Following Monday’s consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration Bill, there has been a furious backlash challenging the humanity and, where relevant, faith of those of us who supported the Government.
Parliament is sometimes required to make exceptionally difficult decisions in complex circumstances of mass suffering to which political power is a poor solution. Such decisions are always politicised. Typically, motives and character are condemned before an explanation is sought for an unwelcome decision.
Lord Dubs had successfully moved a new clause which would require the Home Secretary, as soon as possible, to make arrangements to relocate to the UK and provide support to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in other countries in Europe. The relocation scheme would operate in addition to the existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.
That proposal must be viewed from three perspectives: what is already being done and for whom, how to best apply limited resources to greatest benefit and what the consequences of the proposal might be.
I would encourage anyone to read the full debate, which I attended: the record may be found here. The Commons Library briefing on the amendments is here. Parliament provides an overall summary here. Below, I will bring out a few key points which explain the Government’s policy, which I support.
Ninety percent of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK are male and 61% are 16 or 17. I am given to understand that these proportions are representative of the population under discussion and that it is often difficult to establish whether young refugees are in fact under or over 18. The most common nationalities in order are Albanian, Eritrean and Afghan, followed by Syrians.
The Government’s policy is to focus on helping the most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict, especially women and girls.
The Government is therefore extending the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme from 20,000 by taking an extra 3000 children at risk in the Middle East and North Africa over the next four years. Well over 1,000 people have been resettled to date, around half of whom are children: in the next four years, several thousand more children will be resettled in the UK under the Syrian scheme.
In contrast, the 27 other countries in Europe have managed to resettle 650. Only six countries take children: 21 countries have not taken one Syrian refugee. This is where moral outrage should be directed.
In Europe, DfID have committed £46m to help support refugees with a £10m fund focused specifically on the needs of children in Europe. This includes support for family reunification across the EU. This fund will be administered by three specialist organisations including Save the Children and UNHCR. Separately, 75 UK experts are being deployed to Greece to support more effective reception screening and processing of newly arrived migrants. That will also help identify children and see that they are given appropriate support and care at the earliest opportunity. Swift processing is important to ensuring they do not take to the road.
The Minister pointed out that the Government has doubled aid for the Syrian crisis to £2.3 billion, “the largest ever response by this country to a single humanitarian crisis”. He said,
Hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt are receiving food, shelter, medical treatment and support as a consequence of the actions of the UK. … The London conference in February galvanised commitments to create an estimated 1.1 million jobs for those in the region by 2018, and quality education for 1.7 million refugee and vulnerable children by the end of the 2016-17 school year, with equal access for girls and boys.
In response to an intervention, the Minister expressed clear frustration:
We are processing 50 cases, 24 of which we have accepted, but a number of those cases are complicated. It is a question of the safeguarding measures that need to be put in place for the children to be reunited with the families who are here. It is therefore more complex than it is sometimes presented to be. That is not in any way a desire on the part of the Government, or anyone else, to encourage delay. Rather, it is about the normal child safeguarding measures that I think are appropriate. I say to the right hon. Lady and to Citizens UK that if there are cases that can be linked to families here in the UK, get them into the French system. I make that point again and again, because we stand ready to act and to take charge where there are those links, and to see that if there are children in northern France who are separated from family in the UK, action is taken.
Those processes for family reunion are of course in addition to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who make their claims in this country. With over 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children last year, I pay tribute to all those local authorities that, despite the unprecedented pressure on their services, are providing support to those young people.
In short, this country and this Government has a record of which we can be justly proud.
In addition to the Minister, a number of colleagues spoke with compassion and experience in support of the Government. I would particularly recommend David Burrowes‘ and Caroline Ansell’s contributions.
Caroline Ansell said:
Let me share just something of my experience when I went to Lesbos with Save the Children. I was struck by many things, but one was the extraordinary contrast between the almost biblical scene of men, women and children travelling on foot and in numbers across the country, and the fact that they were carrying mobile phones. All over the camps, people were huddled not around fires, but around charging stations, desperate to keep connected. One worker described to me how any change in border access or the availability of places in the camps would be communicated by mobile to friends and families following on, and shared over and over, inspiring immediate and dramatic change on the ground.
This 21st century migration through Europe is like nothing that has come before. In the light of that, how can we say with confidence that announcing 3,000 open places for minors in the UK would not affect the decisions desperate people would make and would not create risk?
In all the circumstances, not least the UK’s shortage of some 8000 foster parents, I decided that the Government deserved my support. If there were not a serious possibility of worsening the situation and if resources were not limited, if we were not already making a record contribution, then I might have rebelled against the Government. I’m conscious plans have already been extended by 3000 people and we are being asked to accept 3000 more: if the Government accepted the proposal, inevitably similar speeches would be made requiring another doubling.
In High Wycombe and elsewhere, good people are stepping up to the challenge of meeting the gaps in provision. The Government is due to come forward shortly with proposals on a community sponsorship scheme: I will write to the Government expressing my view that people who want to provide help to Syrian refugees should be supported to do so swiftly and that this help too should be focused on those with the greatest need: the vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa.
I will continue to support Government policy on this issue. People who wish to help with the present appalling shortage of foster parents in the UK can find out how to help here.