We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
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.