Government must act now to effectively provide sanctuary to unaccompanied refugee children

Posted by Sam Hawke on 16 June 2016

A report released today by UNICEF opens with a shocking statistic: more than one in three of those arriving in Europe are children. And since last September, 340 children – “many of them babies and toddlers” – have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean. As the reports show, the majority of these children come from the most dangerous, war-torn countries in the world.

A second report, also published today by UNICEF, gives horrific testimony as to life in the camps for unaccompanied children. As they describe, the unaccompanied children in the seven camps along the coast of the English Channel experience “abuse and tragedy”. They face “debt slavery” and “forced criminal activity”. Sexual violence against both girls and boys – including rape and forced prostitution – is “a constant threat”.

Most are lucky to get one meal a day. Their mental and physical health is put at risk as they go without adequate medical care. And their childhoods are put on hold without decent, regular schooling.

All this is happening just 20 miles from Dover – that’s the same distance between central London and the M25.

UNICEF’s recommendations are stark and urgent: facing war at home and the trauma of the camps, resettlement in the UK can “save a child’s life”.

The heightened security presence around the camps – financed and supported by the UK Government – has been a boon to the exploiters of children, pushing them “into the hands of those traffickers”, or forcing them “to take even more significant risks in order to pass through without paying – in some cases by hiding themselves in refrigerated lorries.”

The reports reiterate Liberty’s longstanding concern that the Dublin Regulation is failing to provide a “realistic solution” for unaccompanied children, since “very few children in Calais are aware of their rights to family reunion”. Even where they find a lawyer, the system is sclerotic and slow, with transfers – when they happen at all – taking nearly a year or more. As the report states, 11 months in the camps – described by our courts to be “a living hell” – “is far too long for any child to wait alone, unprotected and vulnerable”. These vulnerable children have a legal right to be in the UK, and Government has a moral obligation to facilitate their urgent passage here.

The reports recognise the humanitarian assistance the UK Government has provided to those affected by the crisis in Syria. But the UK takes only a fraction of the number of refugees seeking sanctuary, a far smaller amount than other comparable European nations.

One of the reports indicates that the UK’s priorities are badly misplaced: “The UK Government has announced that it is deploying three UK experts to support the Greek Dublin Unit. At the same time the UK is sending 75 officials to Greece to implementing [sic] the EU-Turkey deal.” In other words, the UK seems more committed to helping send refugees to Turkey – potentially in violation of the Refugee Convention – than to ensuring that families are safely and speedily reunited. This is a sorry, yet accurate, reflection of the Government’s response to this human rights crisis to date.

But on the basis of an amendment to the Immigration Bill drawn up by Lord Dubs, himself a beneficiary of a similar policy for children fleeing the Nazis, the Government has agreed to act to offer sanctuary to unaccompanied children in Europe. Yet whilst it has committed to taking in unaccompanied refugee children, Government shows little sign of urgency in its planned consultation with local authorities.

On the basis of evidence in today’s report, the Government must act now to provide sanctuary to these vulnerable children and commit to providing councils with the resources they need to take these children in.

And the Government must also safeguard their needs once they arrive. Interpol has repeatedly warned that one in nine unaccompanied children in Europe is unaccounted for or missing. But rates of disappearance vary starkly across Europe, and the report provides disturbing detail as to the situation in the UK: “Data is not routinely collected on children going missing in the UK, although rough estimates suggest that up to two-thirds of trafficked children go missing from care after they are identified by the authorities.”

If Government is serious about preventing the human rights abuses uncovered by UNICEF, it can do more. It could hone the Immigration Rules to help in the fight against trafficking by permitting children to avoid the camps entirely, so that more can make family reunion applications before they’re forced to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean. And it could improve on the flawed Dublin regulations by at least ensuring its family reunion provisions work quickly, effectively, and securely.

But there’s one thing that can be done immediately. The Government must implement Lord Dubs’ amendment, and ensure that as many unaccompanied children as possible arrive here in time for school in September. We must help them get their childhoods back. The only option to safeguard these children, whilst fighting traffickers, is to take them in.