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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.