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Asylum Seekers: Children

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether their current policy and practice regarding the repatriation of children of unsuccessful asylum applicants meets all the needs of those children.

My Lords, asylum seekers who have been found by the Home Office and independent appeals process not to be in need of international protection and who therefore have no legal basis to stay in the United Kingdom are expected to return, along with their dependants. There are safeguards in place to ensure that those whom we remove are not at risk of persecution or inhuman treatment. We cannot take responsibility for the welfare of families after their return but, when deciding whether return is practicable and when making arrangements for the return, the welfare of any child involved is, of course, an important consideration.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but is he aware that, under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, the failure of applications in the three pilot areas has led to destitution for applicants and their children? Is it not time that Section 9 of this Act was repealed? Is the Minister happy that the legislation is compatible with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, with the Human Rights Act 1998 and with child welfare legislation in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I am obviously aware of the pilot to which the noble Lord referred. I understand that there are no plans for a wider rollout until outcomes from that pilot have been properly considered. There is provision to repeal the Section 9 measures under Section 44 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. In the mean time, there have been a number of significant developments in the management of asylum applications and assisted voluntary returns. As for the second question, opinion was sought on that matter when the legislation was introduced, and it was found that the legislation was compatible.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the growing anxiety among those working on the front line with asylum seekers? There is too little evidence that, when decisions are made about the status of asylum seekers, especially decisions that affect the future of failed asylum seekers, the interests and well-being of the children involved—the innocent victims of the situation, who go through immense trauma—are made a consistent and central part of the deliberations.

My Lords, obviously I am concerned that the noble Lord believes that that is the case, because we think that we have processes in place that ensure that the welfare of the child is paramount—and those considerations have to be carefully taken into account. The officials who work in this sector are trained; they are there to be sensitive and act in a humane and proportionate way. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that these children are the unfortunate victims of a difficult situation. They do not wish to be as they are; they are caught up in something that is very complex indeed.

My Lords, in his original Answer the noble Lord mentioned children and “dependants”. That is presumably a technical term that I and many other noble Lords do not understand. Will he explain what he means by “dependants” in this instance?

My Lords, children are obviously dependants of their parents—and, of course, you can have elderly dependants.

My Lords, if the Minister is stating that children are the unintended victims, why are we sending young people back who have been fostered in this country for several years as orphans? Why, when they become 18, is there consideration of repatriating them to their own country, which they do not see as their own country?

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. Obviously in those cases very careful consideration is given to the circumstances of those who have been resident in the United Kingdom for a long time. Those individual circumstances are considered on a case-by-case basis, and rightly so, because those people may well have developed long-standing roots here. But each case is dealt with in detail and with the utmost sensitivity.

My Lords, the Minister of State, Liam Byrne, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the Government regard themselves as complying fully with the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. Can the Minister explain why, if that is so, it is necessary to maintain a general reservation excluding immigration matters from the rights of the child? Which other member states of the European Union or the Council of Europe have in place any similar reservation?

My Lords, we take the view that the reservation is justified because it means that we can retain integrity in how we govern our immigration and nationality policies. I think that that is right. To depart from that would run the risk of seriously compromising our position as a responsive Government in charge of immigration policy.

My Lords, to press the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is the Minister aware that the Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Aynsley-Green, has raised major concerns about the apparent contrast between the Government’s Every Child Matters approach and the treatment of children in the asylum system? If a whole family is to be repatriated, it is clearly desirable that it should be kept together. However, does the Minister agree that the conditions in some of the removal centres—for example, at Yarl’s Wood—are far from satisfactory for children?

My Lords, I have made the point on this occasion and a number of other times that the welfare and care of children is of paramount importance. That informs our whole approach in this policy area. Clearly we act to protect our borders and act as a responsible Government on immigration. We have also tried to ensure that conditions at all the detention and removal centres are of the highest possible standard. I cannot hand on heart say that that is the case on all occasions at all times, but that is our objective. It is what we seek to do, and I entirely agree with noble Lords who express concern that the welfare of children should be protected.

My Lords, what progress has the welcome review instigated by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, into the welfare of children and families in these circumstances made since last spring?

My Lords, I am not in a position to further advise the noble Earl about that but I am happy to write to him.

My Lords, taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, can the Minister assure the House that the use of dawn raids on families is kept to a minimum and that such raids are carried out in such a way as to cause the least disruption and upset?

My Lords, this is not a term that we prefer to use. It is an expression that I think is often misused; it is rather emotive language and I do not think that it helps. But it is the case that early morning visits to families are more likely to yield a family being there and together. That is why those visits are made.

My Lords, can the Minister say how many children with HIV or a terminal illness were repatriated last year and, if not, why not? Are inquiries made about whether appropriate treatment is available in their country of origin?

My Lords, that statistic is beyond me this afternoon; I apologise to the noble Baroness for that. I will make inquiries and I will follow up the second point that she quite understandably made.

My Lords, child trafficking is the fastest-growing organised crime internationally, and children have been trafficked illegally into Britain against their will. Will the Minister consider investing in policing in the countries from which the trafficked children originate to stop the problem that they face, as well as that of being thrown out of here again?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. We work internationally to try to stop at source the difficulty arising. Child trafficking is an inhumane and appalling crime—people profit from it—and we must be rigorous in enforcement.