more. In the coming days, I look forward to the Minister, who has met with us on many occasions, meeting Save the Children. It can provide up-to-date local information, but I want to know what more we can do in practice to assist the processing, both in technical and influential terms. I want to make sure that vulnerable people get the help they acutely require. We have heard fine words today; please let us see some action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for securing this important debate. Given the dramatic rise in the number of children travelling through Europe in recent years, it is impossible to remove emotion from the debate. Too often, too many children are left unaccounted for and unrecognised in a system that focuses on bureaucracy, timing and filling in forms, and fails to remember that these are children and they are our responsibility. As a result of the ongoing crisis in Syria—sadly, in no way unique or the first of its kind—too many children are facing perilous journeys. Last month, while I was in Calais, I spoke to volunteers from Help Refugees. Both Annie and Maddie spoke of the utterly horrifying fact that too many children aged as young as nine are climbing into trucks, trying to get to the border and being sent back. One child, Hasan, had taken 15 perilous journeys. He had attempted to cross the border and been sent back. However, today he will reach the UK and he will be reunited with his family. That is a good story, but that is only one good story in the face of so many stories of children who may or may not make it.
I spoke to a mother who had put her two young children aged two and seven on the back of a truck in the hope that they would make it to the UK. I do not know whether they did. She will never know where those children are. This is the emotion of the debate and the reality. We do not know where those children are and that is the reality that we must face.
Save the Children, living up to its name, has put pressure on the Government to resettle the 3,000 unaccompanied children already in Europe. That is a responsibility that we in the UK must take seriously, and we must step up to the plate. However, as the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) said, in order to protect children we need to know where they are. That is vital. If I drive one point home in this debate, it is that there are too many children whose whereabouts we do not know; we do not know where they are going and we do not know where they will end up. That is not good enough.
The standard of care that we know they will receive when they get to the UK will be exceptional. It will be top class and delivered by some of the best local authorities across the UK in Scotland, England, Wales and elsewhere. Funding local government to deliver the services is absolutely vital. The stark reality is that three times more teenagers are deported than the Home Office previously admitted, which highlights that this bureaucratic process is still penalising people and creating an arbitrary line in the sand between what is a child and what is not a child. This is not good enough.
I will leave this point with the Government. I echo the sentiments of timeliness and the need to protect. The Government are failing children. We can always do more, so let us step up to the plate and do that.
Our ability to save the lives of children is immediate, doable and incumbent on us as members of the human race. In the past two months, I have visited Lesbos and Calais. Given the world’s attention on these unprecedented levels of migration, I was astounded to find a lack of coherent asylum processing and support for the most vulnerable refugees—children. In Lesbos, aid workers told of the promise of hotspots and resources to identify and process migrants, but we saw little more than organised chaos. Children identified as unaccompanied were held for their safety in a disused jail—welcome to Europe. So it was not altogether surprising that many sought to avoid that fate by ducking through the net of the authorities, but at least there was some kind of system. If I thought that was bad, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw—or did not see—in Calais. There was no asylum processing and no sign saying, “This way to safety.” Neither were there signs saying, “This way to avoid prostitution, trafficking and abuse.” The camp is eerily quiet until late morning because during the night, everyone, children included, is trying to board anything with wheels.
We met a young boy from Syria called Karim. He was desperate for human contact and hugged us and smiled sheepishly. He disappeared days after our visit. After the jungle was semi-demolished, a census carried out by self-appointed good British people, Help Refugees and Citizens UK, discovered that 129 children had gone missing. Karim did turn up a week or so later in Kent, thank God. However, he should not have had to make such a journey of danger and desperation.
In January, the Government said that they would work with the UNHCR to resettle unaccompanied children and with charities to assist and protect the children in transit across Europe. I do not doubt the herculean efforts of the Government in the region, but in Europe we must do more.
I have one final thought. I travelled home from Calais on a train with three young boys from Syria, the first to be resettled in the new reunification process. There should have been four, but there was no room in the car to the station for four children, so one was sent back to the “jungle” for one more month until the next car came along.
When the great British public are feeding and safeguarding the refugee children of Calais, I am filled with immense pride, but also embarrassment that they are having to do that work. If the British people are there, so should the Government be there. It is not France’s problem. Our compassion, Dunkirk spirit and geographical proximity have made it our problem, too, so I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to find those children before it is too late and bring them home for good.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this debate, on his commitment to the issue and on opening with an excellent speech. The debate has continued in that fashion, with a series of powerful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging speeches setting out the huge scale of the humanitarian challenge that the crisis poses and the action that is necessary to support unaccompanied children who have fled their home countries as a result.
What has underpinned the speeches is a belief that those children should be treated as children. We should provide for them as we would want and reasonably expect our own children to be provided for were they to be in the same situation, arriving alone in a strange new country. It is hardly a radical idea, yet in so many respects Governments across the EU have failed to take that approach. Looking from the outside, too often it seems it is not the best interests of the child that informs policy but perceived national interests in closed borders and fencing, and Government targets and party politics.
