On 21st March the House of Lords considered the Government’s Immigration Bill at Report Stage. Labour Peer Lord Dubs tabled an amendment to require the Secretary of State to make arrangements for relocating 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, from other countries in Europe. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, co-sponsored the amendment, speaking and voting in support. In the subsequent Division the amendment was agreed by 306 votes to 204.
Moved by Lord Dubs
116A: After Clause 62, insert the following new Clause—
“Unaccompanied refugee children: relocation and support
(1) The Secretary of State must, as soon as possible after the passing of this Act, make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe.
(2) The relocation of children under subsection (1) shall be in addition to the resettlement of children under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.”
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I, too, speak with a little, although rather different, experience of this matter. The church in Colchester, in the diocese where I serve, is at the forefront of welcoming refugee families to this country and is a wonderful example of what can be done when local government, the local church and local community work together. It is not just about welcoming people but about integrating them into a community. What we have started to do with adults and families we must urgently do with unaccompanied refugee children. As we have heard, it is estimated that there are 24,000 of them in Europe at the moment, many living on the streets and very vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of modern slavery. This is the thick end of the wedge of the humanitarian crisis that we are facing, and it is an obvious and very identifiable need that we could do something about.
Why 3,000? Well, that feels like a fair share for the UK to take in terms of our size and place in Europe. This was debated in another place on 25 January, and the Government undertook to work with UNHCR to resettle unaccompanied refugee children from conflict regions and to set up a fund for this work. But of course this does not quite amount to an undertaking to bring unaccompanied children here, which is why this amendment is so important and why I am so happy to put my name to it.
The Government are concerned that, if we take unaccompanied refugee children, their families might claim asylum for family reunification at a later date. Yes, this might happen—but against this, we must look at the plight of these 24,000 children right now. The church, therefore, with others asks the Government to work with UNHCR to bring refugee children who are in extreme risk to the UK in addition to the other pledges that we have made. The hard truth is that at the moment there are no refugee children like this from Europe being resettled in this country.
Clearly, if this were to happen, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, the availability of foster parents will be an important issue. But I assure noble Lords that this is another area where the church, other faith groups and other charitable bodies stand ready, able and willing to help. Just last week, I was with a priest in Rayleigh who has fostered two children. One is a boy of 14 who is seeking asylum in this country, having escaped conscription in Eritrea for an unspecified and unlimited period. I spoke with him and was amazed at how, even after a few months, he is integrating into British society and feels that he has a future. There are also charities such as Home for Good which help with the work that we could do. Like the Kindertransport in 1938, we, too, could be part of a story of hope and generosity for children abandoned, bereft, perplexed and in danger in Europe today. This is a small but beautiful thing that we could do.
Lord Bates: [extract] The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about the generosity of British people. I work with Richard Harrington, whom we have appointed a Minister, by the way, to look after the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, and I know that every day he has a battle to persuade local authorities to take the children we already have coming through that scheme. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, in a previous debate, undertook to write to other dioceses to encourage them and their local authorities to come forward and offer spaces.
We currently have an 8,000 shortfall in the number of foster parents required, so all the offers to provide foster care are welcome. We desperately need those places for young people everywhere but there is no surfeit of people registered as foster parents waiting to take people in. As I say, there is a shortfall of some 8,000 that we definitely need to fill. I hope that the noble Lord will respond to the points I made about local authority capacity, what other countries are doing, and to the questions I raised about the numbers and how they have been arrived at by Save the Children, and consider withdrawing his amendment.