Heidi Allen is MP for South Cambridgeshire. David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate.
Last week’s backbench debate on child refugees in Europe demonstrated that cliché of Parliament at its best. There were informed, optimistic and thoughtful contributions from all sides of the chamber and powerful speeches from many Conservative colleagues, including Nicky Morgan and Will Quince. The Churchillian masterpiece that was Geoffrey Cox’s speech will go down in Hansard as one of the all time greats.
Frustratingly, the noisiest headlines fed into the Left’s narrative of heartless Tory MPs who don’t care about the refugee crisis. Such a view is nonsense. The record of our Conservative Government on refugees is a good one and needs repeating in the face of such criticism. The Government has been leading the humanitarian response in the region with £2.3 billion in aid and resettlement schemes which will see 23,000 refugees coming from Syrian and the wider region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). But our response to the refugee crisis does not of course end in the MENA region, but extends to Europe and the UK. Over 8,000 lone children arrived in the UK last year with more than half coming from Europe. In October, the Home Secretary admirably expedited the Dublin family reunion process to ensure that over 700 children were given safety in the UK, away from the chaos and danger in the camps in Calais.
The problem is that all this good compassionate Conservative support for thousands of vulnerable refugees is in serious danger of being undermined by a relatively small issue; how we properly implement the so called Dubs scheme. The Government’s announcement last month to effectively end the scheme once 150 more children have been given places has put us on the back foot. So, contrary to the Left’s media narrative, ten Conservatives are leading calls for the Government to properly consult with local councils. Our amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill this week (New Clause 14) will ensure a future for the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied children in Europe.
In Greece and Italy today, there remain thousands of refugee children who are escaping war and persecution. They have crossed the water in boats not fit for the crossing and arrived in Europe to meet child protection systems completely overwhelmed. Last year 25,000 children arrived in Italy and nine out of every ten of them were unaccompanied. Without competent asylum processing systems, these children remain vulnerable to the same smugglers and traffickers who brought them this far. Until Europe finds a coordinated way to respond, they will carry on being at risk of violence, sexual exploitation and criminal activity. In their eyes, the rule of law and western authorities have never been on their side.
We want the rules to work for these children for the first time. We want nation states and the rule of law to be the thing that pulls these children out of danger. As a leading European neighbour with a proud history of supporting refugees, we are part of that response. It is not enough to say this is Europe’s problem – the last time we checked, we were still part of Europe. Post-Brexit, we can show our outward face; not just in supporting free trade but also in supporting refugees.
That is why it is so disappointing that the UK Government intends to end the Dubs scheme prematurely. Of course it is paramount that we we do not fuel the business model of traffickers and smugglers. But as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner confirmed last week, ending legal routes actually achieves the reverse. When there are no safe and legal routes, there is no alternative but a criminal alternative. Charities on the ground confirmed that the number of children arriving in the UK by illegal means plummeted when the Dubs operation was up and running in Calais. This is not a complicated argument. Traffickers and smugglers cannot prosper in the shadows when we ensure children are helped in the light.
Amber Rudd is a compassionate and practical Conservative. We trust she will recognise that by helping downstream in Southern Europe, not only will we help release pressure on our European neighbours, we will also reduce the number of illegal arrivals to the UK. Crucially, she will also halt the rebirth of the Calais camp. For make no mistake, since the announcement to close the Dubs scheme, the nasty, filthy, festering camps in Northern France have begun to rise from the ashes.
While there are local authorities across the UK who say they still have capacity and want to do more, we should take them up on their offers. Many are stepping forward with just such offers. It will not be every council, and certainly areas like Kent have taken more than their fair share. We are incredibly proud of what you have done, but know you can do no more. Too many councils were quick to pass motions welcoming refugees but have been slow in offering places to take the pressure off Kent and support vulnerable children in Europe. The huge public support for refugees should put pressure on local councils to put their money – which has been increased by the Government – where their mouth is. The Government should do what they did with the Syrian resettlement programme and work in close partnership with councils and the LGA to get clear pledges of places matched with long-term funding.
While this remains a global refugee crisis, it is not the time to respond parochially. Let those parts of the UK who can – do. Let the Government, our Party, lead – because it can.