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Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023

If Angela Crawley is ready to go, it is a delight to call her to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. Just to remind Members, there is not an opportunity in a 30-minute debate for the Member in charge to wind up. That is our convention.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lead today’s debate on an urgent and sadly all too familiar issue. Last month, 30 miles out at sea, at 3 am, in freezing conditions, four migrants died after a small boat capsized in the English channel. That is not a new story, sadly—it happens too often—but one of the dead was just a teenager. That news never gets any easier to hear or digest.

In that same tragedy, eight children were among those who were successfully rescued by the coastguard. The Mirror reported that one 12-year-old survivor was escaping Afghanistan after his whole family had been killed by the Taliban. None of us can imagine the horrors that drive people to get on boats or take perilous journeys to cross the channel, yet those horrors are experienced by innocent children every day.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrive alone, afraid, and have no idea where to start. Unfortunately, this Government are fixated on criminalising and discrediting desperate people who have come to the UK to seek a new life. Vulnerable children and young people are having their rights and protections stripped, and that is the wrong approach. Our duty must be to give them a warm welcome, a fresh start and the protection and hope that they so desperately need when they arrive to seek refuge in the UK.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. It is an absolutely super subject, but a very worrying one as well. Does she agree that all young people, no matter their backgrounds, deserve a healthy, stable upbringing that gives them the same chance to succeed in later life? Most of these minors will be helpless. Does the hon. Lady feel like we could do better to fulfil our duty of care by not only providing food and clothing, but ensuring that they have a chance of a future life with an education and a stable home?

I absolutely agree. I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, as always. He is correct. We have a duty not only as a country and a nation, but as humans, to acknowledge that these children are not the criminal gangs or the ones facilitating the process of getting to the UK. They are simply the innocent bystanders of a process that they themselves may not have chosen.

Far too often, children have been incorrectly declared as adults. An immigration officer will make an age judgment based on demeanour or appearance. If they are judged to be an adult, they are not sent for an age assessment. Rather, they are given a date of birth and sent to live in shared rooms with adults. In 2021, a specialist programme run by the Refugee Council worked with 233 young people over 12 months. The Home Office had initially determined them to be “certainly” adults, when in fact, only 14 of them were adults. That means that 219 of those children were denied the rights and protections of a child, and were exposed to further exploitation, trafficking and violence as a result of that determination. Those 219 children were counting on us to take care of them.

The Home Office refuses to document how often that happens, how many children are judged incorrectly to be adults or what happens to them. There is no process to track such a decision. If there is any dubiety in that decision, there is no pathway to ensure that those individuals are protected and safeguarded until a definitive determination can be made. It is fair to say that even the determinations that are made are questionable at times. I therefore ask the Minister to be more transparent about frontline decision making. Will he commit to publishing statistics on age-disputed children who are initially treated as adults? Will he outline a pathway for those individuals to ensure that they are protected and safeguarded within the system, as they should be?

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 gives the Home Office powers to conduct medical age assessments. However, the British Association of Social Workers has stated that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age. Pushing scientific methods upon age-disputed young people is incredibly insensitive. It ignores the trauma they have been through and the atrocities they have seen.

Those who are wrongly declared as adults will not be able to avoid deportation to Rwanda under this Government’s cruel plans. That is a terrifying prospect for children and young people. I am disappointed in the UK Government. A place that was supposed to be their second chance and a place of safety is only adding to their stress and anxiety. I therefore ask the Minister: when will the report from the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee on specific scientific methods for age assessment be made available? Will learning from the national age assessment board pilots be shared, given their frontline role in rectifying the Home Office’s mistakes? We need to ensure that these processes are transparent and that we can scrutinise them appropriately.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being abandoned by the Home Office and placed in hotels that are desperately unfit for anyone to live in, but particularly children, who are forced to live alongside adults, further exposing them to potential harms. The Home Office has set out its intentions to speed up the process by which unaccompanied children are transferred from temporary hotels to long-term care, but it is simply not enough. Again, that process is not transparent. It only normalises the use of hotels that are unfit accommodation for anyone, but particularly for children who should be nowhere near them.

Every Child Protected Against Trafficking says that housing children in hotels is unlawful, dangerous and contrary to the UK’s child welfare legislation. In October last year, more than 220 unaccompanied children went missing from hotels. Had those children been in the care of authorities, they would have been protected. I ask the Minister again, what is the pathway and how do we ensure that no child who is placed in any form of accommodation can go missing without someone being directly accountable and responsible?

