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Calais: Child Refugees

Volume 769: debated on Monday 29 February 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend James Brokenshire to an Urgent Question in another place on child refugees in Calais. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, last Thursday a judge in France ruled that the authorities in Calais could proceed with clearing the tents and makeshift accommodation from the southern section of the migrant camp. Over the weeks the authorities, working with NGOs, have ensured that the migrants affected by the clearances—which have begun today—were aware of the alternative accommodation that the French state had made available. For women and children, this means the specialist accommodation for around 400 people in and around the Jules Ferry centre, or the protected accommodation elsewhere in the region. For others, this means the recently erected heated containers which can house 1,500 people.

The French Government have also, with the support of UK funding, established over 100 welcome centres elsewhere in France, where migrants in Calais can find a bed, meals and information about their options. To be clear, no individual needs to remain in the camps in Calais or Dunkirk. The decision to clear part of the camp in Calais is, of course, a matter for the French Government. The joint declaration signed in August last year committed the UK and France to a package of work to improve physical security at the ports, to co-ordinate the law enforcement response, to tackle the criminal gangs involved in people smuggling and to reduce the number of migrants in Calais.

Both Governments retain a strong focus on protecting those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and have put in place a programme to identify and help potential victims in the camps around Calais. The UK is playing a leading role in tackling people smuggling, increasing joint intelligence work with the French to target the callous gangs that exploit human beings for their own gain. The UK shares the French Government’s objective of increasing the number of individuals who take up the offer of safe and fully equipped accommodation away from Calais so that they can engage with the French immigration system, including lodging an asylum claim. It is important to stress that anyone who does not want to live in a makeshift camp in Calais has the option of engaging with the French authorities, which will provide accommodation and support.

This is particularly important with regard to unaccompanied children. Where an asylum claim is lodged by a child with close family connections in the UK, both Governments are committed to ensuring that such a case is prioritised. But it is vital that the child engages with the French authorities as quickly as possible. This is the best way to ensure that these vulnerable children receive the protection and support they need and is the quickest way to reunite them with close family members in the UK.

The UK is committed to safeguarding the welfare of unaccompanied children and we take our responsibilities seriously. No one should live in the conditions we have seen in the camps around Calais. The French Government have made huge efforts to provide suitable alternative accommodation for all those who need it, and have made it clear that migrants in Calais in need of protection should claim asylum in France”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the reply to the Urgent Question. The thrust of part of it is that the Government are working with the French authorities and others to ensure that the claims of refugees, including the estimated 150 unaccompanied children in Calais and Dunkirk, of the right to be in this country under the Dublin regulations are processed quickly. What is the evidence that that is actually happening, as opposed to the Government claiming that it is happening?

Since the Government do not allow such children to come to the UK immediately to be in the care of their family while they make their applications, as the UK tribunal ruled they should be, and the reality, as opposed to what was in the Statement, is that cases from France take up to nine months, are the Government considering allowing those children who have a claim to be in the UK to come to the UK to make that application? What specific provisions are in place to ensure that the reality, as opposed to the Government’s belief, is that such children who are currently being moved out of the camps in Calais and Dunkirk are properly safeguarded and rehoused in suitable accommodation for children, and not left vulnerable to child traffickers, to join the thousands in Europe who have already disappeared?

Finally, the UNHCR has offered to set up a system to expedite the claims of those children in Calais and Dunkirk with close family in the UK with whom they could be reunited under the Dublin regulations. Have we accepted that offer from the UNHCR, and if not, why not?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions. Dealing first with the time that it takes to process such applications, I say that nine months is clearly too long. That is one reason why we have announced that a senior Border Force officer is going to be embedded in the interior ministry in France to ensure that particularly the Dublin family reunion cases are processed as quickly as possible. We hope that that situation will improve.

The noble Lord asked what we are doing to ensure that children do not fall prey to the trafficking gangs. The evidence from Europol is that 90% of those who come to Europe have paid a criminal gang to do so. We know that those gangs are a serious threat and are operating in that area. One reason we are putting so much emphasis on the hotspots is that we want especially children but all asylum seekers to be processed as soon as they come into the EU. There are five hotspots in Greece and another seven in Italy. The Home Secretary has asked Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, to go out to those areas with a child protection officer to see what more can be done for children.

