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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:38 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 8:38 pm, 1st November 2016

Lewisham, yes. Because people were mentioning London, I thought that I would pick out some really good ones there. There is also Kent, of course, which should really be thanked for its efforts. Accompanying what local authorities are doing, we have substantially increased their levels of funding to provide care for these unaccompanied children. The daily rates have increased by more than 20% and we have made an additional £60,000 available for each region to co-ordinate its efforts.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talked about the wider commitment regarding the 20,000 refugees from the Syrian region. We have had pledges from local authorities which will enable us to meet that commitment. So far, we have had nearly 3,000 people from that total of 20,000, so we fully expect to meet that commitment by 2020. The children accepted under Dublin III or the wider Immigration Act criteria are in addition to, not subtracted from, that 20,000. In addition, the UK supports a number of unaccompanied children who arrive directly in the UK through our resettlement schemes and the refugee family reunion visa route.

As well as bringing children to the UK, we are supporting partners across Europe. The UK has established a £10 million refugee children fund for Europe particularly to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe. The fund includes targeted support to meet the specific needs of unaccompanied and separated children. That support includes identifying children in need, providing safe places for children at risk, data management to trace children to their families and services such as counselling and legal advice. However, our overall approach must focus further upstream to reduce the incentives for refugees to put their lives at risk by making perilous journeys to Europe. We are and always have been clear about our moral responsibility to assist those who are suffering, including by providing support in conflict regions, development work upstream and protection to those who need it. The Government are fully committed to providing a wide-reaching response to the refugee crisis that protects children.

Perhaps I may move on to some specific questions from noble Lords. There were quite a few, so I hope I can get through them. I start with the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who asked about speeding up the process. I think I have gone through that but she also talked about guardianship, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. The Government believe that the addition of a guardian to the existing framework risks adding another level of unhelpful complexity to those arrangements. The statutory arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are that they are looked after by local authorities, in keeping with the arrangements for all children in the UK.

A number of points were made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I think by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about whether our children will be treated the same as children who might come into our care from other countries, and vice versa. The answer is absolutely yes. Once children are in our care, it is the responsibility of local authorities and, indeed, the state to ensure that they are looked after as if they were our own children. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are provided with a professional social worker and will also have an independent reviewing officer to oversee their care arrangements.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the latest figures from Calais. I think I provided them. There were more than 300 children. We are still working to transfer further children eligible to come to the UK. Over the next few weeks we expect several hundred more children to come to the UK. The noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord McConnell, also asked that question.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, alluded to the fact that the Government committed to publishing a safeguarding strategy by 1 May 2017 which will set out details on how unaccompanied and refugee children arriving in the UK should be safeguarded. I am glad the noble Lord mentioned the strategy so that I can say something about it. It is being published today and will cover both Dublin and Dubs. Best interests will be part of it as part of evaluating our process. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is always very clear about the best interests of the child being met. Whether the UK will participate in Dublin following Brexit will be a key part of the considerations as part of the process of leaving the EU.

We are working to identify children in Italy and Greece. We must remember that for Dubs we are identifying children who entered the EU before 20 March. We do not want to incentivise children to take perilous journeys. That has been clear all along. We are working closely with the Greek authorities, the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and NGOs operating in Greece to identify children. We are doing all we can, but we must remember that we are working on Greek territory and can work only with Greece’s full agreement. We have a full-time secondee based in Greece, plus a number of staff deployed as part of wider efforts on migration, and we have 58 experts under the EU-Turkey deal. We are working hard to overcome a number of challenges including varied lists of children; a number of separated rather than unaccompanied children; nationalities that would not normally qualify for refugee status; and the EU’s relocation scheme that may relocate some of the children. In Italy, we have offered to help process cases, but so far we are waiting for agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, talked about the delay in the Government’s response to the report. I take this opportunity to apologise for the delay. The Government welcome the report and have fully considered it. I am sure noble Lords will agree that the visible progress we have made with transferring children to the UK demonstrates our commitment to the issue. We support the principle of family reunion, which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, asked about, but the Government have no plans to change their policy on family reunion because there are several routes for families to be reunited without the need for children to travel to the UK illegally. The Government believe that the wrong kind of family reunion policy will lead to more children setting out unaccompanied on journeys that will put their lives at risk, and we do not want that. We have granted more than 22,000 visas under this policy over the past five years.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, asked about the wider refugee effort. We believe that the best way to help the majority of the many millions of displaced individuals across the globe is through practical and political action within the affected regions. As noble Lords will know, we have pledged £2.3 billion to the Syrian relief effort, which is double the amount originally pledged. Helping the people in Syria and the neighbouring countries in the region reduces the need for them to make perilous journeys to the EU. Our approach is to resettle the most vulnerable directly from the affected regions.

