Last June, I asked whether we in Britain would be happy turning our back on unaccompanied child refugees. Eight months on and the government look to have concluded that they would be happy with exactly that. This comes following a response by the Immigration Minister Chris Philp to a question posed by Labour MP Alex Sobel in January. This question asked whether the government would be resettling any unaccompanied child refugees from areas such as Lesbos or Calais. Philp confirmed that unless those children already have family in the UK then the government would not make any attempts to do so. This also applies to unaccompanied child refugees that are located anywhere else in the world. This position means that hundreds, if not thousands, of unaccompanied children across the world can now cross the UK off their list of nations where they originally may have found sanctuary.
The ramifications for the decision by the government are likely to be far reaching. With fewer routes to safe countries, the risk that these vulnerable children could face abuse or exploitation rises. Previously, following the Immigration Act 2016, the Home Office had agreed to provisions that included accepting 300 unaccompanied child refugees (this eventually rose to 480). This was on top of the unaccompanied child refugees that were also being brought to the UK under the Dublin III Regulation, a piece of EU legislation that allowed unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their relatives if their relatives were living in the UK. This protection for unaccompanied child refugees, which could be described as mediocre at best, now looks to have been weakened further in the post-Brexit immigration shake up that continues to raise serious moral questions regarding the Home Office’s position.
It should be clear why the government needs to do more to protect and provide sanctuary for unaccompanied children that still remain in active conflict zones. However, one may reasonably ask why we should also provide sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees that are already in countries considered “safe”, such as France or Greece. The concept of “safe third countries” was the topic of my last blog post and this should hopefully have convinced you that these “safe third countries” can sometimes be considered anything but safe for asylum seekers. This is particularly so for unaccompanied child refugees in areas such as Calais or Lesbos, hence the question from Alex Sobel MP.
At the end of summer last year there were actually around 250 unaccompanied minors recorded in Calais and around 407 in Lesbos, although both of these figures are likely to be underestimations due to the difficulty in locating these children at times. The sheer number of asylum seekers in these areas mean that there are often limited resources to go around and specialist services for children do not exist or are overwhelmed. In Calais, charities have reported that children as young as 11 have been found living on the streets and that evictions from makeshift camps can sometimes result in children being sent to facilities specifically designed for adults. The centres in Calais that are designed to house unaccompanied child refugees, such as one known as Saint Omer, can only house a limited number of children and are often full, pushing any remaining children onto the streets. This makes safeguarding impossible and opens the door to traffickers.
The situation is Lesbos has not been much better. Last year, thousands of refugees were moved to temporary tents on Lesbos after a fire tore through the Moria refugee camp where they were initially located. The initial count in September was 407 unaccompanied minors on Lesbos, although the UNHCR later confirmed that these were moved to the mainland. The UK government was aware at the time that some of them had family in the UK, but action to resettle them was incredibly slow. Worryingly, this was also under the established Dublin III Regulation rather than the new post-Brexit immigration rules. Time will tell whether the long espoused post-Brexit ease with which everything will now be done will also apply to resettlement of unaccompanied child refugees. If the first six weeks of the year are anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
It is worth pointing out that outside of their obligations under the Dublin III Regulation last year, the UK government did not offer to take in any unaccompanied child refugees from Lesbos that didn’t already fall under the Regulation. This fell to 10 EU nations, including Germany who were very quick in offering to take in 150 unaccompanied child refugees. The lack of assistance by the UK was really the beginnings of the restrictive approach to protecting unaccompanied child refugees we now see. This position is unconscionable and regardless of action that we have taken in the past, we must face facts: we have an ongoing moral obligation to provide protection to unaccompanied child refugees across the globe.
The UK government has the resources to provide far more support and protection for vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees. The reality is that the approach of the government, by viewing many countries as “safe”, leads to thousands of individuals being overlooked when they are in dire need of protection. The government should urgently review their policy surrounding unaccompanied child refugees across the entire globe. Whereas countries may objectively be deemed safe, a process should be established to assess whether an unaccompanied child refugee is safe in their particular circumstances, regardless of the country they are in. This requires a proactive approach focussing on outreach, rather than simply dealing with what we can see on the surface. Only then will we successfully be able to remove more children from the risk of abuse and exploitation.
* The term “unaccompanied child refugees” is used throughout this piece in order to align with most news stories in this area. However, a more accurate description is “unaccompanied children seeking asylum”.