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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.