Child Refugees

I want to reassure you that the Government is not turning its back on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.  The UK Government has a strong and proud record of helping vulnerable children and this will not change. I support the principle of family unity, and I want to reassure you that there already is a comprehensive framework for refugees and their families to be safely reunited in the UK.
 
Clause 37 is primarily a procedural change which does not change the Government’s policy as regards reuniting unaccompanied children with their families but to clarify the role of Government and Parliament in negotiations. Negotiating objectives should not be laid in primary legislation, and primary legislation is not necessary to deliver on this commitment. The legal basis for future family reunion provisions will be the international agreement with the EU itself.
 
In considering issues around the resettlement of vulnerable children, the United Kingdom already has a strong position when it comes to ensuring, in practice, the safety and well-being of refugee children.  Border policy is and has always been a national competence not one of the European Union.  And it is absolutely right that the opportunity to fully debate these issues will come in due course when an immigration bill comes before the House.
 
The family reunion provisions (under Dublin III), were only relevant to a tiny minority, and only to children who were already in the care system of other European countries. Having previously practiced as a barrister in immigration law, I saw the significant vulnerabilities that had appeared because the law gave families a right to reunion in the UK that they would not otherwise have had.  Traffickers have long seen the United Kingdom, because of our geography, as an exploitable route and consigned vulnerable people, sometimes children, to the backs of lorries and small boats across the Channel in an attempt to create a family reunion route.  This needs to be addressed not least because it often impacts on the child’s ability to genuinely reunite with their closest relatives.
 
There have been too many instances where young people – already in care in European countries - are brought to the UK to be linked up with a distant relative whereupon they become an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child and therefore in the care system of this country. Under the arrangements that the EU has in place with Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa, those children often had a real prospect of reuniting with either their parents or at least a close relative in the system in one of those countries.  It is extremely rare that the “best interest” test is met by being accommodated by a distant relative in the UK rather than being reunited with their parents who may be in a refugee camp in Jordan or Turkey. The UK can therefore prioritise just arrangements that minimise the risks to children, and clause 37 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill opens the possibility of more compassionate and more pragmatic arrangements in the future. 
 
I continue to believe strongly that we need to do all we can to help the world’s most vulnerable people and I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that the resettlement of thousands of vulnerable refugees over the last four years is something the UK can be proud of. I am pleased that the Home Secretary has already written to the EU inviting discussions and negotiations to begin on this issue.