Unaccompanied child refugees and the decline in opportunities to access the UK

Tomos Owen

It is difficult to truly understand the plight of unaccompanied child refugees. If you are like me it is likely that you did not begin to have a semblance of independence from your parents until your mid-teens and that can be considered commonplace in many Western nations. It does, however, form a disconnect from the truth that others have a far more difficult upbringing. 

The impact of war leads to situations where the lives of innocent children can be changed beyond repair within a matter of hours. In places like Syria, children can leave for school in the morning and return later to find their neighbourhood reduced to rubble. In scenes of chaos, where they may have no idea if their own family has survived, these children can easily be sucked into a procession of people fleeing the city as they fear more attacks. It is difficult to truly imagine the fear and confusion that a child would feel in this situation and in most cases this only marks the beginning of a harrowing ordeal in their search for safety. 

This situation is not uncommon and demonstrates just one of a number of circumstances where a child could become an unaccompanied refugee. The reality is that EU countries received over 17,000 applications from unaccompanied children seeking refuge in 2019 (Eurostat). This number is representative of possibly the most vulnerable group of people in the world and every one of those children deserves protection from this situation.  

The position of the UK

Over the past several years, the position of the UK in assisting unaccompanied child refugees has come under increased scrutiny. It could be hoped that with one of the largest economies in the world we would be in a position to take in and support a large number of these children, although the reality is that we appear to be becoming more resistant. 

The first indication of this resistance came in 2016 in the midst of the refugee crisis. Parliament were debating what became the Immigration Act 2016, during which opposition MPs and various stakeholders called for the government to include provisions for taking in around 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. This position was also championed by Lord Alf Dubs, a Member of the House of Lords and himself a child refugee who travelled from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939. Given the scale of the crisis at the time, this would have been a timely intervention and removed many from the poor conditions in refugee camps around Europe. Lord Dubs introduced an amendment to the Bill which would have legislated for this number, however the government were openly opposed and rejected the amendment. 

A new Dubs Amendment was eventually introduced and accepted. Unfortunately, this only committed the government to protecting ‘a specified number’ of unaccompanied child refugees. Hopes that this number would be significant were quickly dashed when the government settled on the number 350, almost 10 times fewer than proposed by Lord Dubs. The Home Office later increased this number to 480, although admitted this was due to an administrative error rather than driven by a motivation to protect more children. It has now been confirmed that these places have been filled and that the scheme will be ending. There are also no plans to introduce a new scheme to take its place. It is increasingly difficult to understand the reasoning behind this position particularly as Safe Passage, a charity that assists refugees, has suggested that councils would provide 1,400 spaces if a new scheme was devised.

Nevertheless, the approach of the government has continued and Brexit has created even more uncertainty for those hoping the UK will assist unaccompanied child refugees. In the many years prior to Brexit, the UK was subject to numerous EU laws which sought to ensure that the rights of refugees, and particularly the most vulnerable refugees, were protected. Notably, the Dublin III Regulation aimed to identify which EU country should process an asylum application and ensure that a Member State will review the application of an unaccompanied child if a relative of theirs is resident in that state. The application of this Regulation, or the introduction of something similar, is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, Lord Dubs again attempted to address this issue, this time introducing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This amendment sought to include a commitment that the government would seek an agreement with the EU to allow unaccompanied child refugees to come to the UK if they had a relative there. This would have simply ensured a continuation of the process the UK were already undertaking through the Dublin III Regulation. However, on this occasion, the government was resolute and voted decidedly against the amendment, perhaps callously citing that this was in the interest of bolstering their negotiating position moving forward. This should never have been seen as something to be negotiated and the UK now appears to be devoid of any obligations to protect unaccompanied child refugees. 

The question is, are we really going to say that we are happy with this? We only have to look back to our position in WWII to see that this is not right. During WWII, the UK provided refuge to between 70,000 and 80,000 Jewish refugees, but since then it seems our position has become more focused on restricting measures. We must revert back to viewing this as a moral issue of helping those in need rather than accepting refugee flows as inevitable and avoiding any responsibility for it. Lord Dubs is testament to the fact that by providing refuge to those in need we are not only helping them, but we are also exposing ourselves to people of different backgrounds and cultures who can help improve the UK. It is now imperative that the UK moves swiftly to ensure schemes protecting the most vulnerable of these people, unaccompanied child refugees, are restored or new measures are introduced to compensate. I fear that if this is not done we will look back in several years with considerable regret.

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