My Lords, when we published our report Children in Crisis: Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the EU we described the refugee crisis as the greatest humanitarian challenge to have faced the European Union since its foundation. Children, many of them unaccompanied, are in the forefront of this crisis. It is deeply shaming that as the bulldozers entered the Calais refugee camp, immigration officials were still struggling to process the many hundreds of unaccompanied children who had been hoping for refuge in this country. Eighteen months into the migrant crisis, and six months after the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was passed, how can we have been so ill-prepared? Why did the Government wait until the Calais refugee camp was about to be cleared before starting to bring unaccompanied minors from the camp to the UK? Why was there no strategy for resettling with host families the minors who did reach these shores? Why have we been so slow?
I had to begin with these questions because the report which we entitled Children in Crisis describes the truly awful predicament in which thousands of children find themselves. The challenges facing unaccompanied migrant children have huge implications for the children themselves, the EU and its members, including the UK. I very much hope that all noble Lords will take this opportunity to remind the Government of the moral and legal duties that recent events in Calais have so vividly highlighted. Furthermore, Brexit or no Brexit, we are still a full member of the EU with all the responsibility that that entails until the final withdrawal agreement is ratified.
I was disappointed that we did not receive a response from the Government until about an hour ago. At 5 pm today, we got notification that the response was coming, and I was handed it as I entered the Chamber at 5.45 pm. I have not had a chance to digest it.
Before I turn to the report, I would like to thank the following for their assistance with it: members of the Home Affairs Sub-Committee; the principal clerk to the EU Select Committee, Chris Johnson; the former policy analyst to the sub-Committee, Lena Donner; our special adviser, Professor Helen Stalford; all the witnesses, in particular a group of children who arrived here unaccompanied; and the NGOs.
The report sets out clearly the four underlying problems. They might more accurately be described as four aspects of the current state of mind among officialdom and migrant children that give rise to all the practical difficulties described in the report, and which we are currently witnessing.
The first underlying problem is the culture of disbelief and suspicion that prevails throughout the system for receiving and caring for unaccompanied migrant children. At its most offensive, this culture of disbelief is seen on the pages of some of our tabloids and in the remarks of some politicians. The claim that all these young people are trying to play the system and are adults masquerading as children, and the suggestion that we should test them and examine their teeth to prove their age, are offensive and absurd. Of course, there are bound to be a few individuals trying to play the system, but the vast majority of unaccompanied minors are simply vulnerable children, many of whom have lost their families and suffered profoundly traumatic events in their home countries or on the journey to Europe, and we must not forget that.
Along with the culture of disbelief, we found shirking of responsibility across Europe and endless attempts to palm off the problem to someone else. In parallel, there is the failure to deliver on existing binding commitments, including the current principle of the best interests of the child. We have nothing to be proud of here—the Government have also shirked responsibility —nor do local authorities, many of which, as our report demonstrates, have shown little or no solidarity with those authorities, predominantly in London and the south-east, that are facing the heaviest burdens. I hope the Minister can tell us about the support that local authorities such as Devon have received and what the first cohort of young people from Calais can expect from her department and from central government more generally.
The natural consequence of these failures across government agencies is the loss of trust and the frustration experienced by children themselves. As we have described in the report, when these children lose faith in official channels, they are pushed into the hands of people smugglers and more of them become victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Many simply disappear—Europol told us that about 10,000 have, but I suspect this is a conservative estimate and that the number has grown since the Europol figures were published.
In the report we tried to map out a way forward. We pointed out that the solutions have to be built around the fundamental principle of respecting the best interests of the child. Governments and agencies of course pay lip service to this principle, but it now needs to be made a reality, and more must be done to ensure that children are protected and safe. We believe that there is a role for the European Union to legislate and to set binding minimum standards, so that best interests assessments across member states are conducted to an appropriate standard. As far as the UK is concerned—this is still more important in the light of Brexit—we call on the Government to develop, apply and monitor national guidance on conducting best interests assessments. That means taking the views of children into account and talking to them, as we did during our inquiry. That is not easy given the age of these children, the trauma they have been through, the language barriers and the loss of trust in officialdom.
That is why the concept of guardianship is so important. These children need a guardian who is independent—not an immigration official, a social worker or a legal representative, who has a separate stake in the outcome, but someone who is on their side, whom they can trust and who can take a holistic view of their interests, psychological and educational needs and legal status. Such guardians should be appointed as early as possible and provide a single, trusted point of contact throughout the legal proceedings. We call on the Commission to bring forward legislation to set binding minimum standards for guardians, and we call on the Government to introduce a guardianship scheme and service for England and Wales, building on the pilot conducted in 2014 and 2015. I am aware that the Minister, in evidence to the committee, described the results of that pilot as “inconclusive”. But that was contradicted in very clear terms by expert witnesses to our inquiry. I would be grateful if the Minister told the House whether the Government now accept the case for a national guardianship scheme.
The elephant in the room is of course Brexit. We have seen abundant proof in recent months that some within our society see Brexit as a pretext for pulling up the drawbridge and behaving as if the refugee crisis is now an EU problem and of no concern to us. They could not be more wrong. We took on an obligation as a nation under the Dublin convention in 1990, and although the Dublin system was subsequently incorporated into EU law, I trust that the Minister will be able to confirm that Dublin will remain a key part of a national policy on asylum and that we will continue to align ourselves with the development of Dublin principles across the EU. During her Statement to the House of Commons on
“working very carefully … with the French Government, not only to improve matters in relation to Calais, but to ensure that we abide by our requirements, under the Dublin regulations, to bring to the UK children—unaccompanied minors—who have family links here”.—[
Could the Minister tell us more about the Government’s efforts regarding children in Greece and Italy who are in similar circumstances to those in Calais?
In this context, I also draw noble Lords’ attention to the far-reaching reforms of the common European asylum system proposed by the European Commission in the spring. The EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee had intended to report separately on these proposals under the opt-in procedure, but decided in the wake of the referendum not to pursue that work. However, I hope the Minister will be able to update the House this evening on the Government’s policy towards proposed reforms of the common European asylum system. In particular, will she indicate how the Government, against the backdrop of Brexit, are contributing to negotiations on these key elements of any future co-ordinated action in response to the refugee crisis?
I also invite the Minister’s comments on whether the Government propose to opt in to the new Dublin regulation. If the UK does not intend to do so, at least initially, can the Minister comment on whether the proposed new Dublin rules will be able to operate alongside the existing Dublin system, as the Commission has suggested? I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s reply. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on an excellent report, on the work she has done and on the way she has explained what the report is about and set out the case. If I were to utter a word of criticism it would be that, had the report come a bit earlier, it would have made the discussions on the then Immigration Bill even more straightforward, because we would have had the backing of the evidence that she has collected. But that is the way these things work.
There are still believed to be some 85,000 child refugees in Europe, many of whom have gone missing, and there are enormous dangers for young people and children, who are often in vulnerable situations and have very little protection. That is why I was delighted that the House passed, and the Government accepted, Section 67 of the Immigration Act. The Government said at the time that they would accept the letter and spirit of that amendment but, given the slowness of the response, I sometimes wondered whether they were doing that—it took a long time, and I wish the debate we are having about Calais and so on had taken place a few months ago. The Dublin III children could well have been here long before the Immigration Act, although I suppose the Act acted as a spur to get a bit of a move on.
Those of us who have been to Calais—the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, has been there far more than I have, although I have been there on a couple of occasions—know that the camp there is really quite shocking. It is not a place to live; it is a place where people can barely exist, especially young people. I think we all felt that getting rid of that camp was a good thing, but many of us thought that it would only be right that the children should all be taken to places of safety before any bulldozing started. Instead we had the spectacle of the last few days, when there were children there apparently not being fed or looked after while other people in the camp—the adults—had been moved out. I do not know whether the British Government could have done much about that, as it was in the hands of the French authorities, but it was a bit depressing that this was going on. I only heard about it and saw the pictures second-hand, but the noble Baroness was there for quite a lot of the time and testified to what was happening.
At any rate, I understand that the position now is that the children are going to be moved to safer places, but that the Home Office will, as it were, go with them to start monitoring and assessing, so that those eligible to come to this country under one or other heading will be able to do so. I hope that process will be accelerated and that the children can all be here before too long.
It is of course good news that several hundred of the children are here, and the Minister will no doubt give us the latest number for that. It is a good-news story, and there are children here now who are able to live in safety and get the sort of support and education that they have for so long not managed to have. I remember the pleasure with which the leader of one London council told me that the night before—I spoke to him a few days’ ago—he had sent two social workers to collect two girls from Lunar House and take them back to his borough. By that evening, they were each with a foster family. He was pretty pleased about that, that was a good-news story and I hope there will be many more such stories.
