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Child Refugees: Age Checks

Volume 774: debated on Friday 21 October 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Immigration. The Statement is as follows:

“I can reassure the honourable Member for Shipley that we work closely with the French authorities to ensure that the cases applying to come to the UK qualify under Dublin, including in terms of conducting an age assessment where necessary. All individuals are referred to the UK authorities by the France Terre d’Asile, the FTDA, which is an NGO, and they are then interviewed by French and UK officials. Where credible and clear documentary evidence of age is not available—and the pace at which these children have fled situations of war and persecution means that many do not have any definitive documentary evidence—we will use criteria including physical appearance and demeanour to assess age as part of the interview process.

My officials are working in difficult circumstances in Calais to ensure vulnerable children are safeguarded. There has been significant media coverage over the last week questioning the appearance of those admitted to the UK. I think we would all agree that teenagers’ appearances vary widely and my officials, and all those agencies working in these difficult circumstances, have the safety and welfare of young people in mind.

This week has also reopened the old debate about the value of dental X-rays and medical tests to determine an individual’s age. A significant number of experts have spoken out against such checks. The British Dental Association has described them as inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical. The Royal College of Paediatricians said the margin of error can sometimes be as much as five years either side of medical tests. Doctors of the World UK has called the idea “unethical and unnecessary”. That is why the Home Office does not use dental X-rays to confirm the ages of those seeking asylum in the UK. The House should also note that, legally, we cannot force anyone to undergo such a check. That is why officials are trained to assess age, and—I want to be clear—where we believe someone is clearly over 18, they will be refused. Indeed, the information that I have today suggests that around 10% of cases referred to us on this basis are being refused in France.

We have made significant progress to bring to the UK those children with family members. We are absolutely determined to get those children here but I would call on all Members of the House, the media and the public to respect the privacy of these vulnerable young people”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place. We welcome the reference in the Answer to the statements made by the British Dental Association, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Doctors of the World UK in the light of the pressures from some political figures to use dental X-rays and medical tests as age checks, rather than to concentrate our energies on welcoming and supporting unaccompanied children coming to this country under the Dublin regulations and the Dubs amendment.

We also welcome that, after some months of little obvious action, there now appears to be much greater urgency on the part of the Government to physically move eligible unaccompanied children to this country. By when will all children eligible to come to this country under the Dublin regulations have arrived here, particularly in the light of the imminent demolition of the camp at Calais? How many such children have arrived so far, how many are still to come and what information is there on the breakdown of the originating countries from which they have come? Likewise, what are the latest comparable figures, and information on the breakdown of originating countries, for unaccompanied vulnerable children who have come here, and are still expected to come, under the Dubs amendment?

Finally, to get the figures in perspective, will the Government give their own estimate, and the estimate presumably given to them by the road haulage industry, of the number of those entering the country illegally each day—adults as well as children—across the English Channel in heavy goods vehicles?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for our position on dental checks, and I agree with what he said about the importance of welcoming those who come to this country through very difficult circumstances.

So far this year 140 children have arrived under the Dublin convention, about 80 of whom have come from France. That is the figure up to 1 October, so it excludes those who have arrived this week, and it compares with a figure of about 20 last year.

So far as the number of children still to come is concerned, it is estimated that about 1,300 children are still in Calais, but of course not all those will qualify to come here under the Dublin convention. It is the Government’s intention that all those children who are entitled to come to this country under the convention should have been processed and have arrived here before the camp is removed by the French authorities. That intention was set out in a statement by the Home Secretary earlier this month. I do not have to hand the data that the noble Lord has asked for on the originating countries of those who have arrived under Dublin, or indeed under the Dubs amendment, but I will let him have them if they are available.

The noble Lord asked about those who have arrived illegally. On top of the 140 who arrived under the Dublin convention, up to June this year 3,472 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrived in this country, most of them via Calais—a figure that is up by about 54% compared with last year. Those are the ones who clearly arrived other than through the appropriate routes.

The noble Lord may have asked for other figures. If I have not given him the answer, I will do my utmost to secure them and will write to him.

