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Calais: Child Refugees

Volume 776: debated on Monday 24 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to fulfil the obligation under the Immigration Act 2016 to accept unaccompanied child refugees before the camps at Calais and Dunkirk are demolished on 31 October.

My Lords, the camp clearance is now under way. Home Office teams have been deployed to France to support the identification, assessment and transfer of eligible children to the UK. We transferred as many children as possible who qualified under the Dublin regulation before the camp clearance began, and we began transfers of other unaccompanied refugee children under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 over the weekend. Transfers of those who qualify under the Dublin regulations and those who meet the wider criteria of Section 67 of the Immigration Act are ongoing.

We all welcome the child refugees. However, can the Minister say why it has taken more than 12 months for us to reach here? We have argued week after week, and yet until a few days before the demolition of the camps the answer was, “We can’t accept them”. Why was that? Can we have a guarantee that in the future, every single child who is in Calais or Dunkirk on the last day will be found a place here in the United Kingdom? Before I finish, I thank all those wonderful volunteers who have given so much of their time and expertise to get this act together.

I join the noble Lord in thanking all the volunteers and everyone who has been involved, including local authorities here, in expediting the process of getting children to this country. Why has it not happened sooner? I have explained several times now at this Dispatch Box that we have been reliant on several aspects of process to get the children transferred here, not least the lists we provide to the French through the NGOs. Those have now been forthcoming and have been released to us, and the process has started, albeit quite late in the day. But the point is that the process is well under way now as the camp begins to be cleared, and many of those children are now here.

Can the Minister say what provisions are being made to ensure that child protection services are available at the points of entry? I also commend the work of all the social workers who have contributed to some of the assessments, making sure that vulnerable children who have already suffered a huge crisis in their personal lives are not prey to paedophilia.

The noble Baroness raises an important question. These children might be subject not only to paedophilia but to other types of trafficking and abuse, not least child labour, which may become rife if they are not safe and secure. As the noble Baroness will know, child protection is absolutely the top priority for the children that are in state care in this country. While those children are in France, they are subject to the child protection laws of France, which we respect as being quite closely aligned with our laws. In addition, a significant number of our staff went there over the weekend so that those children are protected during the camp clearance process.

My Lords, will the Minister please give an assurance that the local authorities that are co-operating in meeting the Government’s legal obligations will get additional resources for as long as the children are in their care? It is not a matter of making a one-off payment; it is an ongoing commitment.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Local authorities need to be reimbursed and there is a scheme for reimbursing local authorities that take the children. We do not want payment to be a disincentive for them. Again, I pay tribute to the local authorities that are taking the children.

My Lords, will the Minister please assure us that there will be properly funded long-term mental health support for the children who are coming here? We know that in the longer term, investment in mental health support will make them much more successful citizens of this country, which is what we need the people we are bringing here to be able to achieve.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. These children will need access to not just mental health services but a range of protections and services that would be available to any child in local authority institutional care in this country. So I absolutely agree with her.

Can the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will ensure sufficient co-operation with the French Government and sufficient assistance from our own Government for the support of unaccompanied child refugees in France? Can she also confirm that no child will at any time be left in unsafe circumstances?

I assure the right reverend Prelate that at no time has our support to the French authorities been less than exemplary. The challenge has been that in providing that support we are reliant on French law and how the French do things. However, the support process and the co-operation, which have been two-sided, have been very good in the last few days and weeks.

My Lords, have the Government yet made up their mind about the fate of these children when they reach 18? When I asked that question before, the Minister was very unclear about whether any decision had yet been made.

The noble Lord will know that each child and each circumstance is different and that the type of protection that a child needs is different in each case. When a child reaches 18, he or she then becomes an adult and, just as would be the case in this country, different assessments are made of the status of that child. Obviously, if he or she came from another country, they would then enter the asylum process, as would any other adult.