I regret the fact that age became an issue: those in the media who are hostile to the policy seized on it. Had I been the Home Office, I would have made sure that we had particularly young ones and girls coming in first, or that they were not photographed in Lunar House, but that is the way these things happen. However, I kept repeating to the media that when young people, children, have travelled across half the world in terrible conditions, it may be that that process has aged them; it may be that what they escaped from has aged them; and, combining the two, it is no wonder that some of them looked older than I think they are. Equally, if a 19 year-old has got to Britain and that 19 year-old is still legitimately a refugee, I do not think that the world comes to an end. I think we can handle it, but the media made a lot of that.
What bothered me about that episode was that we need public consent for what we are doing, and that damaged the ability to get public consent. The policy will work much better if the British public as a whole—they will not all agree—agree that we should give safety to at least some unaccompanied child refugees. In that way, we can move forward on a happier basis.
I am grateful to the Minister for having kept me informed in detail over the past few weeks; that has been helpful and has enabled me to understand better what is going on, because she gave me some facts and figures. I always intended, and I think we agree on this, that not all unaccompanied child refugees in Europe should come here, but we should take our share, and other countries should step up to the mark as well. We are now concentrating on Calais because it is so close and the situation is not one where many other countries will want to step in, unlike in Greece. Nevertheless, even in Calais, I should have thought that the right answer is for us to take about half and for the French to take about half, provided they meet the criteria underlying our policy.
I understand that in Greece the situation is happier, in that UNICEF and UNHCR both work there and there is better co-operation with the Greek authorities than has perhaps been achieved in France. I do not want to knock the French, because we need their support and co-operation to make progress. However, I also understand that, so far, assessments are being made of those children who are in official shelters and that there are quite a few for whom there was no room in the official shelters. I hope we will not forget about them, because they are probably in a more vulnerable situation than the others.
I do not really know what is happening in Italy. I understand that quite a few of the children who arrived in the south of Italy have made their way to Rome, but I am not sure whether they are in a happy situation or not.
I go back to the issue of public opinion. I have felt all along that the reason why the Government in the end accepted what became Section 67 was that public opinion was largely on the side of this country doing so. I interpret this as a sign that the British people are humanitarians and wanted to express that humanitarian wish by providing support for the most vulnerable of the refugees. We are not taking that many—Germany has become the conscience of Europe, taking a million—nevertheless, we are doing something. I should like us to do more for adults as well.
Most of the emails and letters I have had are supportive. I will not read from one or two of the hostile ones, because I will not waste the House’s time. If there is one thread of criticism, it is that we are giving money to support refugee children, whereas British children already here are not getting the same level of support. I say to people, sometimes on the phone, sometimes by email, that it is not my job to defend the Government’s policies on cuts in support to local authorities or cuts in social care. Nor, I suppose, is it the Home Office’s policy—no, the Government speak with one voice, of course. I have tried to explain that we are a rich enough country and can surely not have to put the well-being of one lot of vulnerable people against the well-being of other children. I hope that argument will eventually win the day.
One criticism covered in the Select Committee report is that, for a long time, the children in Calais were given no information about what their rights were. I sat there asking them, through an interpreter, whether they had had any information about their position, and they said that they had had none at all. The result is that they were vulnerable to information from the people traffickers, of whom there were certainly some in Calais, and that they did not want to exercise their right to claim asylum in France, so Britain was the only place where they could go. That was a serious deficit. I understand that it has been overcome more recently and that they have been given the full information. If not, they are even more vulnerable through not knowing what their rights and entitlements are.
I know that according to the newspaper some local authorities are unwilling to have child refugees, but the majority of them are. I am certainly delighted that the local authorities I have had contact with, such as Hammersmith and Ealing, are stepping up to the mark very well. When people ask me what they can do, I say, “First of all, make a beeline to your local authority and urge them to accept child refugees”.
One of the more light-hearted moments—I am not sure that I have mentioned this before—was when a young Syrian who got here on the back of a truck, which was very dangerous, got out on the green opposite. I was chatting to him and he said to me: “Do you know what I want to do? I want to become a politician”, and pointed to the Palace of Westminster. I did not know what answer there was to that, except to say, “You’d better meet a few politicians first before you finalise the rest of your life”, but it was an endearing comment. He saw what politics had done in his country, Syria, and perhaps he wanted to do something better in a country where there are opportunities to do so.
Today, the Government issued a Written Ministerial Statement, which is a response to an amendment I have tabled to the Children and Social Work Bill. The Statement is an improvement on the amendment—in fact, it goes further—and the Government enabled me to have a look at it in draft and even make a few comments. It does not solve every problem, but it goes further than the amendment in safeguarding children and, as such, I welcome it.
I fear that I cannot be here when we have Report on the Bill next week, but I hope that a colleague of mine will be able to stand in, that there can be a debate and then I hope I will feel able to withdraw the amendment. I have one or two little questions, such as: does it cover the Section 67 amendment as well as Dublin III? Will the best-interest test be an integral part—as it must be? As the noble Baroness asked, when we are out of the EU, will Dublin III still apply? There will still be refugees who have family here, and they should surely have a right to come. I also flag up the uncertainty for those children who get here and then reach the age of 18, who will feel vulnerable, not knowing whether they will be allowed to stay here or not. That is a minus.
I pay tribute to the wonderful NGOs working with child refugees which I have met and co-operated with—I mentioned Liz Clegg in Calais, who has been mentioned before—Citizens UK, Safe Passage, Help Refugees, Freedom from Torture, which recently asked me to become a patron, and support groups which have sprung up all over the country.
I believe that there needs to be a common European response, but there is not time to debate that, although I should like to have a chance to do so one day.
For those who come to this country, I hope that they will find safety; that they will be given the support to help them overcome the trauma that they have suffered; that they will have a chance to catch up on lost schooling; and that they will have the support of a loving family.
My Lords, the crisis that we are faced with in the UK and Europe is only part of a worldwide migration crisis. We hear from the United Nations that there are 65 million displaced persons in the world, and we know that in Europe alone, as already mentioned, there are 88,000 unaccompanied children. In the years to come, our legacy will not be a good one for our children, because with global warming, economic disasters and conflict, the flow of refugees could well become a torrent. So we have to face years ahead when we will need to tackle problems such as this far more effectively than we have this migration crisis.
When we debated the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I was very sad to see 200 Members of this House walking into the Not Content Lobby so as not to accept the 3,000 children mentioned in that amendment. I felt heartbroken that noble Lords could even think of going into the Not Content Lobby on that amendment. I hope that in the future we realise that this is not a one-off. It is something that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to face in a far more serious way than we have. I would really like to see an investigation—a commission, possibly—to look into why we acted as we did on this crisis. Why did we delay, month after month, before taking action to accept them?
Noble Lords are probably very tired of me proposing things and asking questions. I have asked the Government to take positive action in Oral and Written Questions on 13, 16, 22, 27 and
I have here lists of the children in the camps. Yes, some are 16 and 17 years old: they are not cuddly children, but they are still under 18. Not only that—as has been mentioned, some of them have been trudging from parts of Africa for two or three years. That must have aged them. I know that nowadays I feel pretty exhausted when I walk a few miles. These kids have suffered tremendously. I had a message this morning from Calais: there are about 2,000 remaining in the camps—no way is it 1,500—and they are in containers. Each container has 12 beds but there are 20 youngsters in each container and they are also sleeping on tables and on the floor. The heating is on, so they are not cold, but there is not enough food to go round. The message this morning said:
“The weaker kids will be struggling because of the pecking order with other kids. They have no idea what is happening to them”.
He estimated that there were also 300 people outside the container. This is a situation we should not tolerate as a civilised nation in a civilised Europe. These children are being bussed out in coaches—I think tomorrow—thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Queens Park Rangers is ready to be part of this, though I do not think that will happen. But we must keep tabs on all of these children as they are scattered around France. There are many there who have a right to be here under the Dublin III regulations and many more under the noble Lord’s amendment for vulnerable children. They have a place here.
I had another message this morning:
“Tomorrow, underage children from the temporary accommodation centre will be leaving by bus for juvenile centres all over France, where their applications to be transferred to the United Kingdom will be dealt with by the British Authorities. No further applications for transfer to the United Kingdom will be dealt with in Calais. All cases will be handled and all departures for the United Kingdom will take place from the juvenile centres. You will be given a wristband which has your bus number on it. The buses will be leaving throughout the day starting at 8 am”.
If you have time for prayer tomorrow, 8 am would be a good time for it. The message goes on:
“The British authorities will be accompanying you on the journey”.
We have tried to face this crisis, but we have not done well at all. The promise is that we will have 20,000 refugees in the UK by the end of this Parliament. If we cannot handle 300 or 400, how can we think of handling 20,000? We cannot delay the organising of this any longer. We cannot have them all coming in the last fortnight; it is impossible. If we are to keep that promise, it must be an ongoing process now. I suggest that we should be in touch with Canada—not just because it has a Liberal Government, though it helps—to see what it has done. It has accepted 32,000 people in three months. They have more land than us, but they have bigger hearts than ours. It gets more difficult as time goes on, but the people here are ready to embrace these youngsters and the others who will follow. It is not easy but it can be done. At the time of the Blitz, 3 million people were moved from the big cities to places such as north Wales in a month. If we did it then, we can do it now.