It would be impossible for me to cover in the short time available the full range of the debate in any detail, so I will make a few short, sharp points in a handful of different policy areas, echoing some of the arguments and concerns that Members have raised. The main focus of the debate has of course been on providing durable solutions. I agree with hon. Members who have said that it is time for the Government to think again about the nature of the leave that is provided to unaccompanied children, particularly in the form of UASC leave.
We could argue all day about how safe it is to return an 18-year-old lad to Afghanistan, for example. For the record, I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) that such a practice is reprehensible. Even putting that to one side, what we say will happen to someone when they turn 18 has an immediate impact on a child facing up to that threat in the here and now. Dangling what amounts to a sword of Damocles over an unaccompanied child is plain cruel, creating uncertainty and anxiety and stoking fear. It is not in any child’s best interests and not what we would hope or expect for our own children. It is far short of the long-term plan of support that various Members highlighted.
Ultimately, those who are granted UASC leave are granted it on the basis that there are inadequate reception arrangements in their country of origin—in other words, they would face destitution, discrimination, homelessness and lack of access to medical treatment if returned home. Although that does not mean they will get protection under the refugee convention, it surely merits something of an equivalent nature. There is a strong case for saying that no child should have to leave immediately on reaching adulthood. Furthermore, there is a powerful argument that in many cases we should be prepared to say that these kids, whose rights under the conventions would be breached if they were immediately removed, should be offered permanent settlement immediately.
I ask the Government to think again about the effect of the Immigration Bill, which we will be considering again next Monday. They should think particularly about the proposals to remove the ability of local authority social work departments to provide support to unaccompanied kids up to the age of 21. The Bill would remove that support at the age of 18, a change that is opposed by a host of Members, the British Association of Social Workers and others.
I support Members’ calls for the roll-out of guardianship and advocate schemes throughout England and Wales. In Scotland, a successful pilot showed that guardianship schemes can be crucial in helping unaccompanied children and young people to be heard and to realise their individual potential. Northern Ireland and several other countries throughout Europe have similar schemes. I urge the Government to roll out the scheme to unaccompanied children in England and Wales.
I back what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said about family reunion. It is plain wrong that unaccompanied children cannot apply as sponsors for their parents or carers. Such a failure to provide for reunion is a clear breach of children’s best interests.
Members touched briefly on legal aid in their speeches. Will the Government revisit some of the previous Justice Secretary’s reforms so that more than 2,500 unaccompanied children will no longer have to try to act as their own solicitors? Legal aid should be available for non-asylum immigration and family reunion cases. Such matters are not straightforward. As a solicitor in Scotland I was able to assist with such applications, with recompense from the Scottish Legal Aid Board in the form of advice and assistance funding. I know that was welcome, and it was clearly justified.
I echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made about Calais, where a significant number of unaccompanied children are living in what are essentially shanty towns. A significant number of those children have strong connections to the United Kingdom. Charities have estimated that there are more than 150 unaccompanied children at Calais who they believe would be able to come to the United Kingdom using take charge requests. As the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, the tribunal judgment was that the system in France is working at barely a snail’s pace.
As I understand it, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made an offer to the Home Office to provide support, including through the distribution of an information leaflet; technical comments and suggestions on the implementation of the Dublin regulations; assisting persons of concern, particularly unaccompanied minors, with the identification of relatives in France; supporting the family links evidence gathering process; and a referral or signposting mechanism for individual cases. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Government would not accept that offer. I hope we hear from the Minister that they are going to do so.
We could have a whole separate debate on the situation across Europe, but I shall leave that for another day as time is running short. In all the policy areas I have mentioned, we need to rethink our approach as a country. I hope that the Government will listen to what Members have said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for securing such a timely and appropriate debate. I also thank him because whenever I hear him in Committees or the Chamber, he is always moderate and thoughtful and really has the best interests of the most vulnerable people in his heart.
Nobody who has heard today’s speeches can be in any doubt about the level of concern Members have about the growing number of unaccompanied children in Europe, or their frustration at the Government’s response. The debate is timely as it comes just a week before the House will have the chance to consider an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would require the Government to relocate and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from across Europe. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for pushing that issue for a long time.
The amendment is small but significant, with the potential to provide safety and stability to children for whom conflicts in their home countries are far beyond their comprehension, let alone their control. As Members will know, the amendment was tabled by my colleague Lord Dubs, himself a refugee who arrived in Britain in 1939 as one of almost 10,000 Jewish children saved by the Kindertransport. The quote from 1938 that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) read out was therefore particularly pertinent.