In terms of the Mediterranean response and Africa, the UK is providing £70 million to the Mediterranean migration crisis response, while nearly £9 million is allocated to the wider response in Africa and to research. The UK participates fully in vital life-saving and countermigration activities in the Mediterranean. To date, the UK assets of Operation Sophia and those operating in support of FRONTEX have saved more than 17,000 lives, I am very proud to say.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about best interests, which I dealt with in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We absolutely think it is a primary consideration and we welcome EU efforts to ensure this principle is fully implemented in all member states. The Government also agree that children must be registered as quickly as possible in the first member state in which they arrive.

The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked about age assessments and support for over-18s. We use a number of determining factors for assessing age including credible and clear documentary evidence proving a claimed age, and physical appearance and demeanour, although I take the point about children being changed as they undergo extreme hardship and stress. The Merton-compliant age assessments which we use in this country are undertaken by a local authority and must be signed off by two social workers. As I explained to the House the other week, we do not use dental X-rays. The British Dental Association is opposed to using them, and has described them as “inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical”. In terms of support for over-18s, in July the rates for care leavers rose by 33%.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, talked about expedited family reunions and the process from Greece and Italy. We have obviously prioritised in France given that the situation was particularly difficult, but we are working closely with the Greek authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and NGOs operating in Greece, as I said earlier. He also asked about access to Dublin and Dubs across the EU. The Dublin regulation obviously applies across the EU, while Dubs is part of our own national law and is not EU law. However, we continue to ensure that the Dublin process of transferring cases into and out of the UK works effectively, while for Section 67 of the Immigration Act, we are focusing on France, Italy and Greece. The Act is clear that it must be refugee children. In responding to the migration crisis, we must remember that one all migrants are refugees.

In terms of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is supporting vulnerable children. In the year ending June 2016, almost 50% of those included were children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about minors in the camp. Ahead of the camp clearance, the French authorities gave their assurance that any migrants, including children, would be accommodated and supported if they were willing to claim asylum in France, and more than 5,000 migrants took up that offer. She talked about our relationship with the French. We continue to work closely with them. On managing the Calais camp clearance, we are prioritising the assessment and transfer of the youngest, as she asked, and those at high risk of sexual exploitation, which is only right and proper. She talked about the UN refugee convention. As a signatory to the 1951 convention, the UK has a long tradition of providing protection to those who need it most, and we fully consider all asylum claims lodged in the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, talked about unaccompanied children. Of course we recognise the plight of, and terrible experiences suffered by, some of those unaccompanied migrant children in Europe, and we continue to work with the Italians and the Greeks to identify them. The noble Lord made a really important point about working with member states and the EU to protect children and ensure that they do not go missing, and we note the European Commission’s new proposal to lower the age of fingerprinting of children from 14 to six. The Government welcome that proposal in respect of safeguarding children.

I think that I have answered all the questions. If I have not, I will write to noble Lords. I thank noble Lords for the very good points that they have made in this debate and apologise for the late arrival of the response. As I said, I shall follow up in writing any points that I have not answered.