In thanking the noble Baroness for leading us on this quest, I hope that what we say might have some influence on the Government and the direction they take in the future.
No one can accuse the noble Lord of being backward in coming forward on this issue. He has raised it repeatedly with passion and determination which we must all recognise. I feel a bit lonely because I am the only Conservative speaker in this debate, apart from my noble friend on the Front Bench.
I would like to begin by underlining the fact that, under the extremely able chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, the committee was unanimous. There are good reasons why my Conservative colleagues cannot be here tonight, but I know that I can speak for them. I am extremely disappointed that the response from the Government has been so long delayed. The report was published on
We are all conditioned by our own memories and thoughts. I will never forget meeting Polish refugee children encamped in Lincolnshire at the end of the last war. The event that, more than any other, made me determined on a political career—perhaps like the young Syrian to whom the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred—was 60 years ago. I remember, as a sixth-former, picking up a copy of Picture Post which had on the cover the words, “Cry Hungary”. I remember, too, during my early adult years, after the putting up of the Berlin Wall, the number of would-be refugees shot down in the barbed wire. I remember going to Berlin as a very young Member of Parliament in 1970 and seeing the wall that was built across not just land but through water, and seeing some of the spots where young men had been shot. That is my hinterland, if you like.
I believe passionately that our country, with its marvellous reputation for giving help to those who need it at the point when they most need it, has not exactly lived up to its reputation over the last couple of years. There are understandable reasons, of course. The one note that kept coming to me as we took evidence and talked among ourselves was that everybody has been rather overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees who have come from Syria, Libya, Eritrea and other countries over the last couple of years. The numbers are daunting, but the fact that they are daunting does not mean that we should not have a truly co-ordinated response.
I am afraid that the European Union has not had as unified a response as we all have a right to expect. We are part of that European Union. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in her admirable opening speech, referred to this. Until the day we exit, we are a full member of the European Union, with all the rights, responsibilities and opportunities which that implies. We must not become so obsessed by talk of Brexit and what might or might not happen in the future that we ignore what is happening at present. We will be judged by how we respond and react.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talked about the information he had received from Calais this very day. It is deeply disturbing that 20 young people are sharing 12-bed containers. I very much hope that when my noble friend responds to this debate, she will be able to give us more information and encouragement, and tell us that the Government fully understand, and are taking properly to heart, the unanimous message of the report which our sub-committee produced.
I draw attention to one or two paragraphs in our report and underline—this point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, at the very beginning of her speech—our reference to,
“the greatest humanitarian challenge to have faced the European Union since its foundation. Although the outcome of the referendum on 23 June 2016 was that the UK should leave the EU”—
I made this point a moment or two ago—
“the UK remains a full member … with all the responsibilities that entails, until the final withdrawal agreement is ratified”.
We compiled our report on that premise.
I draw your Lordships’ attention to paragraph 62 on page 21 of the report, because there has been a lot of talk of what is called the pull factor. We say very clearly in that paragraph:
“We found no evidence to support the Government’s argument that the prospect of family reunification could encourage families to send children into Europe unaccompanied in order to act as an ‘anchor’ for other family members. If this were so, we would expect to see evidence of this happening in Member States that participate in the Family Reunification Directive. Instead, the evidence shows that some children are reluctant to seek family reunification, for fear that it may place family members in danger”.
We had particularly moving evidence to that effect from a young Afghan who came to see us in our informal evidence session in June.
I draw attention to two other points in our summary and conclusions. My next point is in many ways the most important of those. The report states:
“All children needing protection have the legal right to receive it, regardless of immigration status, citizenship or background. That right should be recognised, and all those under 18 should be treated as children, first and foremost”.
I understand some of the scare stories regarding the age of refugees. It is often difficult to determine someone’s age exactly. Of course, in this age of terrorism, when it is suspected that at least some of those responsible for some of the atrocities in continental Europe earlier this year were refugees, we have a duty to be particularly careful as we vet them. However, the mark of a civilised society is that it gives the benefit of the doubt to unaccompanied children. It is very important that we do that for our own national self-respect and honour.
In that context, we refer in paragraph 62 to a point that has already been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on the need for a decent, proper guardianship scheme so that young people who come over here have someone—not a government official, or even a local authority official—with whom they can have true human contact. It is much easier to say that than to bring it to fruition, but it should be our aim so to do.
This is a great country and, whatever the technicalities of the future, we are a great European nation. Whether we are a member of the European Union or not, we have a European responsibility and a European destiny. We have played a crucial part in the history of our continent many times over the 950 years, which we commemorated just 10 days ago, since William, Duke of Normandy, defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Whatever the future brings, we cannot and must not turn our backs on the continent of which we are an integral part.
And so I hope that in the couple of years—a little more perhaps—during which we withdraw from the European Union, we make it plain to all our friends and allies, particularly those who less than 30 years ago were living under dictatorships in the Soviet bloc, that we are not letting them down, and that we recognise that we have as much responsibility as they do to ensure that those who have been displaced and unsettled are able to have some peace in our land. I very much hope that many of these refugees will be able to go back to Syria and other places when the fighting and the carnage come to an end.
My Lords, I should note my registered interest as vice-president of UNICEF in the UK. Although it is clearly not a financial interest, it is one of some impact on this subject. I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on an outstanding report that is comprehensive, thoughtful and practical, and also on her passionate and very clear introduction to our debate this evening. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts—who has raised the subject in this Chamber now month after month when many of us were not prioritising the lack of action on it. I am very pleased that he has spoken this evening about the situation in Calais this week.
The report contains 65 conclusions and recommendations and all of them deserve attention. They certainly deserve more respect than a response just before the start of our debate. In looking at the report and considering this debate and what has been happening over recent months I have thought on many occasions about my own childhood. I remember all sorts of things. I remember watching the first man on the moon on the new colour TV and all the other incredible technological advances that were taking place and the hope for humanity that we were somehow going to have a much better world that was more open, corrected and advanced.
There was the decision of the then Conservative—Conservative—Government to admit 27,000 Ugandan Asians to this country because they were being expelled from somewhere they were no longer welcome. There was also the decision of the then Conservative Government to be part of an international effort to relocate more than 20,000 Vietnamese refugees to this country alone and 800,000 internationally, and no matter which side people were on during the Vietnam war, there was support for both of those decisions from local authorities and politicians in all major parties.
I also think back to my own childhood and the complete freedom from violence and fear that I was able to enjoy, and I think about these children and the journeys that they have had, losing friends and brothers and sisters across deserts in north Africa, and across the Mediterranean, whether from Turkey to Greece or from north Africa to Italy or Malta. Presumably there was some hope in their hearts and minds and presumably some promises were made to them before they embarked on those journeys. It is absolutely shameful that they find themselves in civilised, 21st century Europe being ignored, abandoned and neglected, as has been the case over recent months and years.
I have been in about five or six different countries over the last 10 weeks since the summer break and in every country one of the first questions I have been asked by people locally, whether people I just happened to meet or representatives of people in Governments or organisations, is: “What is happening in the United Kingdom and in Europe?”. We have thousands of kids vulnerable to sexual exploitation, hunger and disease—as the committee unanimously says in this report—and yet we have seen this determined effort not to act. It is not laziness, not the absence of any solutions or the existence of a vacuum; there has been a determined effort not to act over the months of this year to bring these children to the UK and across Europe, leaving them in what are essentially detention camps after the horrific journeys that they have endured. The international system has been allowed to drag its feet again and again and to make promises to these children that are not kept again and again. We should think about the conditions that have resulted in them coming to the shores of Europe.
We have the cheek to lecture countries around the world about the use of the rule of law. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard when travelling to different places that the UK and Europe stand up for the international rule of law and that other countries —whether dictatorships in parts of the developing world, Russia or China in the South China Sea—do not do so, and yet we are ignoring our international legal obligations to these children, as this unanimous committee report says.
We boast about our efforts to deal with human trafficking and say that we are taking a lead. We see it reported constantly that the Government in the UK are taking a lead in tackling human trafficking and the European Union is taking a lead in tackling human trafficking and slavery worldwide. Yet we leave these kids vulnerable to human trafficking and slavery. We talk about our European values, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just said, and what we stand for as a civilisation, yet we are willing to walk by on the other side so often on this issue. Future generations will look back and wonder at this hypocrisy and be ashamed of us.
I think the UK has many obligations. We have a huge obligation as a member of the UN Security Council and a huge one still as a member of the European Union. We have an obligation because of our role in Iraq and Afghanistan and one because of our history in Africa. These are all obligations that we should be fulfilling by playing a proactive role not just in resettling more of the kids more quickly from France but in trying to find Europe-wide and international solutions to looking after the kids who have arrived in Europe and dealing with the reasons behind this movement of people, not just making promises, particularly in north Africa.
