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Refugees: Unaccompanied Children

Volume 768: debated on Monday 8 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to relieve the situation of unaccompanied refugee children.

My Lords, the Government are working with the UNHCR to resettle unaccompanied refugee children from conflict areas where it is in the best interests of the child to do so. These are likely to be exceptional cases: for most children, their needs are best met in the region. We are providing an additional £10 million of support for vulnerable children in Europe.

On 2 December, the Prime Minister said that he was thinking again about our moral duty towards these children. That was 10 weeks ago. What has happened in that 10 weeks, and what is going to happen in the next 10 weeks, to those children who are spread out in so many ways? They are deserving of our compassion, and those who are showing compassion are the people—young people especially—working as volunteers in Calais, Dunkirk and other places. As a House, we should express our appreciation of everything that they are doing.

I certainly endorse what the noble Lord says about the volunteers who are giving up their time to help those people in need. The noble Lord asked what has happened since 2 December. On 28 January, the Prime Minister made a Statement outlining what he had done in the interim period, and he announced four new initiatives. He said that he was going to send the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to look at the hotspots, as they are called, or reception centres, to see what was happening to children. We announced an additional £10 million of support, particularly for children who had arrived there. He also said that we would meet the UNHCR and Save the Children, and that is happening this Thursday. However, I thought the noble Lord might have given a passing mention to the fact that, last week, the Prime Minister announced a doubling of the aid we are giving to Syria—from £1.1 billion to £2.3 billion—by the end of the Parliament, which I am sure is welcomed by everyone in the House.

My Lords, following the statement last week by Brian Donald, the head of Europol, that 10,000 children had disappeared and an entire criminal infrastructure dedicated to exploiting migrants had been established, will the Minister tell the House what representations we have made to Europol and what discussions we are having with it about tackling this? Also, given that the 100,000 people now massing at Oncupinar, on the Turkish border with the Aleppo province, are facing an aerial bombardment campaign and the borders are closed to them—many of those refugees will be children—what action are the Government taking to ask that those borders be opened to allow the refugees safe passage across?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to focus on this. Europol estimates that some 90% of people who arrive at Calais have been trafficked by criminal gangs. That is why the Prime Minister announced that we are setting up the Organised Immigration Crime Task Force, and there have been some early successes, although we need to work much harder on that. That is also why Kevin Hyland—I know the noble Lord knows him and respects his work—is looking at those issues. On the situation in Turkey, that is why we have announced a further £275 million as part of the EU-Turkey agreement, to provide aid to that southern border.

My noble friend recently told the House he hoped that more local authorities would extend a warm welcome to refugee children and ensure that they are well cared for, in accordance with the traditions of our country. Has there been progress?

I must admit that I wish there had been more. My noble friend is right to raise this matter. Kent is bearing an unfair share of the burden of caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children: more than 1,000 are being cared for there. The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Education, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote in November asking local authorities to come forward. So far we have had interest from 24—but that is out of 440. Only eight children out of 1,000 have so far been offered places. I would like to think that all Members of this House who have links to their local authorities would be encouraging them to look again and see what can be done to help Kent in its hour of need.

My Lords, as the Minister may know, Eritrean children are fleeing from their country because of their experience of the most brutal human rights violations, often described as crimes against humanity. Will the Minister comment on the fact that, on the most recent evidence, the UK continues to reject Eritreans, including children, on the basis of a discredited Danish report, rather than using a balanced UN report?

The noble Baroness asked a Question on this subject a couple of weeks ago. We still accept a large number of Eritreans who come here, because of the open-ended nature of the military service that they have to undertake. So far, we have accepted a large number of them. The UN report to which the noble Baroness refers did not have access in-country; our policy is based on in-country information from our embassy, and we will continue to keep the situation under review.

My Lords, as one of the bishops from Kent, may I take the Minister back to his previous answer? In fact, some 1,300 unaccompanied refugee children are housed in Kent, and the local authorities and the voluntary agencies are under very significant pressure. May I push him a little as to whether, in the light of the somewhat unencouraging response from other local authorities, Her Majesty’s Government intend to do anything else to ensure a more effective national dispersal programme—given that we are talking not just about this moment, but about the likely 10 years that will be needed to get a young person from the point of arrival to full integration, with all the work in education, language and healthcare needed to go with that, and the considerable investment required? Some assurance would help my colleagues in Kent.

It is absolutely right to raise that point: we have a particular problem there, and we need more local authorities to come forward. We will take some action: the Immigration Bill before your Lordships’ House includes a provision that will allow the Secretary of State, where people do not step forward, to impose a settlement on local authorities—and that comes not only with the child, but with about £40,000 of funding per head. So we are not simply asking people to take additional responsibilities. If there is anything that can be done through the diocese of Kent to exert pressure on local authorities more widely to take their fair share, we would of course all welcome that.

Is the Minister aware that all over the country, the British public are anxious to do something to help Syrian refugees, particularly children? There is an enormous surge of enthusiasm to do something. Could the Minister, and the Government, not make a more positive appeal? I hear from people who want to be foster parents: foster parents will be forthcoming. We cannot leave these children to fester somewhere in Europe, uncared for and vulnerable to trafficking gangs.

Absolutely right—and I certainly join the noble Lord in appealing for more foster carers to come forward, to help not only children who are refugees but all children; there is a great shortage. But I also hope that the people of this country can take some pride in the fact that through their aid—through their taxes, which go through the Government—we shall be able to provide £2.3 billion-worth of aid, which is keeping 227,793 children in education and providing livelihood assistance to 600,000 families in the region, 2 million medical interventions and 15 million food rations. That is something we can be proud of.