Immigration Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:53 pm on 26th April 2016.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:53 pm, 26th April 2016

My Lords, let me begin by saying to the House that I entirely recognise the need for the Government to do more to respond to the ongoing migration crisis and alleviate the suffering it is causing to some of the most vulnerable people. There is no argument about that. This is a highly emotive issue and we have a moral duty to help those in need.

However, let me be equally clear: the Government are fulfilling that duty and I shall demonstrate how. By opposing Lords Amendment 87, the Government are not denying their obligation to help those in need—quite the contrary. Our commitment to help those in need stands comparison with that of any other country. We are simply saying that physically transporting unaccompanied children from one part of the EU to another is not the best or most effective way to fulfil our duty. The Government have always been clear that to make the biggest difference and to help the greatest number of those in need, it is best to support the majority of refugees to stay safely in their home region, and for families to be kept together. To the extent that children have been separated from their families, we believe that our efforts should be directed towards reuniting them with their families rather than simply bringing them to the UK and placing them in the care of social services.

That is exactly why we recently doubled our aid for the Syrian crisis to £2.3 billion. This support has reached hundreds of thousands of families in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. In addition, we co-hosted the recent London-Syria conference, securing pledges of more than $11 billion, the largest amount ever raised in one day for a humanitarian crisis. The Government wholeheartedly share the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to protect and support vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children. Our efforts to date have been designed to do just that, but our starting principle is that we must put the best interests of children first and avoid any policy that places children at additional risk or encourages them to place their lives in the hands of the people traffickers and criminal gangs.

At the heart of this approach are the child’s best interests. That is why, on 21 April, we announced a new resettlement scheme for children at risk. We worked closely with the UNHCR to design a scheme that will protect the most vulnerable children. We have committed to resettling several hundred individuals in the first year, with a view to resettling up to 3,000 individuals over the lifetime of this Parliament, the majority of whom will be children, where the UNHCR deems it to be in their best interests. Family reunification will be at the heart of this. We want to make the Dublin agreement work. Children who are identified as being at risk will be resettled with their family members or carers where appropriate.

This unique initiative will be the largest resettlement effort to focus on at-risk children from the MENA region. It will be in addition to the 20,000 Syrian refugees we have already promised to resettle here. This new resettlement scheme will focus solely on the “children at risk” criteria and will be open to all vulnerable children deemed in need of resettlement by the UNHCR within the MENA region. It will not be limited to any particular nationality or group, allowing us to assist the most vulnerable children, whoever they are.

Our new scheme will complement existing resettlement programmes, which are already helping children at risk in conflict zones. Some 1,085 vulnerable Syrians were resettled to the UK before the end of 2015 as part of our commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees here over the course of this Parliament. Most of those Syrians—51%—were children. We can expect that several thousand of those who will come here over the next few years under this programme will also be children. If anyone thinks we are neglecting the needs of vulnerable children, I hope that the facts and commitments that I have outlined will reassure them.

The amendment is clearly well meant—how could it not be? It shares our objective of identifying and protecting vulnerable children, but its focus is wrong. Let me address the situation of children in Europe, who are already able to access support from European countries that have similar legal obligations to our own. We need a comprehensive plan that stretches outside our own shores to tackle the issues. That is exactly what we are delivering.

In this context, the thoughts of many noble Lords will understandably be resting on the situation in Italy and Greece. We need to shut down the illegal migration routes to Europe, which are exploited by human traffickers who encourage people to risk their lives to make perilous journeys. We are committed to providing safe and legal routes for the most vulnerable refugees to resettle in the UK. That is why we have seconded substantial additional resource into the European Asylum Support Office in Italy and Greece to implement and streamline the process under the Dublin regulations, including to quickly identify children who qualify for family reunion.

The EU-Turkey migration agreement is a vital opportunity to end the misery and lethal risk that smugglers and organised criminals are causing on a daily basis. We have made an offer of UK support to help implement the EU-Turkey migration agreement. Following intensive engagement with European partners, we are offering 75 expert personnel to help with processing and administration of migrants in Greek reception centres, act as interpreters and provide medical support. We will also provide vital equipment and medical supplies. The teams we send to Greece will include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. That will help to ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum and support procedures as quickly as possible.

That is not all. On top of our significant support to front-line member states, the Department for International Development has created a £10 million refugee children fund specifically to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. This will be used to support the UNHCR, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee to work with host authorities to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children in Europe and the Balkans. This includes identifying vulnerable children, providing for their immediate support, referring them to specialist care where needed, and helping to find lasting solutions such as family reunification.

I believe the UK can be proud of the contribution we are making. It stands comparison with any other. We are doing everything we said we would to provide aid and resettle vulnerable refugees. We are already making a real difference to countless lives. The announcement last week was yet another step in our determination to fulfil our moral obligation to those in need.

I recognise the sincere feelings of those who supported the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We share the objective to identify and protect children at risk. However, I ask the House to accept that we are tackling the task in a different way from that which the noble Lord is proposing. I firmly believe that the approach that was set out last week by the Immigration Minister provides the best way to support our European partners, help vulnerable refugee children and provide the biggest impact for the significant sums of money that we will spend. I beg to move.