THE Government has done “as little as legally possible” to help the vulnerable, unaccompanied children of the refugee crisis in Europe — not least by limiting, then “abruptly ending”, the Dubs resettlement scheme, an independent inquiry has concluded.
It was conducted by the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, Fiona Mactaggart, and Baroness Butler-Sloss, after the Government closed the scheme earlier this year, having resettled just 350 children rather than the 3000 it had originally promised (News, 17 February).
The Home Office later announced that it would resettle a further 130 refugee children from Europe under the Dubs amendment, but only because it had previously miscalculated places made available by local councils (News, 5 May). The total number coming to the UK under the scheme therefore rose to 480.
In a report, sponsored by the Human Trafficking Foundation, the APPG states that the Government has “failed” in its duty by listening to “unfounded fears” that a refuge scheme for endangered children would encourage others to risk making life-threatening journeys to Europe to escape conflict at home.
But it was the English language, education, family ties, sport, and the open job market in the UK which drew children, not providing a safe route, which would save lives, the report argues. “Safe legal routes mean that smugglers and traffickers have fewer opportunities to exploit children, their prices fall, and they may turn to more profitable forms of criminality,” it says.
The inquiry — carried out between April and June — quotes a survey by the International Organization for Migration in April, which suggests that 91 per cent of the migrant children, aged 14 to 17, who travelled to Europe through the Central Mediterranean route had experienced exploitation and abuse on the journey. This was compared with 75 per cent of adults.
The situation is particularly worrying in France, it says, where children are tear-gassed and assaulted by police. “We learnt that in many parts of Europe their only chance of shelter is in squats controlled in most part by criminals who use children to make profits. Children in France sleep rough, depending on volunteers for food and clothing.”
The inquiry also points to a survey conducted by the Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) of 86 children in Calais, in April. Of these, all but one were boys, while nearly all had experienced police violence in the area (mostly tear gas), and three-quarters had been arrested or detained.
The vast majority of the children said that they did not feel safe in and around the Calais area, but only a small minority said that they had access to information about their rights and possibilities to change their situation. Only a handful said that they had access to information about European immigration laws. More than a third had relatives in the UK.
One boy in Calais, Ahmed, had fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. “From Afghanistan, I walked to Iran, and then on to Turkey. The Iran-Turkey border was the most dangerous crossing. The Iranian army would open fire at those trying to cross illegally.”
His experiences in Calais had been equally brutal, he said. “I remember the police throwing tear gas into the camp, as well pepper-spraying me in the face. There was a big problem in Calais with police not being inside the camp. This meant a lot of crime happened. I remembered being beaten up regularly, and even some murders among the residents.”
The director of the RRDP, Marta Welander, told the inquiry in June that many of the children felt like victims of an “inhumane” system, not trespassers or criminals. “They are seeking sanctuary, and they have made a long journey; they don’t seem to really understand what’s happening. They are in a violent situation in France, and they know they have friends or family in the UK. They know they want to go there, and they will do what they can to get there.”
It is “unacceptable” that no official information is available on how these children can come to the UK by legally, the report says. It calls on the Government to reopen the Dubs scheme, and to ensure that separated children receive mental-health support and counselling.
The Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, said in a statement on Thursday that the Government was “fully committed” to supporting vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis, but that the number of children resettled under the Dubs scheme would not increase from 480.
Lord Dubs’s amendment said that 3000 children should be resettled in the UK under section 67 of the Immigration Act, which requires the Secretary of State to relocate of “a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children” from other countries in Europe.
But Mr Lewis said that the Government had – through other schemes – granted asylum to more than 8000 children, and that there were a further 4000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children currently under the care of local councils.
“The ongoing work to transfer children under section 67 is in addition to our other commitments,” he said. “Our approach continues to be to take refugees directly from conflict regions, providing refugees with a more direct and safe route to the UK, rather than risking the hazardous journey to Europe. We are committed to resettling 23,000 people from the region and our resettlement schemes are some of the largest and longest running schemes in the EU.”
Read the APPG report at www.humantraffickingfoundation.org.