Unaccompanied children are alone, scared and vulnerable. Many have left behind their families not knowing how they are; they deserve to have their families join them in safety. The Home Office’s position on altering family reunification rights for children is nothing short of ridiculous. This Government believe that allowing children and young people to sponsor their families would incentivise parents to send their children on dangerous journeys to the UK. Whether that is the case or not, I do not believe it is a decision any parent would make outside of the most desperate of circumstances.

Turning briefly to the point on family reunification, the Home Office’s minimum income requirement means that UK citizens and settled persons currently have to earn £18,600 before they can sponsor a spouse or partner to join them—more, if children are involved. That means that a substantial percentage of the population who do not earn that sum cannot live with their family and have to leave the country. Many thousands of families have been split apart since its introduction almost a decade ago, and many more have been affected by the rules that will also apply to European economic area family members.

Rather than reduce the level of income, or abandon the policy altogether as I have argued for repeatedly, reports have emerged over Christmas that the Home Office is thinking of increasing it further, splitting more families apart. The fact is that many families in the UK right now may struggle to meet those requirements in the current circumstances. To place that requirement arbitrarily on families only serves to ensure that further families will not receive reunification. It is not a reason to keep families apart. That they make those perilous journeys only highlights the grave circumstances that children flee from.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 brought in a ham-fisted policy with deferential treatment for refugees seeking family reunion based on the way they entered the UK. Those who arrived outside of one of the ever-dwindling safe and legal routes need to meet higher tests and additional requirements before being able to reunite with their family members. Organisations such as Families Together are calling for this discriminatory policy to be scrapped.

I close my contribution by apologising to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who come to this country seeking safe harbour—because it is simply not the case. I apologise to the thousands of children who have come here and potentially been lost in a system with no traceability, because this Government refuse to acknowledge that they are in fact children. I am sorry that I could not cover more in this debate, but their voices and stories should not be ignored just because of where they came from. The fact is that they are children, and they should be treated as such. The harm and neglect that they are facing after seeking refuge in the UK can only be blamed on this Government, and the heartless Home Office polices that they exhibit.

I do not wish to hammer home the point any more than I already have, but it is simply unimaginable to me that we have, just recently, 219 children who we cannot account for, and many more who we have incorrectly administered as adults. What will the Minister do to correct that? It simply cannot continue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this very important debate. I represent the coastal community of Clacton in Essex; we have the second-longest coastline in England. It is a very beautiful coastline with many sandy beaches. Essex has many points of entry. It has two freeports. It was in Essex where we had the horrific loss of life, when 39 people being trafficked were accidentally asphyxiated in the back of a container—Members might remember that horror. I am a yachtsman, and I know how treacherous our waters can be.

Children from the likes of Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan must have a quick, legal and safe route of asylum to our country. Quite frankly, some of the stories I read about children chill my blood. As we on the coast in Essex know, illegal crossings are inviting disaster, though for victims of modern-day slavery, the crossing might well be the best part of it. But we cannot be emotional here; we have to be calm, and to think this through, as the evil traffickers do. They know that if they tell people to claim to be under 18, those people will mostly be subject to our care system, as opposed to the justice system. They know that councils struggle to deal with complex cases, so people absconding from care to get to their sinister destination is certainly not unheard of.

The only solution is to negotiate with our French neighbours. We have British boots in control rooms in France, which is a welcome development, but we can negotiate further and get British boots on the ground in France. We can finance that. With every boat that lands here, we are telling those overseas that their dangerous business model can work, and telling those waiting here for their product that their evil business model is still viable. However, the point of my speech is to highlight that, for areas such as Essex, stopping small boats is not enough. Human misery can be and is traded in large vessels, heavy goods vehicles and so on, as I mentioned earlier. I urge the Minister to apply the same focus that we have on small boats to other modes of travel, which can be equally lethal, and to get boots on the ground in France for the sake of these children.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for his contribution. This is clearly an important subject, and I hope that in the time available I can respond to the points raised by both hon. Members.

It is important to underline that the UK has a proud record of providing protection and sanctuary to people who need it in accordance with our international obligations. Between 2015 and September of last year, we offered a place to almost 450,000 men, women and children who sought safety via safe and legal entry routes. They include people from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as the family members of refugees. Last year, we offered more entry route opportunities than in any single year since the end of the second world war. Over the same period, the UK offered protection in the form of refugee status, humanitarian protection and alternative forms of leave via asylum applications to over 90,000 people, including dependants.

It is important to recognise the wider background to these matters. The Home Secretary and I have been very clear, repeatedly, about the challenges that we face as a country, some of which have been referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton. We should be under no illusion about the fact that the UK’s asylum system has been under immense strain and mounting pressure for several years, owing to the very large numbers of people crossing the channel illegally—principally, but not solely, in small boats. Last year, over 45,000 people arrived in clandestine boats. The journeys are facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs who are interested only in profiting from human misery. The tragic loss of life in the channel last month, to which the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East referred, was the worst possible reminder of the dangers of the crossings, and underlines once more why it is so critical that we destroy the business model of the people smugglers.

