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EU: Unaccompanied Migrant Children (EUC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:07 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 7:07 pm, 1st November 2016

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 26 July and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, was given the response at 5 pm on the very day of the debate. If I were back in my schoolmaster days, I would say to my noble friend on the Front Bench, although she is not personally responsible, “Could do much better”.

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.