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Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Safe Routes

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what safe routes to the United Kingdom are available to child refugees and asylum seekers.

My Lords, there are no provisions in our Immigration Rules to enable someone to travel to the UK to seek asylum or temporary refuge. The UK welcomes vulnerable refugees, including children, directly from regions of conflict and instability through our global resettlement routes, the UK resettlement scheme, community sponsorship and the mandate resettlement scheme. We also have bespoke routes responding to crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan and the Hong Kong BNO visa route.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Answer, but is it not the truth that virtually every safe and legal route to child refugees has been closed by the Government? Perhaps the Minister will not recall, but some years ago I was given assurances both privately by Ministers and in the House that the Government would not close down safe and legal routes. Why are they not willing to do that?

My Lords, I do not think it fair to say that there are no safe and legal routes. Since 2015, we have offered a safe and legal route for over half a million people. This includes over 28,600 refugees, including 13,800 children, via the refugee resettlement schemes with the UNHCR. We are the fifth largest recipient of UNHCR-referred refugees and, in Europe, we are second only to Sweden.

My Lords, can the Minister explain exactly what accessible facilities are available in a country such as Afghanistan for someone facing persecution to seek asylum in this country?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is very complicated—I would imagine my noble friend who answered the previous Question would be able to shed more light on exactly how complicated. However, as the noble Baroness will also be aware, we have resettled a vast number—well, not vast, but a large number—of people from Afghanistan. By the end of June 2023, approximately 9,800 people had been granted settled status under the ACRS, including over 4,600 children, and we provide local authorities with substantial funding. Since ARAP opened in April 2021, we have relocated over 12,200 people to the UK, including over 6,100 children. We know there is more to do, particularly with those currently still stuck in Pakistan, but we are working at pace on that.

My Lords, in May 2021, recognising the need to speed up the applications for child asylum seekers, the Government set up two dedicated caseworking hubs to try to process these claims more quickly. What assessment, two and half years on, has been made of the success of these dedicated hubs, and what more could be done to speed up the claims of young people as they seek asylum?

My Lords, as I understand it, those hubs have worked very well. There were 5,186 asylum applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the year ending June 2023—a similar number to the year ending June 2022. There were 6,229 initial decisions relating to UASCs in the year ending June 2023, some 78% of which were grants of refugee status or humanitarian protection. The statistics bear out the fact that they are working well.

My Lords, evidence shows that refugees will choose official routes over smugglers, where they represent a realistic alternative. Therefore, to smash the smugglers’ deadly trade, will the Government look at piloting a refugee visa, as outlined in a report by Safe Passage?

My Lords, no, I am afraid the Government are going to be consistent in this particular regard. As I said earlier in my initial Answer, there is no provision within our Immigration Rules for somebody to be allowed to travel to the UK to seek asylum or temporary refuge, so I do not think that visa is on the table.

My Lords, since the passing of the Illegal Migration Act, how many children have come over on small boats, how many are now subject to removal provisions and how many made those crossings unaccompanied?

My Lords, I have seen figures that suggest that those who come in small boats to seek asylum constitute less than 5% of net annual immigration. Can the Minister explain why the Government are obsessed with trying to exclude those fleeing persecution and seeking refugee status in this country, while ignoring the Christian teaching of welcoming refugees?

The answer is twofold. First, we have welcomed over half a million people, so that is very much a vindication of the Christian principle. Secondly, we are not obsessed with the asylum seekers themselves; we are obsessed with putting criminal gangs out of business, and I make no apology at all for that.

My Lords, the Minister, in a rather throwaway remark, acknowledged there are still children from Afghanistan who are stuck in Pakistan. Can he give us any estimate of just how many children, who should have been able to come to the UK because they are entitled to on the routes set up, are stuck there?

I apologise if it sounded like a throwaway answer, but I do not think it was. I am afraid I cannot give you that information, and I do not think it would be wise to do so.

My Lords, may I ask the same question that I asked yesterday and to which I got no reply? Is it the case that the Falkland Islands are being considered as an alternative to Rwanda?

My Lords, I am afraid that I have to go back to my answer from yesterday. I have read the newspaper reports. I have no particular knowledge of whether the Falkland Islands are being considered or not; I will endeavour to find out.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the reports are true that there are at least 100 unaccompanied child refugees in hotels at present, despite this being declared unlawful by the courts?

My Lords, I do not think that it was declared unlawful by the courts. The fact is that there were some issues with regards to a particular county, and, as far as I understand it, the courts basically reaffirmed that there is a statutory duty on local authorities to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. In terms of the support that is available to those councils, we have made a considerable amount of money available, and we are working very closely with the councils that are involved in order to make that happen.

My Lords, why do the Government continue to turn down repeated French offers to facilitate our establishing a processing centre for asylum seekers in France?

My Lords, I do not know that that is true. I have not seen any evidence that we have turned down French offers. I will investigate again, and if I am wrong, I will definitely correct myself.

My Lords, referring to the Question from my noble friend concerning young people stuck, as she put it, in Pakistan, to which he said he did not have any information; he did not volunteer to try to find any. Can he do so?

My Lords, the thing with the Pakistan situation is that we are involved in negotiations with the Pakistani authorities about getting these people out. I think the priority has to be to get them out as safely as possible and as quickly as possible, rather than worrying too much, at this point, about exactly how I report the statistics to this House. I will do so, but I want to make sure those people get out safely.

My Lords, my noble friend has said he will follow up on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, of a moment or two ago. Would he agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that that would be by far the better solution?

Some months ago, in a debate on the situation in Sudan, I asked the relevant Minister what consideration had been given to opening a safe and legal route from Sudan, given the situation in that country. Has any further consideration has been given to the situation in Sudan, and whether we can expect to see a safe and legal route anytime soon?

My Lords, there have been a number of petitions and general requests to look at very specific safe and legal routes. As I understand it at the moment, there are no plans to adopt any for any specific countries, but I am sure they are being kept under review.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that all those coming by small boats are coming from a safe country, France, and that it is absurd for us to suggest that they are all coming from an unsafe country? One of the reasons they may be wanting to leave France to come here is that France refuses asylum to three times as high a proportion as we do. Can my noble friend explain why that is?

I will certainly confirm that France is a safe country. How the French asylum system works is, I am afraid, well beyond my knowledge.

Returning to the issue of children in hotels, last summer, the High Court found Home Office practice in relation to housing vulnerable unaccompanied children in hotels to be derelict. Can the Minister inform the House what the response is to that High Court decision?

I have tried to by saying how we are working with the councils that are specifically involved in those decisions. If I can get any more details together, I will definitely come back to the noble Baroness on that.