I want to ask the Government three questions today. I hope they will be addressed in the Minister’s summing-up. The first is in relation to Calais and the wider European issue. Can we receive today an up-to-date position on these kids—over 1,000—who seem to be either living in containers or actually still living and sleeping on the site in Calais. Are we going to see through this programme of resettlement in a genuine way over the coming weeks and will we continue to be part of an EU effort over the next two years despite the fact that we will be negotiating Brexit at the same time? Can we have a firm commitment from the Government that Britain will proactively engage in the EU-wide effort to provide solutions over the next two years?
Secondly, what is happening in north Africa? There was considerable talk a year ago about trying to prevent the boats and the traffickers coming across the southern Mediterranean and to deal with some of the problems at source and create better conditions and organisation in the north African coastal states. Is the UK involved in any activity there? Is anybody paying any attention to these people any more given that there is so much attention being paid to Greece and Calais and so on? What action are we taking, both through our aid programme and our international efforts in the UN to deal with the countries of origin?
Thirdly, will we take seriously the fact that the kids in detention camps in Greece and the kids in France and elsewhere have the same right to education that we have spoken about in this Chamber regularly in relation to kids in refugee camps in Jordan, the Middle East and elsewhere? Are any of these kids receiving any education just now at all? If not, what are we doing to try to change that situation as part of the international effort to educate refugees that we in the UK, again, boast about being a central part of?
I have mentioned what I think are the key obligations —the UN Security Council post, our membership of the EU, our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan and our earlier history in Africa, but it seems to me that ultimately this is about a moral obligation. We should be helping these kids because we can. We are one of the five largest economies in the world. We have a history of civilisation, democracy, openness, transparency and caring. The fact that in the second decade of the 21st century we seem to have been willing at the very least to drag our feet but at worst to deliberately slow down the process of helping these kids is shameful and I hope that we have seen a turning point in recent weeks.
It was a privilege to serve on the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who chaired with her usual skill and determination, and to have able staff to help us throughout that process.
There is no doubt—it has already come out in the debate—that neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union emerge with any credit from what has been happening in the world. As a former MP for a west London constituency that took refugees from all over the world, I know and fully understand both the problems of doing that and the fear of a host community that is experiencing a degree of population movement that the world has never before experienced. However, I also believe that there is, as has been said, a willingness on the part of the British people to help. If we look back on this time in a few years, all of us will be ashamed of the role played by the United Kingdom and the European Union. I often think that if there is a Charles Dickens out there writing a novel like Oliver Twist, they will be doing it on this issue. Those who have been involved in trying to delay, slow down or make difficult taking children into care in the way we are describing here might feature rather badly in such a novel.
I say very strongly to the Minister that the Government need to look at how the Home Office responds to such reports. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, she got the response an hour before this debate. I went out to the office just now and it is not there, so we do not know what the Government’s response is. Therefore I can talk about our recommendations but I cannot talk about what the Government will do in response to them. Equally, in the course of other matters that the committee deals with, there have been delays by the Home Office on a number of important issues. It needs to get its act together. I know that the Home Office is a difficult department to manage in all its complexity, but a major department of state, complicated as it is, has to get its act together and do better than it is now. Not to have a response to this report that we can debate now is a disgrace. I hope the Minister will take that back clearly.
A number of things in the report could and should be done, and I hope I will eventually be able to read a response and understand what the Government intend to do. However, I will start with a point raised by a number of Members, most notably in the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Dubs, about the media response to this. If you read about the disbelief shown towards the children’s ages, it brings home to you what those children, and indeed other, older family members, have experienced. As a number of people have said, it is hard to judge a child’s age when they come from a society in which nutrition has not been up to normal standards, reliable dates of birth are not kept, there is intense violence and the child has suffered considerably. I invite a couple of those editors who have been writing stories that stir up hatred and disbelief—I will start with Hugh Whittow, the editor of the Daily Express, and Paul Dacre, my old opponent at the Daily Mail—to give up a week of their holiday and work in one of the places where there are child refugees. To make their nightmare doubly worse—I think they will regard it as a nightmare—I will come with them to work in that area. I do not think they will enjoy the experience but they may learn a degree of humility, care and concern.
On the age factor, I recognise the problem and recognised it years ago as a Member of Parliament, when we had to deal with these issues. First, however, there is an understanding that this is such a difficult problem that you would rather make mistakes on the side of generosity than on the other side of the argument. Secondly, bear in mind, as has already been touched on, that when children leave those situations, they are not just desperate in the sense of fearing for their lives but, as my noble friend Lord Dubs pointed out, afraid of being recognised because their families will be punished. Afghanistan is a good example. If you are in a Taliban area, the Taliban will not only punish your family but force boys to join it. This is why quite a lot of boys come from Afghanistan. Are we really saying we would rather they stayed there to be trained by the Taliban to make bombs and kill people? Is that what we are saying? Therefore, when Mr Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre come with me, we will have that experience together and they will learn, as I learned over many years, about the complexity of this area. If they do not, they might feature in the novel by the new Charles Dickens, who I hope emerges from this terrible time.
I will make a couple of points on the recommendations. The culture of disbelief of age is important. I would not be against having what are sometimes referred to as invasive tests of age, such as on teeth, and so on. But—this is important—very few of them are accurate. The committee was told by the dental professionals that if you judge a child’s age by the development of its teeth, you can judge it accurately to within only about five years. There are other medical checks, which again, I would not object to in principle, but they are not that accurate. They may be one of the factors you want to use to assess age. However, what will you do with a child from Afghanistan who may turn out to be 19 or 20, who fled from the Taliban because they did not want to be trained to kill? Will we say to them, “You’ve got to go back to that situation”? Therefore, the situation is far more complex than editors of the Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre type understand. I am offering them an adult learning course in an interesting situation. I hope they will respond to it, but I rather doubt they will.
The next thing I want to say to the Minister, which again is important, is that one of the messages we have to get across is that as soon as a child appears in a European Union country, including in the UK, we must register them. Europol was clear in the evidence it gave to us that a number of children—I think 10,000 was the last figure I heard—just disappear, and we then have no way of checking because we have no record of them. Therefore, recording this is particularly important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, pointed out, we have a legal obligation, which we passed in this country and which has been passed in all other European Union countries, to put the best interests of the child first. If you do that, you do not leave them in camps in Calais or anywhere else. That reflects on all European Union countries, including our own. The best interests of the child need to be put first. The other recommendation, which I think is number 16 on the list of recommendations at the end of the report, is the need for minimum standards in Europe on the definition of,
“the best interests of the child”.
In other words, when we decide that a child is in the care of one of the European Union countries, we should have a minimum standard by which to judge that care.
The other recommendation I will mention is that for single authority to look after migrant children. At the moment in the UK, the responsibility for services and so on is split between the Home Office and the Department for Education. I understand that, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, indicated, a guardian or someone to take the overall needs of the child into account is particularly important, whether that guardian is wholly independent or an institutional organisation. I do not rule that out automatically—I am slightly at variance with the report there—but as soon as you have vulnerable children divided between several organisations or individuals, there is a danger that they will fall through the net, and we need to address that. Perhaps the Minister might take that away and give thought to it.
This report is very important. This situation will be a terrible reflection on this country and on the European Union in years to come. People will look back at those photographs of the children drowned in the Mediterranean or those in the camps in Calais and say, “What was wrong with our society at that time?”. We need to rethink this.
My Lords, I too am grateful to be speaking in this debate today. I share the sentiments of other Members who have spoken about the culture of disbelief and the Government’s apparent lack of interest in this report—despite the fact that it was produced in July and attracted quite a lot of press coverage and interest. That message needs to be taken back.
I will speak a little more about the part of the process where the children arrive in the UK. As others have said, children’s rights are defined by the United Nations convention, which provides a universal basis for how all children should be treated regardless of their status. Our own Children Act sets out the paramount principle that we must, at all times, first consider the best interests of the child. Yet if you look at the evidence, you will find that many agencies do not believe this is happening even in the UK, whatever we are saying about the camps at Calais or elsewhere.
It is true that there are many challenges. For example, we have a major shortage of housing in this country, and these children need supported housing. Also, they stop being children after 17. The lack of housing and lack of funding for young people after the age of 17 are already major issues in this country. As far as refugees are concerned, they have the added threat of being returned to their own country.
Another major issue is that there is very little English language provision for the newly arrived. Classes have been cut—certainly over the last five years to my knowledge—and the lack of opportunity to learn English means that many young people are not able to access mainstream education. We hear that sometimes children receive no education for as long as nine months. In addition, there are health issues. We all know of the serious pressures on our National Health Service, and this adds to the view that the noble Baroness mentioned earlier—that somehow the issue of child refugees is not seen as our problem.
