“Can we honestly say that we have done everything we can?”

For two hours on Thursday afternoon, at the behest of the Backbench Business Committee, the House of Commons debated a motion on Calais and unaccompanied child refugees in Europe.

You can watch the debate and read the Hansard transcript on the UK Parliament website.

“That this House notes that it is one year since the Calais Jungle camp was demolished; further notes that the UK demonstrated moral and political leadership in transferring 750 child refugees from intolerable conditions in that camp to be reunited with family members in Britain and provided those children with protection under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016; and believes that as the UK prepares to leave the EU, provision must be made to ensure that unaccompanied children in Europe can continue to access the safe and legal means to reunite with family and relatives in the EU as is currently provided for under the EU Dublin III Regulation.”

Conservative MP Heidi Allen opened the debate:

“It is our responsibility to continue to give a voice to those who might otherwise not be heard, and there are none needier of that representation than the most vulnerable—the children who have fled the most unimaginable terrors of war and found themselves alone and without family in Europe.”

The South Cambridgeshire MP highlighted some statistics:

“Prior to the Calais demolition, we safely transferred 750 children to the UK: 200 under the Dubs amendment and 550 under the Dublin III family reunification rules. However, at least 250 remain in Calais and Dunkirk, and the youngest is nine. Most have fled from Afghanistan, and 2,950 are registered in Greece today. Moreover, 90% of the 13,687 children who have arrived in Italy so far this year are unaccompanied.”

Two UK schemes offer sanctuary to children in Europe: Dubs and Dublin III.

“Many in this Chamber were bitterly disappointed that the Dubs amendment did not result in a more generous number of places being offered to unaccompanied children. The Government, in consultation with local authorities, determined that 480 was as many as we could take. In fact, we have learned this morning that the High Court challenge to the thoroughness of that consultation has favoured the Government. For context, I can tell the House that that 480 represents 0.5% of the total number of refugee children who have so far arrived in Europe. That is not even one per constituency.

“So, setting the legal case aside, I remain disappointed by our contribution. It does not stand proudly next to the outstanding figure of the 23,000 refugees we will resettle from the Syrian region by 2020 through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Aside from the devastatingly obvious moral imperative, we have a duty as part of Europe to help to deal with the migration crisis affecting Europe. To me, that is what a deep and special relationship would feel and look like.”

She drew attention to children who continue to sleep outdoors in Calais “at the mercy of the elements” and highlighted the shortage of spaces and waiting lists for children in shelters in France and Greece.

“It therefore concerns me when the numerous charities still working on the ground tell me that only 20 children have been transferred from France under Dubs in the past 12 months, that only a handful have come from Italy under Dublin, with none under Dubs, and that none at all have come from Greece. It is over 18 months since I last visited Lesvos.

“Can we honestly say that we have done everything we can?”

Labour MP Stella Creasy returned to the High Court action which ruled in favour of the Government and the legality of setting a limit of just 480 places for children under the ‘Dibs scheme’.

“The High Court may not have agreed with us, but it is worth recording that the High Court was discussing the fact that the Government simply had not asked even the Northern Ireland Government what they could do. The Scottish authorities were told not to respond, and a third of English authorities did not respond to the consultation.

“We know that the British public support protecting children. If local authorities are asked, as we have found since the High Court began looking at the issue, we know that there are more places to be had. Are we really saying that this country can look after only 480 vulnerable young people, for whom there is nobody else in the world to protect them?”

Dover MP Charlie Elphicke said:

“We should hold our heads high for the amount we have been doing across the board, because it is important to remember that we have taken in 20,000 people from Syria directly. That avoids the risk of people making perilous journeys, because many lives have been tragically lost at sea, or as a result of exploitation or mishap, in the journey to Calais.

“It is also right that we have spent more than £1 billion in aid to provide places of safety close to regions of conflict. It is better to keep people close to their homes and hearts, meaning that they can go home when a conflict ends, rather than in any way to risk incentivising a dangerous journey across the whole of Europe, because we have seen on our television screens how that often ends up in tragedy.”

