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Child Refugees

Volume 768: debated on Monday 25 January 2016


My Lords, the Government are at the forefront of the international response to the unprecedented migration flows into and across Europe. We want to stop the perilous journeys that migrants, including children, are making, which have had such terrible consequences. For the majority of refugees, of all ages, the clear advice from experts on the ground is that protection in safe countries in their region of origin is the best way of keeping them safe and, crucially, of allowing them to return home and rebuild their lives once the conflict is over. That is why we are providing more than £1.1 billion in humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis. It is also why we have a resettlement scheme for the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. One thousand arrived before Christmas—around half of them are children. A further 19,000 refugees will be resettled by the end of this Parliament. Many of them will be children too.

Our resettlement scheme is based on referrals from the UNHCR. We are already considering referrals of separated children or orphans under the Syrian resettlement scheme where the UNHCR assesses that resettlement is in the best interests of the child. The UNHCR has a clear view that it is generally better for separated children and orphans to be helped within the region and to stay there as they are more likely to be reunited with their family members or taken into extended family networks. Last week, the International Development Secretary announced an additional £30 million for shelter, warm clothes, hot food and medical supplies, including for 27,000 children and babies. This assistance will be distributed to aid agencies including UNICEF, UNHCR, the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration to support vulnerable people, including children on the move or stranded in Europe or in the Balkans.

We have heard calls for the UK to take more unaccompanied children from within the EU. The Prime Minister has committed to looking again at this issue and it is currently under review. Such a serious issue, potentially affecting the lives of so many, must be considered thoroughly and no decision has been taken at this stage. The UK Government are clear that any action to help and assist unaccompanied minors must be in the best interests of the child, and it is right that that is our prime concern. We take our responsibilities seriously and this issue is under careful consideration. When this work is completed we will update this House accordingly.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place. We welcome the comments by the Government that they are looking again at the issue of child refugees in Europe. However, are the Government giving serious consideration to the call from NGOs such as Save the Children, and also from my noble friend Lord Dubs and other noble Lords in an amendment to the Immigration Bill to be debated next week, that the UK should offer refuge to 3,000 unaccompanied children in addition to the 20,000 Syrian refugees they have already committed to help? Are the Government also considering taking some of the 26,000 unaccompanied children who are in Europe today, and not just those from camps adjacent to Syria. The thought of any child genuinely alone in a foreign country without the basic necessities of life including protection and comfort, is completely unacceptable, particularly when they are vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of abuse, and in some cases also face the prospect of simply disappearing completely. Finally, some of those children genuinely alone will have family here. Are the Government considering doing more to allow reunification of families?

My Lords, apologies for confusing the procedure on Statements with Urgent Questions. I will deal with points in the reverse order to which they were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. First, the criteria for family reunion are set out in the Dublin regulations. They are currently under a period of review, but we will certainly honour the family reunion commitments under the existing Dublin arrangements. Regarding trafficking and the dangers, we are absolutely confident, in terms of the current Dublin regime, that all children—all adults, for that matter—arriving into the European Union should be identified with biometric passes at that point and recorded as such with as much data as are available. Once the data are there, at least that person is correctly identified. We have been providing support through the European Asylum Support Office in those regions to ensure that that recording of children and adults is going ahead.

I should say that the figure of 26,000 is an estimate of the number actually coming in to the European Union; the numbers are not held in one place. The Prime Minister is deeply concerned about that. This time last year, we had a couple of hundred coming in under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme. The Prime Minister announced that that was to increase to 20,000, and we brought in 1,000 before Christmas, 50% of whom were children. So we are not unmoved by that plea, but UNICEF and the UNHCR have seriously warned about the interests of the child being best served when they remain with wider family networks in the region, as that offers the best prospect for their safety and well-being once, as we hope, the conflict there is resolved.

My Lords, like others, I suspect, I would have welcomed a rather wider and more positive announcement about immediate steps to be taken for children not just from Syria but from Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. When, as I hope we will, we get a positive announcement about the Government’s plans, will it include detailed proposals for everything that needs to be done to support the children whom we wish to welcome: funding and wider support for local authorities, training and support for social workers and, in particular, a focus on the availability of foster placements and support for foster parents, who will be dealing with very delicate situations?

That is certainly the arrangement that we have under the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme: they get that assistance, which comes out of the overseas development assistance budget in the first instance. We have a real problem with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are in the UK already, a high proportion of whom are in Kent. Funding is available to the authorities, and we will make sure that they have the resources necessary to provide the level of care that we expect under our international obligations, and our national obligations under the Children Act.

My Lords, I was in Calais in the “jungle” camp last Thursday—not, I add, in combination with the leader of the Opposition in the other place. The visit was organised by two leading Catholic social agencies, one in Britain and the other in France. It included meetings with three deputies of the French National Assembly. Will the Government provide legal routes to apply for asylum in this country for purposes of family reunion or for former employees of British Armed Forces?

Certainly under Dublin there is a route for family reunion, which we honour and respect. Harrowing pictures come from the camp; I have not had the opportunity to visit. It is absolutely critical that the people in those camps claim asylum in France and therefore start to get care and attention that the children, in particular, need in France. We would encourage them to do that.

Does the Minister remember that on 2 December, the Prime Minister gave exactly that assurance to Tim Farron in the other place? That is seven weeks ago, seven weeks of torture under intolerable conditions for so many kids. We should move immediately on this, not waste a moment longer. They are children just like our children, and they deserve our concern and care.

I agree, but it is more complex than that. The noble Lord follows these issues very carefully. He should know that when we talk to the UNHCR and UNICEF, they say that there are real dangers in taking children within the European Union and that the best place for them is in the camps in the region, where they can be considered and cared for in wider family units. We must listen to that, balance it and reach a decision, which the Prime Minister will do.

My Lords, I endorse the point made from the Liberal Democrat Benches about the availability of foster parents; that is very important. Furthermore, before the Government come to a concluded view, I hope that they will carry out an assessment as to how many adults not currently in the United Kingdom might have a claim under the human rights legislation to join unaccompanied children who are admitted here.

Yes, there would be that—and, of course, one advantage of the Syrian resettlement programme as it is currently configured is that we relocate not just children but family groups into the UK. That is something to be appreciated. We will ensure that that study is carried out.

My Lords, of course, what the Government are doing to support refugees in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and so on is good—and of course the 20,000 scheme is a good one, although far too small. But the winter is coming and there are children in European countries who are not being looked after, who are in danger of being trafficked and who might die in the winter. We do not have time to spare while the Government dither. Can we get on with it?

We have been getting on with it. There is a relocation scheme for Europe, where they said that they would take 160,000. So far, as of today, they have managed to relocate 331,000. The Prime Minister said that we would take 1,000 before Christmas and 1,000 came—50% of them children. That is not dilly-dallying; that is taking action, but we want to make sure that it is always in the best interests of the child to do so.

My Lords, I declare an interest as one of the co-chairs of the National Refugee Welcome Board. Is the Minister aware that the organisations Home for Good and Coram have somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 families already offering to take unaccompanied minors? Of course, they have to have all the safeguarding checks and they will not all be suitable, but there is a vast body of people already willing to offer to help to resettle unaccompanied children in this country. The National Refugee Welcome Board is committed to working with the Government to try to help in that, with those organisations.

That is a very generous welcome and one that we appreciate very much indeed. We are conscious that a lot of the people who are coming in the first wave are those who are most in need; those who have been victims of torture, with acute medical needs, and those most at risk. They may not be appropriate for the type of generous hospitality being suggested. But certainly as the scheme progresses we will very much want to call on that active and typical generosity on behalf of the British people.