But it is our problem. These children have suffered in suffered in unimaginable circumstances, receiving violent, inhuman treatment. Often their friends and families have been killed or injured in front of them. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned we heard from young people who, after some years, were still experiencing flashbacks, difficulty sleeping and severe headaches. One witness became so distressed that he was quite unable to speak about his experiences. These young people have a great fear of being sent back. We heard earlier about the young Afghan and what would be likely to happen to him. Many of these young people fear being sent back more than anything else, so they go missing and are quickly found by human traffickers.
We have all welcomed the Government’s belated acceptance of some of their responsibilities. But my understanding is that the general lack of leadership and lack of resource has left public agencies and voluntary groups struggling to meet the demands of the people they work with.
There have been camps at Calais since 1999, yet little has been done until the British Government were shamed into taking some of the refugees in recent weeks. That is despite it being widely known that many of the children in Calais have relatives in the UK. The current action being taken seems to be characterised by an acute sense of crisis management. I spoke to some of the people who were receiving children over the weekend. They are pleading for a bit more notice, a bit more of a long-term view. How can they get people in to support these children? They have been using volunteers because of the urgency of the situation.
We really need to think about what experiences we are giving these children when they get to this country. They cannot be held responsible for what has happened to them. It is not their fault that their homes are being destroyed, their families killed or taken from them. Many of them have faced horrors that we can scarcely imagine yet, when they reach a place of safety, they are greeted with suspicion, threatened with being returned to their own country, often isolated and desperate for affection and a secure home.
It is good to see today that the Government’s statement commits to a safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugee children, to be delivered by
One of the recommendations in our report, as has already been mentioned, was about children being allocated an independent guardian. I would very much support the introduction of an independent guardian service. I understand this has been successful in Scotland and I hope the new strategy will include this proposal.
It also seems to me that unaccompanied children should have the right to sponsor their parents. Adult refugees can sponsor their spouse or partner and their children to join them; unaccompanied children in the UK currently have no family reunion rights despite the fact that they go through the same asylum system.
Lastly, I hope the Government will look into these inadequate current practices of age assessment which, again, others have mentioned. The report details how these assessments have been mistaken and led to quite unsuitable treatment for many of the children. In the light of this, if age assessment has to be done, I hope we will look at practices which are known to provide much better evidence.
I very much welcome the Minister’s statement today and the comments that Members have made this evening. I hope the committee’s recommendations will provide what appears to me to be a rigorous basis for moving forward. I feel that the strategy must address some of the urgent issues that have been raised today, because the cost of getting this wrong will be borne in my view by the world’s most vulnerable people.
My Lords, I was delighted to be part of the excellent Home Affairs Sub-Committee, which conducted this inquiry into unaccompanied migrant children. I pay tribute to the skill and dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who chaired the committee. Like her and others, I have not had time to study the government response, which arrived on email at about 5 pm.
Reference has been made to the quality of the evidence we received and to the excellent contributions made by our secretariat and our adviser, Helen Stalford from Liverpool University. It was apparent that many NGOs and other agencies are striving mightily, not only in working with children on the ground, but in publicising the situations that those children face. But as we point out in the report in paragraph 340:
“The admirable work of non-governmental organisations is not a substitute for effective Member State action. The individual Member States should remain ultimately responsible for meeting the needs of unaccompanied migrant children”.
I shall return to this issue later. Much of the evidence we received was disturbing, particularly when we interviewed four young unaccompanied migrants and heard of their experiences. One was clearly still traumatised. During the inquiry and again after our report was published, I looked back on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, with its 54 articles, which of course came into UK law in 1992. I remain shocked that so many of those articles have been contravened during the migrant crisis. The general principles say it all: children should have the right to non-discrimination, the right to be treated in their best interests, the right to life, survival and development, and the right to be heard.
The recent demolition of the Calais camp provides evidence of the continuing disrespect for the rights of the child. As UNICEF and other agencies working on the ground have recently pointed out, a number of children have been forced to sleep rough. After queuing for days, dozens of children seemingly were unable to register and get their official wristbands before registration closed. Children have been left in dangerous situations, vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers.
A question to the Minister today is: what happens now to these children who travel to the UK? The Home Office is to be commended for its efforts but there is much safeguarding to be done. I refer particularly to the guardianship situation, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that all unaccompanied and separated children in the UK should have statutory independent guardians, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that England has trial programmes for trafficked children at three sites, and such a scheme should be rolled out—it has been well evaluated—as soon as possible. Children desperately need this kind of help. Our inquiry discussed the issue of guardianship on many occasions and the children’s agencies that we spoke to were unanimous in their support of it.
I also ask the Minister whether we are ensuring that there are sufficient facilities, such as those for education and health, to cope with the migrant children who will need extra language tuition and extra help with socialising. How will they be helped to integrate? When we asked one young man from Afghanistan who had entered Britain as an unaccompanied migrant what had helped him to integrate, I was surprised when he answered, “Cricket”. I am glad that cricket is so popular in Afghanistan. This chap is a spin bowler—we may need him. The story illustrates that school and community activities can be good facilitators of integration. We need more of them.
Many contentious issues are discussed in the report. Family reunification is a particularly troubling issue across EU member states. In Greece and Italy, for example, children are being denied access to rights and protection. In the UK, we need reassurances about how the children from Calais will be able to access the right to family reunification.
We have seen headlines in much of our press in the last few months about the lack of co-ordinated effort in member states of the EU, and our committee heard similar criticisms from witnesses. I consider this lack of co-ordination to be a serious flaw in dealing with migrants and, in particular, unaccompanied migrant children. Our report makes it clear, at paragraph 334, that the,
“lack of clear structures for involvement by civil society and international organisations at EU and national level risks further diffusing Member States’ responsibility for unaccompanied migrant children”.
We heard from witnesses and read reports of children travelling alone, with the threat of trafficking and abuse. We heard about the squalid conditions they had faced, about them losing siblings on harsh journeys, and about the dreadful conditions they often had to live in, with poor health resources and no education. Some had particular health issues, such as sexually transmitted infections. These children then had to deal with complex legal processes, with challenges to their age, and with uncertainty about their future as they approached 18. Some, not surprisingly, go missing—Europol estimates the figure to be around 10,000; it is probably higher.
The committee was concerned that in the current refugee crisis the Commission and member states seemed to have lost sight of unaccompanied migrant children. These children are somebody’s child or grandchild, and somebody’s brother or sister. They are children and should be treated as such. I hope that this report by the Home Affairs EU Sub-Committee will serve as a call to action. It received a good deal of press coverage and was discussed in media interviews. We raised issues to which all answers have not yet been forthcoming. Maybe they are in the government response, which I look forward to reading. I hope that the concerns expressed by our witnesses and set out in the report will be monitored for action by government and EU member states. This is an enormous EU problem with great challenges. Unless we face those challenges and look for solutions together, across all our nations, we shall let down a generation of children and fail the test of humanitarian concern.
My Lords, I add my thanks for the excellent work done by my noble friend Lady Prashar and her committee and for the excellent report they have produced. It sheds a bright light on the current crisis faced by unaccompanied migrant children, who have travelled across the globe and find that the world they have come to is failing them.
Friends and colleagues who have been working in the Refugee Community Kitchen at Calais have told me that, regardless of what is being announced, the Calais camp is not empty. The kids are not safe and have not been sorted. Those working in the kitchen are cooking and serving at all hours of the day and night.
I received another message that on Friday morning more than 100 children were still stranded in the smouldering fires, waiting for the police to sort them out. Dejected and in despair, they huddled in makeshift shelters in a school on the perimeter of the camp. Fifteen British volunteers spent the night guarding them from potential fires or people traffickers. The abandoned school is an unheated structure, made from chipboard and tarpaulin by volunteers. It is not a place where we would like to see vulnerable children huddled together.
I fear that there is some misinformation and a great deal of confusion. The most vulnerable victims are the children who mistrust the authorities, which regard them as a problem. They fear the authorities to such an extent that they choose to take to the hills, running away and disappearing. Surely in all conscience we owe a duty of care to all children, regardless of colour, creed, place of birth or even their mode of travel. They must not be labelled as immigrants and treated as a burden to society. Children are the harbingers of our future. They, along with our grandchildren, can contribute to making our future safe, comfortable and bright. Children are an asset to any country, particularly one that has a falling birth rate.
We need only to look at this country’s health and social care services to recognise the impressive contribution made by many who have been labelled as immigrants. Without more help from them, in a decade or so the increasing proportion of older and wiser citizens in this country may find it difficult to function. Mere self-interest dictates that we should welcome these children in the hope that in due course some of them will turn their hands to the care and health services and look after us.
As we know all too well, these children are here because their homes have been bombed, their villages burnt down and their families killed. There is little left for these youngsters to return to and very little offered to them to go to at this stage. Without systematic and humane assistance, evidence suggests that many of these youngsters may be caught and drafted into slavery, prostitution, petty theft—possibly even terrorism—and a raft of other misdemeanours.
