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Leaving the EU: Unaccompanied Child Refugees in Europe

Volume 667: debated on Monday 28 October 2019

1. If she will make it her policy to maintain the rights of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to family reunion in the UK in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal. (900158)

10. If she will make it her policy to maintain the rights of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to family reunion in the UK in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal. (900167)

The UK has a long and proud tradition of offering protection to vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution, and the Government take the welfare of vulnerable children seriously. We support the principle of family unity wholeheartedly, and the Government are committed to meeting our obligation under section 17 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to seek to negotiate an agreement with the EU on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

The House of Lords Home Affairs Committee recommendation is to temporarily maintain the current rights for family reunion in the event of a no-deal exit to avoid legal limbo. Will the Home Secretary assure this House that the Government will do that to protect vulnerable families in the event of a no deal?

I would like to reiterate that the Government are committed to getting a deal and, with that, fulfilling our section 17 obligation to move forward in the right way. As I have already made clear, we are committed to ensuring that we protect those who are vulnerable and, importantly, that we continue to have high standards when it comes to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

I hope it is in order for me to wish everybody happy Diwali. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

At least one third of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England are cared for in London, but London Councils has identified a £32 million funding shortfall. Will the Government commit to fully funding those unsustainable care costs and to reforming the national transfer scheme, so that local authorities can continue to provide the high-quality care and support that vulnerable children need?

I, too, would like to wish a very happy Diwali to all Hindus across the United Kingdom, and to the hon. Gentleman and others.

The hon. Gentleman recognises and highlights the fact that London authorities do indeed deal with a significant number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I would like him to know that I have had representations directly from London Councils and London authorities. We are looking, as we always do, at the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come through the system, but also at the pressures that that puts on local authority budgets.

I am sure the whole House welcomes the generous approach of the Government to child refugees in Europe. Will the Government apply the same generosity to child refugees who are British citizens in Syria?

My right hon. Friend highlights a current and pressing issue: child refugees in Syria. I know that other colleagues in the House, including the Foreign Secretary, have spoken about this issue recently. We review on a case-by-case basis. I should just say for the benefit of the House that every case has to be looked at individually. They are difficult cases and we have to look at all the backgrounds behind all the children.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever course of action we take, we must do everything possible to discourage people from sending vulnerable young children on unaccompanied journeys through Africa, Asia and Europe?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All hon. Members will recognise that we see far too much tragedy in relation to children fleeing war-torn parts of the world. We need to do more in-country and we have to work upstream with our international partners.

My constituent Helen Tekeste fled Ethiopia in 2015 and came to the UK. In the process, she was separated from her two children. Thankfully, her 11-year-old son was able to join her two years ago, but her 13-year-old daughter’s application has twice been refused. Will the Home Secretary meet me to discuss the case?

I will of course meet the hon. Lady. As she will recognise, everything is looked at from casework on a case-by-case basis, but I will be more than happy to discuss that case with her.

The Government have stated that they will seek to negotiate a future agreement with the EU on plans for family reunion, but that refers to separated children only. The Home Office’s own statistics show that in 2018 over 1,000 adults and children were reunited with their family members in the UK under the Dublin regulations, but the majority of those would not be covered by the Government’s commitment. What preparations, if any, have been made by the Government to ensure that safe and legal routes for refugee family reunion continue to operate to the same standards and provisions as under the EU law?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government are very clear that when we leave the EU we will leave the Dublin III regulation, but we will continue to participate during the transition period if we have a deal. The fact of the matter is that discussions are under way across Government. It is important for the House to recognise that this is not just from the Home Office’s perspective, but that it is part of our ongoing negotiations with the European Union, which are, of course, led by the Department for Exiting the European Union.