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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 8:13 pm, 1st November 2016

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:

“So far as domestic law is concerned, the UK ratified the UNCRC”— the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

“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 26 October:

“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.