By welcoming these children we can only be serving the interests of the nation. Not all these kids are traumatised or unable to help; some of them even play cricket. Many of them, given care and protection, could become invaluable citizens of our country. They could bring a great deal to this country. It is the most enterprising, brightest and best of the kids who not only manage to embark on such journeys but manage to survive and get to this country.
Many have relatives in this country who are very willing to receive them provided they are not scared of being demonised. Many others have been welcomed by generous families who have already opened their doors and offered to have them. It is not only humanitarianism and altruism that demand that we accept these children and care for them; self-interest dictates that we make the most of the situation and turn a human tragedy into a national asset. I suggest that we would do very well by accepting these children among us.
My Lords, those last remarks are very powerful. It is important to bear in mind the cost in so many ways of not being positive and welcoming and embracing these refugees at their young and sensitive age. This has been a rather solemn debate with a lot of powerful contributions. Unless I completely misunderstand and misread the Minister, I am sure that, as the person she is, she will take it very much to heart and consider it not as a debate to be refuted and rejected but one to be embraced by the Government to see what they can do to try to make the best of a bad situation.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. I had the privilege of serving on her committee and she and her colleagues have produced an outstanding report. The way that she introduced it tonight was effective and irresistible. My noble friend Lord Dubs mentioned one regret. If I have a regret, it is that we did not all focus on this report way back in the summer so that we could have had a better chance of influencing the Government. The report, after all, was published in July and it is now November before we debate it. We need to look at why it takes so long on such an important issue before we debate it and help the Government to focus.
Having mentioned my noble friend Lord Dubs, I want to say what a joy it is to have him in our midst and hear him speaking. He has been a fantastic leader to us all in terms of the personal stand that he has taken. I know that he does not really like me making these remarks, but one of the things that I find most important about him is that, having been through it all, he has not put it behind him; he lives with it and sees what that demands of him in current action. That is a very strong position and we are fortunate to have him challenging us and being so effective.
I am sorry that I cannot say this after she has spoken, but I am also very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, is here tonight. She is also someone who has been working very closely with the situation on the front line and is very much in touch with the realities and the people about whom we are talking tonight.
If I may, coming so much at the end of the debate, I want to mention one other person. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, demonstrated tonight his humanity and sensitivity. It was rather a courageous speech to make from his position, and we should all welcome the fact that he made it.
Having listened to the debate, it seems that there are certain questions outstanding that I will emphasise. First, what plans does the Home Office have to create expedited family reunions and “Dubs transfers” in other EU countries such as Greece and Italy to stop children feeling forced to make their way to France and to attempt dangerous journeys across to the UK? What will now be the situation of new children who, whatever has happened, perhaps inevitably still arrive in Calais or the French coast? How will we be able to ensure that they are able to access family reunion or “Dubs transfers”?
How will the Minister ensure that unaccompanied and separated children in England and Wales are not disadvantaged and receive the same level of protection as those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have access to independent guardians? The role of independent guardians has been emphasised in the deliberations this evening. For children who have been through this kind of trauma and experience, one cannot overemphasise the importance of having a reliable friend to whom they can turn and who is with them, taking their hand and walking with them into the future to try to make a life in our midst. It is really shameful that we in England are lagging behind Scotland and Northern Ireland.
What will the arrangements be to ensure satisfactory follow-up and monitoring of what is happening to these youngsters in their long-term future? What will happen when they turn 18 to make sure that the backing is there to enable them to make the best of their lives in terms of further or higher education or whatever?
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, remembered meeting refugees at the end of the Second World War. I am not trying to one-up him, but I was taken by my parents to an international summer camp in Scotland in 1943 for refugee children mixing with young British children, and it was a very good and enjoyable occasion. I remember at the tender age of eight being so impressed by the spirit of these children after what they had been through. There were even youngsters who had come from Norway across the North Sea in open boats to get to England. This was all happening in a grand baronial Victorian castle in Scotland called Drumtochty Castle. As I say, it was a very important experience in my formation as a youngster.
What has happened to us as a nation? We played a leading role in the creation of the United Nations and provided some of the most outstanding civil servants to serve that organisation with dedication, of whom Brian Urquhart was a particularly great example. We played a key part in the formation of UNHCR, as we did in the formation of UNICEF, and under a Conservative Government we played a key part in achieving the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We had a sense of international belonging and international responsibility. We were proud of that and wanted it to be the hallmark of the nation in which we were living. What has happened to it?
If we are to have a future outside the European Union—and, again, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made the point most powerfully and rightly—how are we going to build an alternative? What are we going to do? Are we going to regenerate and put the resources, leadership and drive that should be in place to create a new and stronger future for UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank and the UN itself? Where is the evidence that we are planning for that? It is not just about our trade, although of course it matters desperately, but what is the real role in the world that we want to play and how are we planning for it?
I conclude by simply making this point. Do not let us think that this is a one-off situation, because it is not. With global climate change and all the instability in the world, we are going to see this story repeated in one way or another over and over again. Let us think about the children, the mothers and the fathers who have been dying in despair as they drown, trying to escape tyranny and oppression. We must think of the predicament of those children who have made it here. Let us remember that the same thing is happening right now in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, east and west Africa, and in the Horn of Africa. There are children in those places who are every bit as desperate. If we as a nation are to have any kind of future at all in which we can take pride, we must base it on a commitment second to none in terms of humanity and world responsibility. Our participation in the international institutions is going to become more important than it has ever been.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and her committee for the very thorough evaluation they have undertaken of this difficult and emotional subject where the welfare of vulnerable children is under the microscope. I add my voice to others who have expressed great regret that we were not able to hear the response of the noble Baroness to the Government’s response to the committee’s report, given that they only delivered it to her at the eleventh hour. Before I go any further I should like to associate myself with the remarks made by every noble Lord who has spoken in the debate. I have not been here very long, but I honestly do not think that I have sat through a debate and agreed with every single word that has been spoken. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has put into this issue. His authoritative voice comes from personal experience and speaks volumes. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Roberts whose terrier-like qualities in keeping this issue alive week after week have kept us all on our toes and aware of what is happening around us.
I shall speak from a narrow but I hope well-informed perspective about the camp in Calais known as the Jungle. The first of my numerous visits to the Jungle took place in October 2015 when I took some basic humanitarian aid in the boot of my car and headed out to meet a representative of Save the Children. To say that I was shocked by what I found would be an understatement. The Jungle was a muddy swamp with very few toilets, flimsy tents providing little protection from the biting wind, few water taps and no drainage. It was a filthy quagmire and a humanitarian apocalypse. Even more shocking was the revelation by representatives of Save the Children that they could not work overtly in the camp as they were not recognised by the French Government. However, they knew that there were young children in the camp and that more and more unaccompanied children were arriving. Fear for their protection was growing following a statement by Europol that, of the 90,000 or so estimated minors in Europe, 10,000 had gone missing, with evidence suggesting that some had fallen into the hands of child traffickers. Sexual exploitation at the hands of organised crime was feared.
To add to my consternation, not only was Save the Children not there, but no recognised humanitarian NGO was present either. It was left to young volunteers with no previous experience of relief work to provide the very basic humanitarian needs of food, water, shelter and warmth. Without these young people, some of whom have stayed throughout the time of the camp’s existence, people would have died in the winter cold of 2015-16. I salute these individuals, and put on record my admiration for the humanity they showed and the hope they gave to some of the most desperate people I have ever met.
However, their actions put into sharp relief the failure of the Governments of two of the richest countries in the world to adhere to their moral and legal duties. The report is persistent in highlighting the lack of regard on the part of almost all EU countries for domestic and European law. Paragraph 35 sums up our Government’s legal duties well:
“in 1991, and the rights of unaccompanied migrant children are now enshrined in national legislation. Specifically, the Immigration Act 2009 imposes a statutory duty on the Secretary of State, and those acting on his or her behalf, to ensure that all decisions relating to the ‘immigration, asylum or nationality’ of children are discharged having regard to their welfare”.
Our duties could not be clearer. However, not only were the most horrendous conditions allowed to persist, but the plight of unaccompanied minors with family reunification claims on the UK was alleviated at only the slowest possible rate. Only in the last few weeks, faced with a barrage of adverse publicity concerning the demolition of the Jungle, have we seen any sense of urgency from the Government.
I was in Calais all last week during the demolition of the Jungle and witnessed the most appalling treatment of minors. If I may, I will read out an extract from an email I sent to the Home Secretary on the morning of Wednesday
“I am writing to express my extreme anger at the treatment I witnessed last night of around one hundred minors who were denied access to the processing centre. These young people had queued since 6 am at the registration warehouse on a grass verge. The early mornings here are very cold, and many wore only sandals and light jackets. Having been herded about all day like cattle, with no water or food, they were told at 3 pm that registration for minors had been closed for the day. They did not know where to go—they were too frightened to go back to their tents because adults who had been keeping an eye on them had already left and they were now on their own.
At one point it was thought that they would be able to stay overnight at the registration warehouse as many beds were available, however that option was rejected. It was then thought that the containers may be able to give them shelter, but that too was rejected by the sous-préfet.