Lord Dubs’ amendment passed in the Lords by more than 100 votes and has the support of a wide range of charities and campaign groups. It will have the support of Labour Members in the Commons next week, and I implore all Members of all parties to support it. I do not pretend that the amendment will solve the growing problem on its own. The number of unaccompanied children who are now making such treacherous journeys to Europe is an incredibly serious and complex issue. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, two more children died making the journey last night.
In February this year, children accounted for more than a third of all refugees and migrants in Europe, compared with one in 10 in June 2015. Beyond the refugee crisis, 982 of the 3,266 people identified as potential victims of trafficking in the UK last year were children, who are vulnerable to unimaginable exploitation and violence. As with so many other challenges we face, our response to unaccompanied children in Europe, whether they are here as refugees or as the victims of traffickers, will require an EU-wide solution and EU countries working together to address a problem that cuts across borders.
I echo the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen). There needs to be an improved framework to support migrant children in Europe and reduce the risks of them falling into the hands of traffickers or suffering sexual exploitation and violence. Recent reports by UNICEF and the Children’s Society have emphasised the urgency of finding a more durable solution, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in his response.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children estimate that there are currently 24,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, so we believe that 3,000 would be a reasonable figure for the UK to take at this stage. That would be in addition to the number already being taken under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, a scheme that we fully support but that does not allow the resettlement of vulnerable refugees who have already reached Europe. Given the sheer scale and immediacy of the problem of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, we believe that the amendment is fair and realistic.
Now for some asks. The Minister has stated that he is sorting out the issues relating to the Dublin III resolution, but so far he has not told us about the facts. Will he do so today? Does he agree with the UNHCR, Save the Children and countless other bodies on that matter? If he does not, what alternative proposal do the Government have in mind? If the Minister can introduce some constructive proposals today, we would like to hear them, because of course we have a vote in a week. My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was right to bring up the issues relating to the support given to local authorities. Will the Minister update us on the support that the Government are making available for local authorities that are resettling unaccompanied child refugees? For how long will such funding and support be continued?
I am sure the Minister will appreciate that it is not enough to simply allow children to find sanctuary in this country; we must afford them the security and safety that we would expect for our own children. Yet in April 2013, the Government implemented changes to the legal aid system that mean that separated or unaccompanied migrant children are no longer able to get free advice and representation for their immigration cases. However, just yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the former Lord Chancellor acted ultra vires when he made changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 using secondary legislation.
The cases that were affected by the changes to the 2012 Act primarily involved children who have non-asylum immigration claims. Their claims are often about their right to a family and private life, and the children have often grown up in the UK in foster homes and have no lasting connections to their country of origin. Cases include those of lone children making citizenship applications; child trafficking victims; children involved in international adoption processes; and children who have been abandoned or estranged from their care-givers.
The restriction in legal aid means that some of the most vulnerable children are left without clarity as to their immigration status as they turn 18, which affects their access to housing, education and employment. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for making that point more completely. Without legal aid, the children affected no longer have independent access to legal professionals who can help establish their immigration status and advise them on their options to find a permanent solution. They are at increased risk of removal to countries to which they have little, if any, connection. Worse still, children desperate to resolve their legal issues are faced with the intense risk of being exploited through unregulated labour, or of being sexually exploited or groomed by criminal networks, because of the need to raise the funds to pay for their legal fees. Can the Minister tell us that he will look into reinstating legal aid for all separated children for their immigration cases?
Although the debate is timely, it is also depressingly familiar. For a number of years Labour has been calling on the Government to do more to help vulnerable refugees fleeing violence, abuse and oppression, but at every stage they have been reluctant to do so. They must recognise and respond to public and parliamentary pressure and support unaccompanied children in Europe. Children are vulnerable to the most horrifying exploitation and abuse. I end where the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate began: the Government must offer these children not just a temporary safe haven but a lasting solution, and the opportunity to make the UK their safe and secure childhood home.
This debate has been marked by passionate and compassionate contributions. The Members who contributed did so with a genuine desire to inform the debate, based on their own experiences. Many of them have travelled out to areas affected by the migration crisis and to the refugee camps. This has therefore been a very well informed debate, and the Government will continue to reflect on the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, who always speak with a genuine desire to make a difference on these extraordinarily difficult issues. The Government must act appropriately to make the biggest difference that we can on the challenging issue of vulnerable children who have been affected by conflict and are fleeing persecution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) not just on securing the debate but on his continued focus on these issues. I very much appreciate the conversations we have had over many months—indeed, over many years—on these themes. He focused principally on what happens in the UK, an issue that he feels keenly, although many contributors strayed more widely. We will continue to reflect on the points that he and others made this morning.