That is why deterrence will be suffused through everything that we do as a Government, and why I disagree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of our policy with regard to Rwanda. There is nothing compassionate about perpetuating a trade in people that risks the lives of thousands of individuals, including children, every year. That evil trade must be stopped, and we are taking concerted action to do so on a number of fronts, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out at the end of last year. That action includes deeper co-operation with our key partners, such as the French, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton set out.

If just one child is incorrectly defined as an adult because of this Government’s abhorrent policy—the Minister calls it a deterrence policy—on preventing criminal gangs, is that not one child too many who will fall through the cracks and be in further danger?

I will come on in a moment to answer the hon. Lady’s questions about age verification, but I disagree that sending individuals to Rwanda, which has now been declared a safe country by the courts, is a policy that is uncompassionate or cruel. Quite the opposite is true.

We live in an age of mass migration. Millions of people wish to come to the United Kingdom. If we do nothing to deter people from coming to the UK, which I think is the position that the hon. Lady and her party suggest taking, we will find not 45,000 people crossing the channel, but hundreds of thousands of people doing so in the years and decades ahead. We have to respond to this issue as a country, as many other countries around the world are doing.

From the conversations that the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have had with our European and international partners, it is clear that every developed country in the world is thinking carefully about how they can put in place procedures and policies that will prevent mass migration and deter individuals from making dangerous crossings or damaging their national sovereignty. Other European countries are looking to the work we are doing on Rwanda. We may see other European countries copy that policy and make agreements with third parties in the years ahead.

The Minister almost answered my point in his last sentence. In 2020, I believe there were some 90 million displaced people across the globe on the move. That figure will have increased. Other countries will be facing the same problems that we face, and they will all have different models. Are we looking at different models?

We are looking at all models; I hope that hon. Members can see from the plans set out by the Prime Minister that this will be a campaign on several fronts. We are looking at every viable route in order to deter people from coming to the UK, to process applications as swiftly as possible, and to find better forms of accommodation when they are here. I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency has been on the sharp end of the situation regarding accommodation. Of course, we are talking to our international partners around the world, who are all grappling with the same challenge.

We are not an international outlier. The policies that we are enacting are those that are being enacted or considered by most other developed countries. The Prime Minister, through his recent conversations with President Macron, and the Home Secretary, through the Calais Group of northern European states, are working intensively and constructively with our partners to find common ways forward. The treaties that we are bound by, such as the refugee convention, were created for a different era, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, prior to this period in which tens if not hundreds of millions of individuals are looking to travel around the world. It is in that context that we need to sharpen the deterrent we have as a country to make sure that we are not providing an easier route than our European neighbours, and are not a more compelling destination than our nearest neighbours, for those shopping for asylum or, particularly, for economic migrants.

I will answer the questions the hon. Lady has brought to my attention. The first point is about how we house individuals. It is important to say—I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady, but this point needs to be made—that Scotland is bearing a lighter burden than other parts of the United Kingdom when it comes to refugees generally, and to those who are crossing the channel in small boats in particular. The same appears to be true with respect to children.

I will in a moment. I know the hon. Lady feels passionately about ensuring that individuals are housed decently and compassionately, so the best thing that she and her colleagues could do is go to Scotland and speak to the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities, and encourage them to adopt better policies, so that Scotland takes a fair and equitable number of those crossing the channel.

Before I give way, I want to give the statistics. The Scottish Government have nine hotels supporting asylum seekers, and five hotels supporting the Afghan cohort in the UK, which represents just 1.6% of the combined asylum and Afghan hotel population across the whole of the United Kingdom. There are small cities in England, such as Stoke-on-Trent, that have more hotels housing asylum seekers than the whole of Scotland. That is not fair and equitable. If the Scottish Government and members of the SNP want to play a full part in these debates and discussions, the best thing they could do is ensure that they played a greater part in this.

The Minister should be mindful when quoting statistics. It is somewhat misleading to suggest that, because Scotland is using fewer hotels, it is not adequately playing its part. Most local authorities in Scotland have more than stepped up to the plate. The use of selective statistics is very misleading and not great practice. Let us be honest: are not most hotels not suitable accommodation, temporary or otherwise, for individuals? It is therefore misleading to suggest that Scotland is not playing its part. There are many other ways in which we accommodate asylum seekers. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a Division in the House. Can the Minister finish in 30 seconds? I suspect not. If not, we will have to come back.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.