Child Refugees in Europe

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 25th January 2016.

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Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Shadow Home Secretary 4:23 pm, 25th January 2016

The thought of any child alone in a foreign country is abhorrent to any parent, but for them to be alone in dangerous conditions—without food, warmth, comfort or protection—is genuinely terrifying. Sadly, that is the reality today for thousands of Syrian children and those fleeing other conflicts. The truth is that some of these frightened young souls are on our own doorstep, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition saw for himself at the weekend. No child should be left to fend for themselves, whoever they are and wherever they are. I have no doubt that, when faced with this issue, the vast majority of British people would see a moral duty to act, as Sir Eric Pickles has just said.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper on asking the question and welcome the Minister’s commitment to look seriously at the issue, but may I press him on some of the points that my right hon. Friend made? In particular, will he consider children who are here in Europe, as well as those who are in the camps? The Government’s policy to date has been to take only refugees from the region, rather than those who have crossed the sea. Does he not accept that, as the crisis develops, that distinction is becoming harder to maintain?

There are 26,000 unaccompanied children in Europe today. They cannot, as the Government claim, be described as the fittest and the strongest. They are instead highly vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of abuse. They urgently need someone to reach out a hand. I appreciate the concern that doing so could create an unhelpful precedent and an incentive for families to send children alone, but surely that can be dealt with by making it clear that this is an exceptional move and by working with the UNHCR and others to identify children who are genuinely alone?

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war, but instead of playing our full part, the Prime Minister has spent recent weeks stomping around Europe with his own list of demands. Does the Minister not accept that, to countries that are trying to deal with the enormity of this crisis, that might make us look a little selfish and blinkered? By doing more to help our partners in Europe, might not the Prime Minister build good will and get a better hearing for his renegotiation demands?

As others have said, this week we will remember the awful events of the holocaust and the Kindertransport. Surely now is the time to take inspiration from those British heroes of the last century and act to change the course of history in this.