Labour MP Yvette Cooper reminded her parliamentary colleagues that she had praised the work of the Home Office in the past, and welcomed the government’s decision to support the Dubs amendment. She wished that she could continue to “keep on praising the Government for the action they have taken since, but sadly I cannot; some of the failures from the Home Office since then put this country and Parliament to shame”

“Why are the Government still refusing to publish the number of unaccompanied children and teenagers coming to Britain under the Dublin scheme? They have the figures and there is absolutely no excuse for not publishing them and making them available to everyone. It is not good enough for the Government to try to fudge the facts by pointing to the number of children who come either with asylum-seeking families or through irregular and illegal routes instead.

“The whole point is that we want to reduce the number of people coming through the illegal, irregular and very dangerous routes and instead make sure that there are legal and safe routes to sanctuary. The longer we fail to have a functioning Dubs and Dublin scheme, the more we will simply see teenagers and children take these crazy, dangerous risks—on lorries, through tunnels, putting their lives at risk and causing huge problems to the system.”

Lyn Brown, Labour MP for West Ham, asked the Minister for Immigration (Brandon Lewis) to work with the Safe Passage organisation to look into two specific cases she raised in her short speech.

Former Lib Dem leader Tom Farron said that the UK “government do not have a monopoly on heartlessness” as he explained the context of the ‘Jungle camp’ in Calais being cleared.

“On 24 October 2016, the French authorities began their full-scale demolition of the camp. The demolition was backed, by the way, by around £36 million of UK money. One reason that the French authorities chose that date was that French law makes it an offence to make anyone homeless after 1 November. It was clear attempt to clear the decks and to do something that many of us would consider as morally reprehensible in the narrow window of time in which it was legally permissible.”

He called on the government to agree to three things:

  • to reopen the Dubs scheme;
  • to guarantee that family reunification provisions for unaccompanied children are not restricted in the event that the UK ceases to be bound by Dublin III; and
  • to support Baroness Hamwee’s Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill in the House of Lords (which would amend the existing immigration rules to allow adult siblings, grandparents, aunt and uncles who have refugee status to sponsor unaccompanied children from outside Europe to join them in the UK).

DUP MP for Strangford Jim Shannon spoke reinterated Northern Ireland’s hope “to take 2,000 [resettled] refugees over a five year period”. He finished his speech with some questions:

“If we can do more, why are we not doing it? If we cannot, then what can we do for these children—and, indeed, for children in similar circumstances across the world? That is what this debate is about, and right honourable and honourable Members have made it very clear that we want action.”

When the Minister for Immigration (Brandon Lewis) rose to speak he highlighted the UK government’s track record on resettlement.

“… we will resettle 20,000 people in the UK by 2020 under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. More than 8,500 individuals are already here, about half of whom are children. We will also resettle 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their family members from the middle east and north Africa by 2020 under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme.

“Eurostat figures show that in 2016 the UK settled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state, and over a third of all resettlement to the EU was here in the UK.”

He added:

“Children have already arrived in recent weeks from France and transfers are ongoing. We have been working closely with Greece to put in place the processes for the safe transfer of eligible children to the UK, and expect to receive further referrals in the coming weeks …

“For the year ending June 2017, we in the UK granted asylum or another form of leave to remain to more than 9,000 children, and have done that for more than 42,000 children since 2010. We are fully committed to ensuring that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and refugee children are safe and that their welfare is promoted once they arrive in the UK.

“That is why yesterday, as has been outlined, the Government published a safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children, in recognition of their increased numbers and specific needs …”

Heidi Allen wrapped the debate up with two observations:

“First, we must fulfil our obligations under Dubs. We need to fill those remaining places as soon as we possibly can. We have been reminded today that these are not numbers. They are people; they are children. I particularly want to thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for reminding us of that fact, because it can be too easy to focus on the documents and spreadsheets when we should be focusing on the children and families.

“My second conclusion is that we must not let Brexit reduce our ability to offer the broadest family reunification we can, whether under Dublin III or our own domestic legislation, perhaps through something new in the great repeal Bill or an immigration Bill. We need to ensure that we make this as broad as possible, and I was pleased to hear the Minister set out his intention to work towards achieving that. Further clarity around our domestic legislation might also be required.”

She concluded:

“… the migration crisis will not end any time soon. Whether it is due to war or climate change, I fear that this is only the beginning. We will have to face the situation as a global member of the world and, as a wealthy and compassionate society, we have a duty to lead. The crisis is not going to go away tomorrow, so our compassion must not go away either.”