Unaccompanied Children in Greece and Italy Debate -
Below is my contribution in full to the debate, calling on the government to do more to help unaccompanied child refugees in Greece and Italy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and others on securing this very timely debate.
I speak today not only from a position of experience, having fostered a young Afghan refugee and provided lodgings for a number of refugees who presented without parents, but as an Opposition Member and as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which only yesterday took evidence from NGOs and senior leaders working in this area. That evidence was very shocking, but the words of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Councillor Stephen Cowan, stuck with me. He described to us his understanding of refugee camps in Europe: he described them as
“the closest thing to hell for a child”.
My foster son, Ikram, and other young men have told me many stories to try to make me understand the desperation that they experienced. I do not believe that we can all comprehend what that desperation must feel like. For me, the way to try to understand it was to imagine what it must be like to be in “the closest thing to hell”. What must it be like to be alone, away from everything you have ever known, to wonder whether your family are still alive, to wonder about the things that you have left behind, and still to be so unsure whether there is a light at the end of the tunnel? How must those children feel, to flee one hell for another, to experience hunger, cold, insecurity and potential rape, abuse and exploitation—all against the backdrop of a journey on which many have lost their lives in front of them? This is the reality: this is about people. I stand here today as an extremely blest individual, knowing that my children are safe—safe from bombs, safe from being shot at, safe from being raped, safe from being exploited and trafficked—but, sadly, that is not the reality for all.
What has been the response of our country, Great Britain, to this crisis? Our Government rightly passed the Dubs amendment, which, unlike other routes, was based not on legality or obligation, but on morality. It was about helping some of the most at-risk and vulnerable children to find safety and security because that was the right thing to do. However, the numbers speak for themselves: just eight children have been transferred from Greece and Italy in the past year, none of them through the Dubs programme. While we all welcome the Government’s other commitments, especially to Syrian aid and the Syrian relocation programme, the Dubs amendment was about much more than that. It was about identifying and supporting the most vulnerable children with no legal route, and transferring them to a place of safety. That the Government should set a timeline now because they say we do not have spaces available is an absolute disgrace.
As we heard yesterday, there is no way we have exhausted our commitment to those immensely vulnerable children who arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016. Councils are coming forward and saying that they still have spaces. By closing that route, we will push the most vulnerable, who have no safe route, back into the hands of those who will exploit and abuse them. That we should simply turn our backs on the Dubs programme now, when we have not transferred even a 10th of the number that was suggested, is beyond belief. If the Government think that the programme provides an incentive for lone children to come to Europe, they clearly have no grasp of the situation that is driving children to make this perilous journey in the first place.
Let me share with the House some of the evidence that was given to us in the Home Affairs Committee. George Gabriel, who established Safe Passage 18 months ago, said:
“From our perspective, particularly in Greece, the case for continued and rolling provision around the Dubs amendment is especially compelling. There are 2,300 unaccompanied minors in Greece. Of those 2,300, only 1,256 have spaces in any Government shelter, so just over 1,000 are street homeless. We estimate that about 48% of those 2,300 have no family link anywhere else in Europe, and so in the broadest brush strokes might be eligible for transfer under the provisions of the Dubs amendment.
We took a sample of 128 of those children in Athens over the past couple of weeks. Of 128, 64 were identified as at risk of sexual abuse, 8% had themselves been trafficked and 19% had post-traumatic stress disorder, so we are extremely concerned about the situation of those children. Clearly, there is a greater need than is to be met through the remaining places offered by the Government. We think that the idea that Sir Nicholas Winton managed to transfer 669 children essentially on his own, and that he topped the efforts of our entire country, is shameful and a mistaken choice.”
We also heard:
“The French agencies we work with report that about 7,900 people were transferred from Calais to reception centres all across France. The total figure for children at that point of demolition was about 2,200.”
Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of UNICEF, had this to say on the business model of trafficking:
“There is one way to destroy the business model and that is to provide safe and legal routes to children. They turn to people traffickers when they have no other option. For obvious reasons there are many ways to prevent children being vulnerable to an interest in paying smugglers or in trafficking—which is often what happens after smuggling becomes unaffordable from countries of origin—which is to do with investing our development assistance money, which we do very well in this country, to prevent children being in that position in the first place. Once children have arrived in Europe, we know, they will only turn to traffickers when there is no system working for them and when they have lost faith and hope, have been let down, do not feel able to trust the advice they are getting or do not have any advice whatever. George made a very strong point earlier on. The cancellation of the Dubs scheme is a good win for the people traffickers—there is money to be made, because children will try to get to their families or to places of safety one way or another.”
To me, what this comes down to is the fact that we have a choice between doing something and doing nothing. We will never grasp or comprehend the lack of choices that these children have. I say this to the Government: “Commit. Commit to what we actually pass in this House. Don’t just pay it lip service. Don’t just change direction and say, ‘This programme will continue as it is,’ because turning our back on the 90% of children that we committed to help is beyond a disgrace.” What we have done was not enough then, and it is not enough now, and we must do more.