On Monday 25th April we considered in Parliament how best the UK can provide additional assistance and protection to unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and other regions of conflict, and to those in transit in Europe.
MPs were challenged to accept 3,000 unaccompanied children into the UK. The amendment called on the Government to 'make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe.'
This is a complex issue that continually evolves and the Government has made a number of changes to its response to the refugee crisis, especially towards unaccompanied children.
Addressing the 'incentive' to take the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.
The Government has also made an offer of UK support to help implement the EU-Turkey migration agreement. This is a vital opportunity to end the misery and lethal risk that smugglers and organised criminals are causing on a daily basis, to close down illegal crossings from Turkey to Greece and tackle migrant flows to the UK up-stream.
Processing refugees in Greek reception centre.
Following intensive engagement with European partners, including the Greek authorities and the European Commission, the Government is offering 75 expert personnel to help with processing and administration of migrants in Greek reception centres, act as interpreters, provide medical support and bolster our existing team assisting the Commission to ensure effective and efficient co-ordination. It will also provide vital equipment and medical supplies.
The teams to be sent to Greece will include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. This will help ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible. This is in addition to the work undertaken by the Anti- Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to visit hotspots and assess what more can be done to ensure unaccompanied children are protected from traffickers.
Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean.
For some time our UK maritime contribution, consisting of three Border Force vessels has been assisting the Hellenic Coastguard to conduct search and rescue missions, and a Royal Navy vessel as part of the NATO mission in the Aegean.
On top of significant support to frontline member states, the Department for International Development (DFID) has created a £10 million Refugee Children Fund specifically to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. This will be used to support the UNHCR, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee (IRC) to work with host authorities to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children in Europe and the Balkans. This includes identifying vulnerable children, providing for their immediate support, referral to specialist care, and helping find solutions such as family reunification.
The Government has seconded additional resource into the European Asylum Support Office totalling over 1000 days of expert support to Italy and Greece to implement and streamline the process under the Dublin Regulations, including to quickly identify children who qualify for family reunion. In addition, the recent secondment of a senior asylum expert to the French Interior Ministry to improve the process for family cases has already resulted in a significant increase in the number of children being reunited with family in the UK. In the last six weeks 24 cases have been accepted for transfer to the UK from France under the Dublin family unity provisions, more than half of whom have already arrived in the UK. Once an asylum claim has been lodged in another Member State transfers can take place within weeks.
Children at risk.
We must put the best interests of children first, and avoid any policy that places children at additional risk or encourages them to place their lives in the hands of the people traffickers and criminal gangs. In any response, we need to be very careful not to inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead, putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous sea crossings to Europe.
The Immigration Minister James Brokenshire MP, has announced the launch of a new resettlement scheme to resettle ‘Children at Risk’ from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. On the UNHCR’s (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) recommendation the scheme will not target unaccompanied children alone, but will be extended to all ‘Children at Risk’ as defined by the UNHCR and will extend to at risk groups and nationalities within the region, not limited to Syrians. Through this category we will resettle the most vulnerable children accompanied by their families where the UNHCR deems resettlement is in the best interests of the child. The Government will commit to resettling several hundred individuals in the first year with a view to resettling up to 3000 individuals over the lifetime of this Parliament, the majority of whom will be children. It will also review the scheme at the two year mark. This will be in addition to the commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrians under the Syrian resettlement scheme and implementation will be taken forward by Richard Harrington MP.
This unique initiative will be the largest resettlement effort that focuses on children at risk from the MENA region. The UNHCR are fully supportive of the launch of this new initiative and the UK’s commitment to assist vulnerable children at risk through further resettlement efforts. The UNHCR Representative to the United Kingdom Gonzalo Vargas Llosa says, ‘We welcome the scheme’s focus on children at risk, including unaccompanied and separated children, and the UK’s commitment to upholding the principles of child protection, and in particular safeguarding the child’s best interest, in implementing the programme.’
The Government is committed to making a full contribution to the global refugee crisis, in particular by helping children at risk. I believe that the approach to take action where it has the most impact in region, within Europe and at our borders will appropriately safeguard vulnerable children and prevent them putting their lives at risk.