I, together with some of the young volunteers, found accommodation for some in a school, whilst others went to a mosque. We managed to find something for them to eat, as they hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. They then had to move a few hours later because of fires in camp. They spent what remained of the night in ‘No Man’s Land’, sheltering as best they could under the motorway bridge.
This morning they are back in the queue. These are mostly young boys who are fourteen plus but, nevertheless, still obviously minors. To their credit, throughout yesterday’s events they remained calm and compliant; they do not deserve this inhumane treatment”.
This series of events was repeated on Wednesday night and Thursday night.
This is a shameful indictment of the failings of two of the richest countries in the world. We in Britain cannot escape blame for failing to remove children from the camp through the family reunification route under Dublin III, and for ignoring our legal duties under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, popularly known as the Dubs route.
Why did our Government not earmark some of the millions given to the French to manage this problem to make conditions in the camp just a little more humane? The reason, and the reason behind the refusal of the French to recognise the camp and allow humanitarian NGOs to work there, is that both countries are consumed by a belief that this will increase “pull factors” and attract more people to the camp. I am pleased to see that this was tackled head on in the report in several places, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Professor Crawley says in paragraph 59:
“We are dealing with push factors rather than pull factors—of war, terrorism, extreme poverty, and others”.
The report does well to demolish the theory that allowing unaccompanied minors to be reunited with their parents is a “pull factor”. It states:
“If this were so we would expect to see evidence of this happening in Member States that participate in the Family Reunification Directive. Instead, the evidence shows that some children are reluctant to seek family reunification, for fear that it may place family members in danger”.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, quoted something very similar.
Britain has a responsibility to come to a shared solution with the French regarding Calais. That it recognises this responsibility is clear, because we have seen millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money handed over to the French to help them manage the problem. It is a problem that exists on French soil because of the arrangement whereby juxtaposed border controls exist on the two sides of the Channel ports. However, from the French perspective, the reciprocal arrangement is looking increasingly one-sided. The French President, François Hollande, demands that Britain take more of the 1,500 or so unaccompanied minors than it has so far committed to do. Our Prime Minister has said no. Will the Minister comment on the future viability of this agreement and on the extent to which she thinks the benefits to the French outweigh the disbenefits now that we live in a Brexit era?
We cannot do much to help the children of Aleppo escape their desperate plight, but once those who seek sanctuary arrive on our doorstep in Calais, surely we can treat them with humanity and some dignity. There remain in the remnants of the Jungle 1,500—maybe more—unaccompanied minors housed in converted shipping containers. We are told that tomorrow they will be relocated to special reception centres for children, and that Home Office officials will go with them and resume processing Dublin III and Dubs children on Thursday. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that this in fact happens and that the youngest are prioritised? I seek this assurance because on so many occasions I and the associations working with young people on the ground in Calais have been disappointed. Unless we deliver on this latest promise, children will go missing as they leave the reception centres in despair.
The mass movement of people that we are seeing—the largest mass movement of people in Europe since the Second World War—is a challenge that we in the West must rise to resolve. No one country can provide the answers; it needs leadership with vision and a commitment to bear our share of the burden. I hope that our Prime Minister will rise to the challenge and fulfil our moral and legal duty, as we have done proudly in the past. She could do worse than follow the recommendations within this excellent report.
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for this Motion and for bringing to the attention of the House the excellent report of the European Union Committee. I should declare that I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and we have accepted a number of children from the camp at Calais in recent days. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I want to place on record my thanks to the committee for producing this report, which enables us to discuss these matters—which are a human tragedy—and the efforts of the European Union to respond, especially in dealing with the thousands of children caught up in conflict. The report quite rightly points out that this is the greatest humanitarian challenge to have faced the European Union since its foundation. We are a full member of the European Union and, until we formally leave, we have a duty to play our full role, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said. I hope, as I am sure do many other noble Lords, that even after we have left the European Union there will be no question of the United Kingdom not playing its full role as part of the family of nations.
The refugee crisis, which some of us see only through the television and newspapers and via reports from the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and others, is truly heart-breaking. Images of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and of bodies of young children being picked out of the ocean or washed up on beaches only bring to the forefront the tragedy unfolding before us.
It is important to remember that we are focusing here on unaccompanied migrant children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, outlined, these are young people under the age of 18 who need particular support and protection to ensure that they do not become the victims of people traffickers, smugglers and other criminal gangs who want to abuse and exploit them.
The figures for children suspected of having gone missing should be of the greatest alarm to us all. It is clear that, despite the various agreements, legal acts and court decisions that form the basis of the protection of refugees, especially children in the European Union, as a whole the European Union is fundamentally failing in its obligation under EU and international law. Looking at the application of existing standards, I think it is clear that the application of agreements and compliance with obligations vary considerably among the member states. The European Asylum Support Office needs to be strengthened to help with the monitoring of compliance and the provision of data to highlight failures in this respect. The inconsistent application of standards should be something of considerable worry to this House.
Conditions at the camp outside Calais before its destruction were described as wholly unsuitable for children. I accept entirely that this camp is, or was, on French territory and that the UK Government and UK agencies have to work within the parameters set by the French authorities, but the Government must prioritise and work with the French Government to ensure that children are given safe accommodation while their asylum claims are assessed. What assurance can the Minister give the House that such action is taking place, especially now that the camp is in the process of being demolished?
It would also be useful to the House if the Minister could give us an update on the number of children who have been brought to the UK, what provision has been made for them here and where they have been relocated to. As I said in my opening remarks, I am aware that my own authority has taken some of the children.
I thank those local authorities that have responded and taken children. I particularly pay tribute to Kent County Council, which has for many years stepped up and delivered when dealing with migrant families and children. Councillor Paul Carter and his team deserve our thanks for the work they have undertaken over many years.
The disappearance of unaccompanied migrant children is, as the report highlights, the final consequence of failure by member states, including the United Kingdom, and that should be a matter of grave concern to us all. Will the Minister tell the House what action and assistance the Home Office, the police and other agencies are giving the French authorities and other authorities to locate these missing children? What assistance are they giving to prevent any more children going missing?
The situation in Italy is one that we appear to hear less about than that at Calais or in Greece. It is my understanding that twice as many children have arrived in Italy in the last year than in the previous 12 months, but there have been no transfers to the UK from Italy, as far as I am aware. Will the Minister update the House on the work the Government are undertaking with the Italian authorities to identify children who would be eligible to transfer to the UK under either Dublin III or Dubs? Will she comment on why there have been no transfers to the UK, if I am correct about that? What staff do we have on the ground and which are the local agencies we are working with? Does she see any particular failures or blockages in the system that urgently need to be addressed?
Will the Minister update the House on the situation in Greece? What action is the UK undertaking there? All reports say that the care system in Greece is overwhelmed. How many children have been transferred to the UK from Greece? Can the Minister confirm whether officials on the ground in Greece are only working with the Greek authorities in respect of children inside the formal shelters, or is work also taking place to assist children who are outside the formal shelters?
Noble Lords have made excellent contributions to this debates and I agree with every one of them. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, asked in her opening remarks how we were so ill-prepared. That is a question the Government need to answer. To have received the response to the report today, an hour before the debate, is just not acceptable—my noble friend Lord Soley referred to that.
My noble friend Lord Dubs has championed the cause of these children and I agree with him that it is unfortunate that age became an issue. I also agree with him that all countries should step up and take their fair share of the child refugees. We owe my noble friend a great debt for his tenacious campaigning to enable this country to live up to its obligations and its reputation.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, highlighted the pressure that has been brought to bear on the Government to get them to move on providing an effective response to the crisis. The noble Lord has kept this issue on the table in your Lordships’ House and we thank him for that.
My noble friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale painted a picture of some of the terrible journeys that these children and young people have endured. The question he posed is very pertinent: what have the European Union and the UK been doing in recent times and why have obligations not been taken up and international and European law not respected? Our specific obligations, as a member of the UN Security Council and because of our history in the world, need to be addressed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made some excellent points about the support and funding these children receive when they are in the UK, the struggle some of them have to access mainstream education and their need for specific healthcare services.
My noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen spoke, among other things, about the dangers that children face when sleeping rough, the squalid conditions they face when trying to find a place of safety, and the risk they face from people smugglers, criminal gangs and people who want to do them harm.
The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, highlighted the dangerous situation that the children in the Calais area still face. This shows how important it is for the British Government to be fully engaged with this dreadful situation and provide protection and a place of safety to as many of these young people as possible.
My noble friend Lord Judd made a very important point, asking: how is it that such an important report on such an important issue—very much a live issue, developing day by day—was not debated when we were sitting in September? I have no idea how these reports are selected for debate at a particular time. It is regrettable that this report was not considered by this noble House six or seven weeks ago.