My Lords, the apparent ages of the first group of unaccompanied children brought from the Jungle camp in Calais are a cause for concern on these Benches too, not because they might be over 18 but because it appears that the Government may not be giving priority to the youngest and potentially most vulnerable children to be reunited with family members in the UK. Does the Minister agree that even older teenagers are likely to be vulnerable, particularly as many will have been through the trauma of having their homes bombed, followed by a treacherous sea journey? However, the political consequences of choosing, for the first group, children who could be mistaken for adults could and should have been foreseen. Were they?

The first point to make is that nobody in the camp in Calais needs to be there; they can all claim asylum in France. Indeed, so far this year about 5,000 of those who were in Calais have turned to the French authorities and have been taken to what I understand is a reflection centre, where many of them may then claim asylum. The same is true for unaccompanied children. The French regime for supporting unaccompanied children is broadly the same as the one here.

Our top priority is children with families in the UK who qualify under the Dublin convention. As I said in response to the noble Lord, it is our intention to process those of all ages before the camp is dismantled.

With regard to other children who do not qualify under Dublin but do qualify under the Dubs amendment, we have made it clear to the French authorities that, if and when the camp is dismantled, they should be taken to safe reception centres, where their claims should be processed, and whatever is in the best interests of the children should then take place. We have made it clear that we will help in that regard both with funds and by helping to process the children so that we can identify those who would be best placed in the UK.

My Lords, as one of the signatories to the Dubs amendment, I signed it because it captured the spirit of Sir Nicholas Winton who, through the kindertransport, rescued 669 children from the Nazis. He had to prioritise the most vulnerable and the Government, while ruling out what is unethical, are right to do so too. Beyond Dublin, will the Government—as the Minister was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick—specifically prioritise the youngest and, indeed, orphaned children such as the brother and sister whose case I highlighted in your Lordships’ House a few days ago, who were sleeping on the forecourt of a derelict petrol station? They are aged 13 and 12 and were orphaned in Aleppo.

Will the Minister also say what progress has been made on galvanising and co-ordinating the international community in assisting the 88,000 displaced young people now in Europe without parents and in establishing the fate of the 10,000 children who Europol has said have gone missing, and who must inevitably be at great risk of trafficking and exploitation?

As regards the first half of the noble Lord’s question, I can confirm that exactly those children who he has identified will be our priority when we move on to helping those who qualify to come here under the Dubs amendment. We want to help those in the greatest need so I can give him that assurance. As regards the broader issues, we are liaising with non-government organisations and the Greek and Italian authorities in order to identify those children in those countries who may qualify to come to the UK, so that we can play our full role in bringing support to people living in desperately difficult circumstances.

My Lords, having visited the camps, I am well aware of how chaotic the situation is and how difficult it is to manage. This morning I spoke to a friend who has been working in the camp. She was with a 14 year-old Syrian yesterday who arrived this week. He has a passport, so it is easy to verify his age. I reinforce the point that it is better to work through those who have documentation. However, he said that the majority of those on his bus were adults. In order for the British people to trust the system, I encourage my noble friend to make sure that the screening and registration are as robust as possible—I understand from my friend today that people being screened now are being given priority whereas those who were screened a month ago seem to be at the back of the queue—and to co-ordinate with the organisations on the ground such as Citizens UK which have been working in the camps for a long time and know exactly what is going on, and may know more than the French authorities do.

I am grateful to my noble friend. As I think I said in my Statement, it is up to the FTDA to refer eligible children to UK officials in Calais. Once that process has taken place, we are now dealing with those applications in a matter of days, whereas previously it was taking a matter of weeks, so we are dealing with this now with some urgency. I pay tribute to the NGOs working in Calais in very difficult circumstances.

As regards working out the age of an applicant, clearly one can work on that where there is documentary evidence, as in the case to which the noble Baroness referred. Where there is no documentary evidence, there is no single way of determining the age of an applicant. If the applicant is clearly beyond any doubt an adult and way over 18, they are turned down in Calais, and roughly 10% are refused. However, if they arrive in this country and there is still dispute about their age, they are then subjected to what is called the Merton process, whereby a local authority over a period of some 28 days assesses the age of the applicant through social workers, with interpreters if necessary, and an independent adult present if that is also necessary. If, at the end of that process, the applicant is determined to be an adult, they will no longer be treated as a child but will have to make their way through the system as an adult applicant for asylum.

House adjourned at 1.54 pm.