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The UK must continue to play its part in helping unaccompanied child refugees

4 min read

Unaccompanied child refugees are some of the most vulnerable to trafficking, criminality and exploitation. While May and Macron’s ‘Sandhurst Summit’ was a step in the right direction, much more still needs to be done, writes Lord Dubs

Today, there are thousands of unaccompanied child refugees living in limbo across Europe.

In Greece close to 3,000 unaccompanied children, stuck in tents, await formal accommodation. In Italy, last year alone, some 5,000 unaccompanied children went missing. In Calais, young people still die attempting to reach family in Britain while others, sleeping rough, live in constant risk of violence, or worse, from smugglers and traffickers.

The campaign to help these unaccompanied child refugees is based on two principles. Firstly, children who arrived in Europe and have family in Britain should be able to join their family safely and legally under existing EU rules known as the Dublin III Regulations. Secondly, for those children who arrived into Europe without family, Britain should do its bit to provide its fair share of these vulnerable children with shelter – the basis of s67 of the Immigration Act 2016 that I and other colleagues from across party lines campaigned for.

The government last year capped the number coming under s67 at 480 citing limited local authority capacity to provide further foster places. The government also wished to apply the scheme only to children who had arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016. When the scheme was established in May 2016 this date was perhaps reasonable. But 18 months on this deadline has meant some children have grown into adulthood, or simply disappeared, without the opportunity to seek safety in the UK.

The process is, in any event, painfully slow. In the last 18 months only around 220 children – almost all from France – have been transferred under s67. Even children eligible to enter Britain under the Dublin III Regulations often wait over a year in shelters before joining family in Britain.

The recent meeting between President Macron and the Prime Minister – the 2018 Sandhurst Summit – goes some way to easing these urgent issues. I welcome the Government’s commitment to process requests from the French authorities within 15 days of speaking to the local authority where the family of Dublin III eligible children live. 

I also welcome the revision of the cut-off date for children eligible under s67 to 18 January 2018, allowing more of the unaccompanied children who arrived in Europe in 2016 and 2017 to benefit from the scheme.

The Summit also agreed the provision of a £3.6m development fund to identify and support Dublin III family reunion claims. This money should mean that children wait only weeks rather than months to be reunited with family in Britain.

However, much more still needs to be done. Attention at the Sandhurst Summit was perhaps inevitably focussed on France. The cynical view is that it took a French President to make the British Prime Minister agree to something that the British Parliament had failed to persuade her to do. But there are still thousands of unaccompanied children living in Greece without shelter or support and it is crucial that their plight is not forgotten.

Moreover, the 480 cut-off figure for s67 is arbitrary and should be relaxed, not least since some local authorities indicate they are able to offer more places.

My biggest fear, however, is that the safe and legal route to family reunion for children under Dublin III will disappear if we leave the EU. It is crucial that in our negotiations we ensure that the Dublin III provisions continue.

Unaccompanied child refugees are some of the most vulnerable to trafficking, criminality and exploitation. It must be right that the UK, with its strong humanitarian traditions, should continue to play its part in providing shelter and safety.

This year we will mark 80 years since the first Kindertransport train arrived into Liverpool Street Station. As we prepare to celebrate the heroes of that effort – who ultimately saved some 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Nazi persecution – it is up to us to ensure we are living up to the standards they set by demonstrating the same global leadership in helping child refugees today.


Lord Dubs is a Labour peer and former MP for Battersea

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