The fact is that there have been many failures by the European Union. Responses to the humanitarian tragedy have not been co-ordinated, states have not worked together, and the responses and solutions have been piecemeal and have created their own problems. This country is not immune from that criticism, which should be of great concern to us all. We have always played our full part among the family of nations in responding to the disasters and crises that engulf our world. We should all be very proud of that fact and ashamed that we have not taken the lead in this situation as we should have done. We have dragged our feet and finally have been forced to take action.
Reports such as this one—which challenge what we and our European partners have done—and the actions of many Members of both Houses, the charity and voluntary sector and the general public have shone a light and brought pressure to bear that has finally enabled action to be taken. However, I feel that we could have done better. I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in this respect.
In conclusion, I thank again the European Union Committee and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for an excellent report, which has resulted in this excellent debate tonight.
My Lords, I thank the European Union Committee for producing its report on unaccompanied migrant children in the EU, and thank all noble Lords who have spoken so powerfully in this debate.
The Government recognise the plight of unaccompanied migrant children in Europe and we are addressing this on a number of fronts. We take our commitments towards these unaccompanied migrant children extremely seriously. We have already made significant progress in speeding up the transfer of children who already have close family members in the UK. The Government began work on this under the Immigration Act immediately after the Bill gained Royal Assent. Since Royal Assent and before
I must make it clear, and I am sure noble Lords know, that we need the permission of sovereign member states to operate on their territory and we need to abide by their laws. We are focusing on France, Greece and Italy but we can operate only in ways agreed with those member states. It is important to make that clear at this point.
We are also working with local authorities to ensure that children are fully supported on arrival in the UK, and we are making progress on the national transfer scheme, including a commitment to increase funding. We encourage more local authorities to come forward. At this point, I pay tribute to the local authorities which have come forward. People have mentioned local authorities which have been so good, such as Hammersmith and Ealing—what was the other one?
Lewisham, yes. Because people were mentioning London, I thought that I would pick out some really good ones there. There is also Kent, of course, which should really be thanked for its efforts. Accompanying what local authorities are doing, we have substantially increased their levels of funding to provide care for these unaccompanied children. The daily rates have increased by more than 20% and we have made an additional £60,000 available for each region to co-ordinate its efforts.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talked about the wider commitment regarding the 20,000 refugees from the Syrian region. We have had pledges from local authorities which will enable us to meet that commitment. So far, we have had nearly 3,000 people from that total of 20,000, so we fully expect to meet that commitment by 2020. The children accepted under Dublin III or the wider Immigration Act criteria are in addition to, not subtracted from, that 20,000. In addition, the UK supports a number of unaccompanied children who arrive directly in the UK through our resettlement schemes and the refugee family reunion visa route.
As well as bringing children to the UK, we are supporting partners across Europe. The UK has established a £10 million refugee children fund for Europe particularly to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe. The fund includes targeted support to meet the specific needs of unaccompanied and separated children. That support includes identifying children in need, providing safe places for children at risk, data management to trace children to their families and services such as counselling and legal advice. However, our overall approach must focus further upstream to reduce the incentives for refugees to put their lives at risk by making perilous journeys to Europe. We are and always have been clear about our moral responsibility to assist those who are suffering, including by providing support in conflict regions, development work upstream and protection to those who need it. The Government are fully committed to providing a wide-reaching response to the refugee crisis that protects children.
Perhaps I may move on to some specific questions from noble Lords. There were quite a few, so I hope I can get through them. I start with the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who asked about speeding up the process. I think I have gone through that but she also talked about guardianship, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. The Government believe that the addition of a guardian to the existing framework risks adding another level of unhelpful complexity to those arrangements. The statutory arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are that they are looked after by local authorities, in keeping with the arrangements for all children in the UK.
A number of points were made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I think by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about whether our children will be treated the same as children who might come into our care from other countries, and vice versa. The answer is absolutely yes. Once children are in our care, it is the responsibility of local authorities and, indeed, the state to ensure that they are looked after as if they were our own children. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are provided with a professional social worker and will also have an independent reviewing officer to oversee their care arrangements.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the latest figures from Calais. I think I provided them. There were more than 300 children. We are still working to transfer further children eligible to come to the UK. Over the next few weeks we expect several hundred more children to come to the UK. The noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord McConnell, also asked that question.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, alluded to the fact that the Government committed to publishing a safeguarding strategy by
We are working to identify children in Italy and Greece. We must remember that for Dubs we are identifying children who entered the EU before
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, talked about the delay in the Government’s response to the report. I take this opportunity to apologise for the delay. The Government welcome the report and have fully considered it. I am sure noble Lords will agree that the visible progress we have made with transferring children to the UK demonstrates our commitment to the issue. We support the principle of family reunion, which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, asked about, but the Government have no plans to change their policy on family reunion because there are several routes for families to be reunited without the need for children to travel to the UK illegally. The Government believe that the wrong kind of family reunion policy will lead to more children setting out unaccompanied on journeys that will put their lives at risk, and we do not want that. We have granted more than 22,000 visas under this policy over the past five years.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, asked about the wider refugee effort. We believe that the best way to help the majority of the many millions of displaced individuals across the globe is through practical and political action within the affected regions. As noble Lords will know, we have pledged £2.3 billion to the Syrian relief effort, which is double the amount originally pledged. Helping the people in Syria and the neighbouring countries in the region reduces the need for them to make perilous journeys to the EU. Our approach is to resettle the most vulnerable directly from the affected regions.
In terms of the Mediterranean response and Africa, the UK is providing £70 million to the Mediterranean migration crisis response, while nearly £9 million is allocated to the wider response in Africa and to research. The UK participates fully in vital life-saving and countermigration activities in the Mediterranean. To date, the UK assets of Operation Sophia and those operating in support of FRONTEX have saved more than 17,000 lives, I am very proud to say.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about best interests, which I dealt with in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We absolutely think it is a primary consideration and we welcome EU efforts to ensure this principle is fully implemented in all member states. The Government also agree that children must be registered as quickly as possible in the first member state in which they arrive.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked about age assessments and support for over-18s. We use a number of determining factors for assessing age including credible and clear documentary evidence proving a claimed age, and physical appearance and demeanour, although I take the point about children being changed as they undergo extreme hardship and stress. The Merton-compliant age assessments which we use in this country are undertaken by a local authority and must be signed off by two social workers. As I explained to the House the other week, we do not use dental X-rays. The British Dental Association is opposed to using them, and has described them as “inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical”. In terms of support for over-18s, in July the rates for care leavers rose by 33%.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, talked about expedited family reunions and the process from Greece and Italy. We have obviously prioritised in France given that the situation was particularly difficult, but we are working closely with the Greek authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and NGOs operating in Greece, as I said earlier. He also asked about access to Dublin and Dubs across the EU. The Dublin regulation obviously applies across the EU, while Dubs is part of our own national law and is not EU law. However, we continue to ensure that the Dublin process of transferring cases into and out of the UK works effectively, while for Section 67 of the Immigration Act, we are focusing on France, Italy and Greece. The Act is clear that it must be refugee children. In responding to the migration crisis, we must remember that one all migrants are refugees.
In terms of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is supporting vulnerable children. In the year ending June 2016, almost 50% of those included were children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about minors in the camp. Ahead of the camp clearance, the French authorities gave their assurance that any migrants, including children, would be accommodated and supported if they were willing to claim asylum in France, and more than 5,000 migrants took up that offer. She talked about our relationship with the French. We continue to work closely with them. On managing the Calais camp clearance, we are prioritising the assessment and transfer of the youngest, as she asked, and those at high risk of sexual exploitation, which is only right and proper. She talked about the UN refugee convention. As a signatory to the 1951 convention, the UK has a long tradition of providing protection to those who need it most, and we fully consider all asylum claims lodged in the UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, talked about unaccompanied children. Of course we recognise the plight of, and terrible experiences suffered by, some of those unaccompanied migrant children in Europe, and we continue to work with the Italians and the Greeks to identify them. The noble Lord made a really important point about working with member states and the EU to protect children and ensure that they do not go missing, and we note the European Commission’s new proposal to lower the age of fingerprinting of children from 14 to six. The Government welcome that proposal in respect of safeguarding children.
I think that I have answered all the questions. If I have not, I will write to noble Lords. I thank noble Lords for the very good points that they have made in this debate and apologise for the late arrival of the response. As I said, I shall follow up in writing any points that I have not answered.
My Lords, I thank all Members who have participated in this debate. The strength of feeling about this issue is unanimous, it has been a powerful debate and I hope that it will be followed by proper action.
I thank the Minister for her response. She has attempted to answer the questions, but I must say that I am a little disappointed that the question of guardianship has been dismissed as adding another layer. Apart from dealing with the current crisis humanely and with compassion, it is extremely important that once children are here, they are properly supported. Otherwise, we are storing up problems for later. We need to consider that. She made another point that goes against the evidence that we received: family reunification does not act as a pull factor; it is the push factors that are at play.
Having said that, I thank the Minister for her response and all the Members of the House who participated in the debate.