Child refugees are suffering. Our governments must take action now

15 June 2016

Máire McCormack is Head of Policy in the Commissioner’s office. In this article, she looks at what the UK Government’s done for Europe’s unaccompanied minors— and the measures which it still has to take.

The UK Government has consistently been urged to make a commitment to accept refugee children into Britain, a move which should help ease the burden on other EU nations and provide a safe haven for those fleeing conflict and violence.

This May, the Prime Minister committed to taking unaccompanied minors who registered in Greece, Italy or France before 20 March, when the EU-Turkey pact came into force. This reversal has been welcomed across the public and third sectors, but was hard fought.

In the face of the ever-growing crisis, Lord Dubs tabled an amendment to the UK Immigration Bill calling for the relocation and support of 3,000 unaccompanied minors. This was defeated in the Commons, but a revised amendment – removing the figure but requiring consultation with local authorities – was backed by peers in the Lords. Facing a potential rebellion from Conservative backbenchers and a vote he was most certainly going to lose, the Prime Minister backed down. The revised Dubs amendment was brought to the Commons and passed on 9 May.

The Government’s arguments

Thus far, the Government‘s two main arguments against relocating unaccompanied minors have been around wanting to only focus on the most vulnerable children – that is, those in conflict zones – and the pull factor: the assertion that by relocating unaccompanied minors, others would follow. They have also argued that relocation would encourage people traffickers.

Arguing against Dubs’ amendment in the Commons, James Brokenshire MP, Immigration Minister emphasised that:

  • the UK Government is the largest bilateral contributor – contributing £65 million – to the crisis in Europe and the Balkans, and
  • the Department for International Development has created a £10 million fund to support vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe, working with host authorities to support family reunification.

UK support to help implement the EU/Turkey migration agreement has also been provided, with 45 experts dispatched to Greece to provide processing and registration.

Relocating the most vulnerable children

Edward Leigh MP, a supporter of the Government throughout, has argued that “the fairest and most humanitarian thing to do is to take children from Syria, a thoroughly unsafe country, rather than safe countries, such as France”— a position Sir Gerald Howarth MP was still advancing on 9 May.

However, this idea of categorising children was rejected during the Commons debate held on 25 April. Keir Starmer MP spoke of a recent encounter with four children from Iran, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of these, a boy of 14, was ordered to dispose of all personal items and get into a boat meant for 60 with 100 adult strangers. He arrived in Europe with nothing, continuing the journey on his own.

During the debate, it became clear this story was typical of thousands of children. They were arriving with nothing; alone and afraid, often having survived journeys their parents had not. MPs recounted harrowing tales of children they had met in the camps: one MP, Joanna Cherry, highlighted claims from workers in Calais that the Government’s refusal to take children from Northern France had led to children being trafficked and attempting unsafe journeys on lorries bound for the UK. One unaccompanied girl she had met in a camp has since entered the UK through trafficking.

Harrowing experiences

A report from Save the Children, The extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, charts the journey of unaccompanied child refugees to Europe: the war, conflict and violence in their home countries and the abuse, exploitation, physical and sexual violence experienced during their journeys to Europe, often lasting months and years.

But these children are by no means safe when they reach European shores, as Yvette Cooper MP noted. Sadly, there are a number of dangers still awaiting them here: teenage girls are trafficked into prostitution, teenage boys are abused and raped, children contract hypothermia and pneumonia, and children are locked up in detention centres because there is nowhere else to go.

The UNHCR reports stories of children engaging in survival sex to pay smugglers to continue their journey, either because they have run out money or because they have been robbed. Meanwhile, Europol has warned that children, young women and lone refugees are being targeted for exploitation due to being insufficiently protected when they arrive. Many children in Greece, France and Italy face greater risks than when they were closer to home, challenging the notion that they are in ‘safe countries’.

The pull factor

The concept of a pull factor was roundly rejected in the Commons. It was viewed as cynical when applied to children, inappropriate because refugees are – by definition – vulnerable, and unattractive in a country noted for its tolerance in providing support for refugees.

Moreover, presenting this as an either/or is perverse, as all these children need help. The idea that because we are protecting and helping those outside Europe does not mean that we cannot also help those within it. We can and should do both. There is also no evidence that children will make perilous trips across Europe because the Government has offered sanctuary.

A lack of capacity across Europe?

Some MPs have criticised other European countries for providing limited support, noting that 21 EU countries have “not taken in one Syrian refugee” and that others have failed to protect those already in their countries. Yet these children are not to blame for an abdication of responsibility or poor internal coordination. It is worth noting that Greece, a country whose GDP has dropped 30% in the last six years, is taking in 50,000 refugees, many of whom will be unaccompanied minors. Germany and Sweden have also done much but are struggling to find places for children – many of whom have complex needs – due to the trauma and abuse they have experienced on their journeys. In the Commons debate, Stuart C Mcdonald MP rightly called this a collective failure by all European states, noting that:

“under specific criteria and safeguards, relocation is one of the few viable long-term solutions for the protection of the most vulnerable unaccompanied children”.

Progress and next steps

With that said, it is important to recognise what the Government has already committed to the resettlement of up to 3,000 vulnerable child refugees from the Middle East and Africa by 2020, along with 20,000 from the refugee camps around Syria. The new national dispersal system announced in mid-April will also help to ease the pressure on local authorities. The May 9 announcement represents a shift in government policy, and the abandonment of the decision only to take refugees from the camps rather than mainland Europe is a welcome one. However, the Government is not committing to numbers and is instead passing the issue to local authorities— who facing heavy cuts to services and struggling to cope with current levels of unaccompanied minors. Furthermore, only accepting those registered after 20 March leaves many children across Europe in limbo.

Respecting children’s rights

Throughout this debate, the sole reference to children’s rights was made by Keir Starmer MP, who underlined that children cannot access their rights without significant help. In April 2016, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) called on national governments, the EU and the international community to honour their moral and legal obligations to migrant children’s human rights. They stressed the need for full compliance with existing laws, policies and practice with the UNCRC and other relevant Human Rights Instruments to ensure the protection of all children. They also criticised the EU-Turkey deal and called for more concrete guidance on the treatment of unaccompanied minors.

We must work with French officials to safeguard those in refugee camps and expedite all available measures – including the EU regulation Dublin III – to place the 157 children in Calais identified as having family in the UK, safely with them. We must also set milestones for resettlement from France, Italy and Greece, with the aim of resettling 300 children in time for the start of the school year— as proposed by UNICEF, Citizens UK and a group of six Bishops, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The reversal of government policy to open our doors to unaccompanied minors is a start, and a very welcome one, but the UK must also ensure that they are safe and protected when they reach our shores, and local authorities are resourced appropriately. We will be monitoring the progress to ensure the new policy is implemented expeditiously, that the Scottish Government oversee this process effectively in Scotland, and that the Scottish Guardianship Service is sufficiently resourced.

This article was originally published in Issue 174 of Children in Scotland magazine. You can find out about Children in Scotland’s stance on the refugee crisis in We Stand With Children, their position paper on the subject.