In relation to the UNHCR, of course that has a wider remit around the world for those who are seeking asylum under the refugee convention. We are working very closely with it, particularly on the initiative announced by the Prime Minister in relation to the 3,000 identified by Save the Children as to what more can be done with them. The UNHCR is looking at a solution to that and we are expecting an answer from it in the next couple of weeks.

My Lords, I understand what the Minister says about unaccompanied children but what action are the UK Government taking to identify unaccompanied children with family in the UK who are legally eligible for asylum here, not only in Calais but in Grand-Synthe near Dunkirk and numerous other camps in northern France? Surely there are settled families in the UK who know that there are unaccompanied children related to them in these camps in northern France. Surely it cannot be left simply to the French Government and the children to apply for asylum. They are just children, after all.

That is right. In the Written Statement on 28 January, we announced that we were devoting £10 million to the protection of children across Europe. We have provided additional support, particularly in the camps, to make sure that people get the advice they need. As the noble Lord rightly says, we are talking about children here and I well understand that they need an adult on their side who can work with them, helping and guiding them through the process. We have said that the best route for that is in the first instance that they claim asylum in France and then they can enter that system and get the protection they need. Then when their family are identified in the UK they can be safely transferred to the UK to be reunited with them.

My Lords, I apologise for not having heard what the Minister repeated. He was too quick for me. However, as I was in Calais just over a month ago, perhaps I could ask: does he agree that getting information to the relevant people, whether children or adults, is crucial to those who already have close relatives in Britain? Does he also agree that that kind of information would be best conveyed not by officials but by people who are already in this country, who can explain their situation and how to go about family reunion? I hope the Minister will look sympathetically on my amendment about family reunion when we come to Report on the Immigration Bill.

On the point about family reunion, the French Government are supporting some NGOs that are operating in that area and doing important work in the camps, ensuring that people get access to the type of advice they need. We will make sure that that work continues. The NGOs want to do the right thing. The Government want to do the right thing, both here in the UK and in France. That is why the relationship is so important and why we are working so closely together to ensure that children and families are reunited as soon as possible.

My Lords, how many of these children are under the age of 16 and do we have satisfactory reception facilities of a temporary nature before they are reunited with any family members?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. I can tell him that 62% of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were 16 or 17; 26% were 14 or 15; and 8% were under 14. Of course, in this country the obligations under the Children Act mean that anyone aged under 18 will be taken into local authority care as a result of those duties.

Not long ago four children were discovered in Calais who had parental links here. It took a long time to find those children. Surely we have to make sure that we do not let time pass in the way it did then. Could the Government not publicise very loudly and clearly to the people in Calais and Dunkirk that if there are young people there with family members here they should announce themselves because that is a quick way of getting in here?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. Without going into the details of a particular case, it was simply a question of process to say that if they had claimed asylum in France, that whole system could have been organised and expedited very quickly indeed. That is the message that we need to get out to people: the way to be reunited with your family in the UK is to claim asylum in France and rely on the Dublin regulations to ensure that that happens as soon as possible.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm how tight or loose are the parameters on family relationships under Dublin being used in this? That is one of the concerns of those working on this in the NGOs—how tight or how loose the family ties can be defined as.

The family ties are tightly defined; I suppose that they are there to avoid any potential risk of wider, extended family being brought in under humanitarian protection. They are defined as siblings or a parent and it is preferable that the children are reunited with the parent, wherever that parent is. That is one argument where the UNHCR has certainly made a strong case for ensuring that children are reunited—and stay—with their families in the region, rather than undertaking the perilous journeys which bring them to Calais.

My Lords, does the Minister realise exactly how urgent the situation is? In a census last week, there were 5,497 residents in Calais, of whom 651 were children and 423 were unaccompanied children. France has of course started to clear the southern section of the camp of its 3,455 residents and will then begin on the north section, which has 2,042. What is to happen to these children when the French have cleared it? Will there be any humanitarian extension by the United Kingdom Government? The Minister might listen to just one suggestion. The Government have promised to bring in 20,000 refugees over four years. We will be coming to the end of the first year in May, which means that we should have accepted 5,000 refugees by then. Can he please tell me exactly how many have been accepted?

Under the Syrian vulnerable persons’ resettlement scheme, we set out to say that there would be 1,000 before Christmas. That figure is now 1,200. I am sure it will also be of interest—in particular to the noble Lord, who has always spoken up about the protection of children and will welcome this fact—that half of those 1,200 are children.