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Refugees: Unaccompanied Children

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what extra resources they plan to provide to local authorities to support the foster care of unaccompanied refugee children, and what plans they have to engage charities that may have volunteers available to help.

My Lords, the Minister for Immigration will shortly be writing to local authorities to set out the new funding rates for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We are consulting with local authorities across the United Kingdom to understand how many children they can support, and we will engage charities with relevant expertise as a part of that process.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. In all our debates and statistics, it is vital that we remember that the needs of the child are paramount at every point. A number of my colleagues have signed a letter that was published in the Times today, calling on Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that the unaccompanied children living in the Calais camps who have families here in the UK are reunited with them in time for the new school term in September—and, furthermore, calling on the Government to act on the 300 unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy and deal with that in the same timeframe. In the light of this profound humanitarian need—indeed, crisis—would the Minister assure the House that the Government will act on these matters immediately?

My Lords, the Government are already acting on these matters and have made provision in Calais for suitable experts to be present to assist with the registration of unaccompanied children who may have direct relatives in the United Kingdom and who therefore have a route to the United Kingdom by way of the Dublin regulation. In addition, we have arranged to send experts out to Greece, again to assist with functions there in relation to unaccompanied children. We are at the forefront of attempts to secure as much as we can by way of relief to these unaccompanied children.

My Lords, over the last few days there has been a BBC television programme showing how Sikhs are supporting the homeless in London. This evening I shall be meeting people to take that work further forward. I assure the Minister that every Sikh gurdwara in the country will be more than willing to provide not only langar—free food—but every support and assistance to these children.

I thank the noble Lord. What he says complements the Government’s efforts to develop community sponsorship schemes for children arriving in this country.

Could the Minister give a clear and unequivocal statement that the children who are coming into this country will have no pressure or requirement placed on them at 18 to leave these shores?

I can give no such assurance. The position of these children when they reach the age of 18 will be assessed and their right to remain will be determined by reference to the country from which they arrived and also by reference to whether it is fair, reasonable and safe for them to return.

Are the Government in communication with the Government of Canada, who are working with civil society? For instance, Canada has a private sponsorship of refugees programme, whereby sponsors can provide financial and emotional support for a period—usually a year—and the joint assistance programme, partnering with organisations to resettle refugees with special needs.

I am not aware of direct contact with the Canadian authorities on that point, but I undertake to write to the noble Baroness on the matter.

In thinking of our long-term counterterrorism strategy, and bearing in mind the example of the Sikh community, about which we have just heard, are the Government planning to provide an exceptional education for the Muslims among these children—teaching them, for instance, not to follow the Muslim tenets of abrogation and Al-Hijra, and thus to become leaders of integration within our society?

These children, we hope, will be fostered along with British children and educated alongside British children, and we believe that they will acquire the same outlook and values.

My Lords, reverting to the question asked by the right reverend Prelate, will the Minister confirm that Citizens UK, cited in the letter referred to by the right reverend Prelate, has said that there are 157 children in Calais, in the “Jungle”, in horrific conditions of mud and squalor, who have a legal claim to come to the United Kingdom because they have relatives here? Will he confirm that he will speak to his officials to see that all possible things will be done to expedite those claims, to see if they have the standing to come to the United Kingdom and start the academic year in September in our schools?

The French authorities are taking steps to improve the conditions in Calais, as noble Lords will be aware. As regards the precise number of 157, I cannot comment—but I can say that the Government have made provision in Calais to ensure that those unaccompanied children who have direct relatives in the United Kingdom follow the appropriate path, which is to register with the French authorities and proceed by way of the Dublin regulation.

My Lords, will the Government take note that it is no good getting these children here two days before term starts and pitching them into a strange school? They must have time to settle into a family or a home before they undertake that very stressful process.

It is necessary also to have regard to the capability of local authorities to receive these children. Until there are suitable foster places available for them and until there are suitable schools available for them, it would not be appropriate simply to bring them here.

My Lords, I accept what the noble and learned Lord is saying, but it was suggested in the Commons yesterday that it could be seven months before any child is accepted here. How many more children will go missing in seven months? How many more children will suffer in seven months? This is not the first time that we have said that we need a degree of urgency on this question.

I believe that everyone is aware of the urgency of this issue. The Government said last week that we expected that the first children would arrive before the end of the year, not—as was widely reported—that it would take until the end of the year before they arrived.

My Lords, surely we remember that this proposal from Save the Children was first made last September. Since that time, it seems that nothing has been prepared by the Government in order to make sure that these children are welcomed here by people who really have warm hearts willing to welcome them. Are not the Government acting totally out of step with the thinking of the majority of caring people in the United Kingdom?

I do not accept that for a moment. This Government have been at the forefront of efforts to deal with the refugee problem not only in Syria but also as it has affected Europe. We are taking further steps, as the noble Lord knows, to deal with the question of unaccompanied children. However, noble Lords will remember that those children who are now in Europe are in relatively safe havens. It cannot be suggested that France is anything other than a safe country. For those children who have a connection or direct family links with the United Kingdom, we are taking steps to ensure that that connection is established properly and that they are brought to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, there are thousands of children who are going missing or have been sexually abused. They are not safe in Europe; we are talking about Europe. Where are these children going and what is happening to them? There needs to be much greater urgency than there is now.

We are all aware of the terrible reports that have emanated from Europe about the condition of these children and the fact that their whereabouts in many cases cannot now be ascertained. It is a matter of considerable concern. I reiterate that this Government are at the forefront of efforts to deal with these issues.