Only a few months after the government agreed to take unaccompanied child refugees from Europe, the Minister for Immigration tried to announce quietly this week that the scheme would end in March.
It’s a shameful decision, and you can see my intervention in today’s urgent debate.
When the House of Commons voted to reject the Dubs amendment last year by 294 votes to 276, it led to a public outcry. In the collective consciousness of the British public was seared the image of the dead child Ayan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean shore the previous year. In our minds were the warnings from Save the Children that possibly 26,000 lonely children were somewhere in Europe, vulnerable to cold, lack of food or medical care, denied education and most frightening of all, at high risk of sexual or other forms of exploitation. The Dubs amendment, passed in the Lords, sought to commit the government to bringing 3,000 of these children to the UK.
The government responded by committing to taking an unlimited number of unaccompanied child asylum seekers from Europe. At the time I was cautiously optimistic that this signalled a real commitment to safeguarding children who seek our care and protection. I believed that the government was responding in the national interest.
I truly believe that it’s time we recognised that, if children are on their way here, if asylum seekers of all ages make perilous journeys to escape war and persecution with the hope of reaching the United Kingdom, this is something we should be proud of and marked out openly as something to feature in our patriotism.
The government provided financial support to help local authorities cope, just as it does with the Syrian Refugee Settlement scheme. This is something to be proud of, that we welcome and make provision for those to whom we owe a moral and legal duty under the UN Convention on Refugees and other legislation.
Less than one year on, pushed out in a written statement yesterday afternoon when the government perhaps hoped we would not notice, the Minister for Immigration announced that this scheme would come to an end at the end of March.
This signals to me a two-tier approach to refugees and asylum seekers and one which I want to challenge.
If you managed to make it to the UK as a child during the months of the Dubs scheme, you are hopefully now well cared for, with support from British communities and councils across the country.
If you came here as a child under the Syrian Resettlement Scheme, you’re hopefully with your family and again, safe in this country, given a welcome and a new start.
But if you’ve not already been picked up by the Dubs scheme, if you’re still somewhere out on your own in Europe, you’re likely to be still vulnerable and in danger.
If you’re Syrian but not part of the resettlement scheme, or the child of another country of origin, you will not be given the welcome and integration support that Dubs and resettlement scheme children have. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, which I chair, has recently completed a public inquiry into the ways we welcome refugees from the point they are granted their status as refugees by the Home Office onwards. I am sorry to say that this too points to the two-tier system and when the report and recommendations are published shortly I hope to speak in Parliament about this.
My focus now, however, is on the children who are getting the lower tier of this two-tier system; those who are being left out completely.
In his statement, the Minister for Immigration did not say whether or not there are any children still in Europe alone. Nor did he pledge to work with other ministers from our partner countries in Europe. He did not give any assurances that we will continue to live up to our patriotism and our pride in the welcome we give refugees.
I know that some will say that vulnerable children should be the responsibility of the European country in which they currently are. But we should be proud that so many of these children have heard that in the UK they will get a warm and safe welcome. Why not be proud of stepping up and going beyond some of our European partners? Why not recognise that for many of these children, there’s a family member already in the UK who has been granted refugee status and with whom they could be safely reunited? Why not put yourselves in the shoes of a child who does not speak the language of the European country they are currently crossing, does not know the system and desperately wants to be reunited with family in the UK? Why would we not want to help that child? Why would we not want to step up and help do our share, more than our share, to help the children currently in camps in Greece?
According to Citizens UK, 2,600 unaccompanied children have been identified in camps and shelters in Greece. Greece currently has places for 1,200. That isn’t enough, but it’s way more than the number the government says we will have taken under the Dubs scheme by the time it ends. Citizens UK also report that 25,800 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy in 2016, yet they are aware of no child who has been identified for transfer from Italy under Dubs. UNICEF finds that young children and girls are at particular risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
There are vital questions that the government needs to answer:
How many children do they estimate remain unaccompanied in Europe today?
What steps is the Home Secretary taking to work with our partners in Europe to safeguard these children and protect them from exploitation?
Why on earth has the government decided to end this scheme?
The welcoming of those who need our help is one of our most important values as patriots – to do our very best for those who seek to come here for refuge from war and persecution, to put children first in this, and to be proud of being a country they see as a safe haven.