Unaccompanied Refugee Children

– in the Scottish Parliament on 26th January 2016.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding how it could assist in accommodating 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. (S4T-01299)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Scotland has a proud history of providing refuge to vulnerable people and this group of children is especially vulnerable. The Scottish Government welcomes the interventions by organisations such as Save the Children and Citizens UK to raise awareness of the plight of the 26,000 Syrian children who are estimated to be in Europe.

We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to do more. Action must be taken promptly to avoid further tragedies of the type that we have seen in the past few months. I have raised the matter in conversation with Richard Harrington, who is the minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees, and it has also been discussed by the Scottish refugee task force.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for his response, with which I agree. As Save the Children has pointed out, making it to Europe does not mean that children are safe.

Although the UK Government’s position appears to be softening, so far it has not played its full part in offering shelter. Every day that it waits, 3,000 unaccompanied orphan children sleep rough unnecessarily. Those children are vulnerable to not only deadly winter conditions and disease but trafficking and exploitation.

To demonstrate that Scotland is ready to play its part, have Scottish ministers indicated how many unaccompanied children Scotland could accommodate? Have they made it clear that those 3,000 children should be in addition to the 20,000 whom the UK Government has pledged to take from camps around Syria?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I agree with the sentiments behind Liam McArthur’s question. On his specific points, we have discussed the issue with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—in fact, I have just come off the phone to it. It is fair to say that local authorities are sympathetic, as all of us are. COSLA has made the valid point that there has to be a well-resourced package for unaccompanied children. We agree with it that this is quite a resource-intensive endeavour to undertake.

We would like the UK Government ultimately to decide to accept unaccompanied Syrian refugee children. That is a decision for it. If it decides to do that, it will be important that it has a discussion with the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities about a well-resourced package.

I have made it known that we are willing to play a part. I have written to the Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, to let her know that Scotland is willing to play her part, and I know from speaking to COSLA that it is also willing to do so. Shortly after this discussion, I am to meet Save the Children to discuss the proposal in more detail. The Scottish Government certainly will do anything that we can do, and anything that we can do to make it known to the UK Government that we are willing to play our part.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

As the minister will be aware, such children would be among the most vulnerable individuals to arrive in the UK. In fleeing terror and persecution, they need protection and a future.

The minister mentioned resources and I fully accept the point that he made. He will have seen the report in the Sunday Herald at the weekend that suggested that the number of children who have been referred to the Scottish guardianship service has risen by 80 per cent since 2014. Has the Scottish Government discussed that escalation with the service? Will the Government undertake to examine how it can help to ensure that enough guardians are available and that there is sufficient access to supported accommodation and the foster care placements that are required?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I saw the report in the Sunday Herald, which the Scottish Government commented on. Through funding the Scottish guardianship service—that funding has increased—the Scottish Government has enabled separated children to learn about the welfare and immigration processes directly with information that is made relevant to their specific circumstances. Notwithstanding that, I know that the Scottish Government will continue to have discussions with local authorities, as they will be key partners in everything that we do.

The political momentum on unaccompanied refugee children is overwhelming. I know that Tim Farron has been vocal on the matter, as Jeremy Corbyn was on a recent visit, and the Scottish Government certainly has been. It is important that we ensure that, in Scotland as well as across the UK, local authorities are given the resources that they require for that. It is very much a decision for the UK Government.

To give credit to the UK Government, it approached the issue of refugees previously in an open manner. I hope that it will approach the issue in an open-minded manner with local authorities, should it decide to take unaccompanied children.

To answer Liam McArthur’s direct previous question, which I did not, the number should be above and beyond the 20,000 people whom the UK Government has agreed to take.

Photo of Roderick Campbell Roderick Campbell Scottish National Party

Will the minister provide any further information on how the Scottish Government assists unaccompanied refugee children in interacting with the care system?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Through our work with the refugee task force, we have worked extensively with local authorities to ensure that Syrian refugee children who have come in through the vulnerable persons relocation scheme have been made to feel settled. Different local authorities have approached the matter in different ways. Some children have been put straight into the school system, while other children have been assessed as being not quite ready, so their entry into the school system has been staggered. Throughout the Christmas period, children were given gifts, such as toys, and were made to feel welcome.

Refugee children’s specific needs, including their care needs, will be worked through the care system at a local authority level, much as with Scottish children, but with the additional understanding that refugee children might have complex needs beforehand. The complex needs that any such children have are assessed pre-arrival in Scotland by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UK Government.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank all the members who have signed my motion on the issue. As the minister has acknowledged, unaccompanied children already come to Scotland. Many members would like that number to increase, as has been discussed.

In spite of our recognition of the burden that that would place on services in local areas and Scotland as a whole, I wonder whether we should demonstrate our willingness by putting in place mechanisms that would allow us to have the foster carers who will be needed to look after those young people and children and the other mechanisms that will be needed to support them. By the time such children come here, we must have in place those mechanisms, so that the children can be supported not just adequately but in an appropriate way for their complex needs, as the minister said, because they are often the most vulnerable children in the camps where they are located.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

The member makes a valid point. The Scottish Government works closely with local authorities to ensure that we have in place as many foster carers as possible. She is right that there is a need to do that, particularly in the big cities, including Glasgow, which she and I represent.

My extended family are foster carers. I know that foster carers from black and minority ethnic communities will be particularly important because of the profile of the refugees who will be coming here. That is another issue that we must look at.

Although we have unaccompanied asylum seekers, they are very different from the unaccompanied refugees who will be arriving. If child refugees are to be taken, their profile and complex health needs should be known. In that way, the situation should be able to be slightly more controlled and managed.

Of course, we must work with local authorities. If the UK Government decides to accept such children, it must immediately enter into discussions, as it has done in the past, with local authorities, through COSLA or bilaterally with my Government—whatever suits it best. It must then come to an agreement on a suitable package, because local authorities will have to deal with the burden—if that is the right word—and with the financial costs and the implications of taking unaccompanied refugee children.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

It is helpful that the minister sounds positive about discussions with the UK Government. However, if the UK Government decides not to go ahead with accepting unaccompanied children, has the Scottish Government given any thought to what support it could offer to UK and European charities that are supporting such children in Europe?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

That will be part of the discussions that I have with Save the Children later today. The member will know that the Scottish Government cannot unilaterally accept refugees; ultimately, that is a decision for the UK Government. We have given a fair amount of funding to non-governmental organisations that are working in, for example, Lesbos, where a number of unaccompanied refugee children are arriving. When I was on the island of Lesbos, a dinghy came into shore. A number of young children on it were accompanied not by their parents or even their blood aunties or uncles but by their neighbours and so on. They were in a vulnerable position indeed.

If the Scottish Government can do more, we will always look to do that. That will be part of my discussions with Save the Children. As I said, the decision is for the UK Government, but the noises from it in the past few days have been positive. Let us hope that a decision is made soon, because the crisis is going on right here, right now.