In the time available, I will struggle to do justice to this very good debate, but I will address a number of the points that have been made. I echo a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer): it is right that we have a sense of compassion, but we have to act with head and heart to do the right thing in an extraordinarily difficult situation. It is worth reflecting on the fact that up to 90% of asylum seekers pay a criminal gang to reach Europe. We therefore have to be careful not to do anything to encourage vulnerable individuals to put their lives in the hands of criminals seeking to exploit migrants for profit. I know that things can get twisted in their presentation, but none of us wants more children being exploited or losing their lives after being pushed out to sea in the Mediterranean. We must prevent that appalling tragedy.
The UK has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need it, including children. The Government take our responsibility for the welfare of children seriously. The crisis in Syria and events in the middle east, north Africa and beyond have led to an unprecedented number of migrants and asylum seekers, including children and families, arriving in Europe. Some of those children have been separated from their families and, as we have heard, have gone on to reach the UK via northern France. It is absolutely right that Britain fulfils its moral duty to help refugees. The Government take our responsibility on asylum cases involving children very seriously.
As we have heard, last year there was a 56% increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK, which placed significant pressure on some local authority children’s services. It is important to understand that nearly two thirds of those children are aged 16 or 17 upon arrival.
From the points that have been made, I know that Members are aware of the pressure faced by Kent County Council, which is currently caring for nearly 900 unaccompanied children, 300 of whom have had to be placed in other local authority areas. I have previously put on the record my gratitude for the way in which Kent and other local authorities such as Croydon responded to the pressures, but I have also been clear that a national response is needed to ensure that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children get the support they need and are appropriately safeguarded. The current situation is not in the best interests of either the children or those councils. That is why a voluntary transfer scheme was put in place last summer, and additional funding has been made available to local authorities that take on the legal responsibility from Kent County Council for caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
However, it is clear that we need to go further to promote a fair and equitable distribution of cases across the country in a way that protects the best interests of those children. Government officials continue to work with the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the devolved Administrations, local government organisations and a range of charities and non-governmental organisations to put in place a longer-term, more sustainable transfer scheme that will assist not only Kent but other local authorities caring for high numbers of unaccompanied children.
I believe that a regional approach to the transfer of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is the best way to support local authorities, which are legally responsible for caring for those children, but that will work only if local authorities are funded appropriately. I know that that is a concern for many. The Home Office provides funding for the care of UASCs, and last week I confirmed that all existing rates, including the rate offered to local authorities willing to accept the transfer of unaccompanied children from Kent—as outlined in the joint letter from the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary and the Communities and Local Government Secretary last November—will continue until a new transfer scheme is introduced. I hope that local authorities will support the transfer scheme and that it will remain voluntary. However, we are keen to avoid a repeat of the situation in Kent last summer, which is why we included provisions in the new Immigration Bill to underpin the voluntary transfer scheme, and, if necessary, to enforce it.
Comments have been made about advocacy services. All unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are entitled to legal aid throughout their asylum application. It is right that they are supported throughout their application. I am aware that there have been some instances in which children have been unable to access advocacy services in a timely manner, which has been particularly problematic in areas with a high concentration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My officials continue to work with the Legal Aid Agency to ensure that such problems are resolved as quickly as possible to progress cases in a timely manner. It is imperative that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have access to legal advice as soon as possible. Equally, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Education on the issue of fostering.
On the issue of independent child trafficking advocates, the Government are committed to supporting trafficked children. When children are found to have been trafficked, their safety and welfare must be addressed as a priority. In January 2014, the Government announced proposals to trial specialist independent advocates for trafficked children. That trial formally ended on 8 September 2015, and the Government report on the child trafficking advocates scheme was published on 17 December 2015. We are continuing to engage with parliamentarians and stakeholders to determine how best to support trafficked children, and we are considering the use of independent child trafficking advocates. We will update Parliament in due course, but I recognise some of the benefits to supporting children that were highlighted.
It is not true that the Home Office does nothing in relation to asylum places before the age of 17 and a half. The Home Office works with the Refugee Council to ensure that children can access legal support, and each child is given a statement of evidence to help prepare their case. The Home Office decides straightforward cases within six months.
Hon. Members touched on a number of other issues, but I want to talk about the call for the Government to take more action on issue of resettlement. I intend to follow through on the statement that I made at the end of January, and I will make a clearer statement to Parliament in the coming days. I recognise the call for the Government to take more action. The UK has been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on this issue, and we will do more. I acknowledge the call for more information. I am not able to give it this morning, but the Government intend to reflect carefully on the advice we received from the UNHCR, and we will come forward with more information in due course.
I am conscious that we are rapidly running out of time, and I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for the fact that I have not left him much for his right of reply, but I have sought to reflect on the issues raised. If I have further thoughts to give, I will write to him. I very much welcome today’s debate, which has helped to inform this very important issue.
I welcome the fact that 27 hon. Members have been involved in considering this motion about unaccompanied refugee children. Over the coming days, ahead of Monday, we look forward to the Minister’s response to show the length, depth and breadth of our compassion for the most vulnerable unaccompanied children.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).