David Burrowes is Parliamentary Director of Conservative Christian Fellowship and former MP for Enfield Southgate.
As we take back control of immigration policy from the EU, lets show more compassion to refugees.
In these times of lockdown and social distancing, it should not take Refugees Week next week to remind us of the hardship of separation from our families.
It is no wonder that the British people have confirmed their longstanding support of refugees reuniting with family in the UK. Seventy nine per cent agree child refugees should be able to reunite with a parent in the UK, according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll.
As a Brexiteer I don’t see a conflict with support for refugees. Rather I see our new relationship with Europe and beyond as an opportunity to take back control of our policy towards refugees – and have more compassion.
However, I am troubled by signs coming from the UK-EU negotiations. The lifeline for unaccompanied children and vulnerable refugees continuing to access their right to reunite with family in the UK is within the EU regulation – ‘Dublin III’. Once the transition period ends in December, this will no longer apply to the UK. This matters because charities that work directly with child refugees tell us that when safe, legal routes do not exist, it makes it all the more likely that they will fall foul of people smugglers and attempt dangerous crossings via dinghy or truck.
Following a campaign by parliamentarians, faith leaders, charities, and thousands of members of the public, our Government rightly committed to negotiating a replacement with the EU this year. However, sadly the draft plan that was published on 19 May is woefully inadequate.
Firstly, and perhaps most fundamentally, it is entirely discretionary – allowing governments to only reunite separated families if they feel like it. This is a far cry from the obligations put on EU member states to ensure children reach their family in a safe and legal manner. It sadly puts a sign up to say the UK will not welcome vulnerable child refugees, and leaves more at the mercy of people smugglers.
We only need to look at the EU’s poor record on family reunion prior to the current system to see why this is so crucial. Prior to ‘Dublin III’, there were some provisions for family reunion but, like the current plan, they were not mandatory. And what happened? Without robust rules, only a handful of families were reunited. Between 2009-2014, only a mere handful of individuals benefited each year – the most being just 15 in 2009.
Last year, under ‘Dublin III’, 164 unaccompanied children reunited with family in the UK. That number is but a token of support given our resource compared to the desperate places children have originally fled from, but it still represents 164 vulnerable children given a new start in life. That is the difference having a strong transparent system based on rules makes.
The draft plan misses essential safeguards for refugees and provisions to ensure the process works properly. This includes strict deadlines for responses to requests, an appeal process, and the onus on gathering information to not fall on the child or vulnerable person themselves. The plan also removes provisions for other categories of vulnerable refugees to benefit from family reunion, such as accompanied children and adults.
The cumulative impact of all of this means that, although the draft text may be intended to continue family reunion, they are empty words because if enacted it would in effect be the end of EU-UK family reunion as we know it. The UK should use Refugees Week to look again at the plan and correct these fundamental shortcomings.
Not doing so would be disastrous because of the real humanitarian crisis still playing out on Britain’s doorstep. It is a doorstep which of course remains a concern post-Brexit. There are 1,800 unaccompanied children just on the Greek islands, many in desperate circumstances without their basic needs covered.
Lone children in Samos have been sleeping on the floor of windowless containers or in derelict buildings. The fields surrounding the Moria camp on Lesvos, itself built for 3,000 people, are now home to more than 14,500 people in makeshift accommodation. A recent report by the charity Refugee Rights Europe shows girls in Northern France forced to perform sex acts to secure dangerous passage to the UK because of the lack of legal routes.
I am proud as a Conservative of our record on refugees. More than 80 years ago, a Conservative Government oversaw the Kindertransport for 10,000 child refugees from Nazi Europe to resettle in Britain. More recently, David Cameron responded to calls from me and others to the 2015 crisis by offering places to 20,000 people from conflict zones.
At the start of last year’s Refugee Week, Sajid Javid when Home Secretary did the right thing by announcing a new Global Resettlement Scheme to provide 5,000 places for individuals from conflict zones and the MENA region.
However, the new scheme is not open to children who have had to flee their homes and already reached a camp in the Greek Islands or northern France. These children are just as vulnerable as those outside Europe. Their need is humanitarian which goes beyond borders, and the resettlement scheme should be extended to child refugees in Europe. The capacity is there. Councils have pledged 1,400 places as part of the charity Safe Passage’s #OurTurn campaign.
Yes, EU nations have a primary responsibility. If each European government accepted just 70 unaccompanied children, then all those on the Greek islands would be transferred. So far 13 countries, including significantly two which, like the UK, are not in the EU, are participating in this scheme, accepting numbers that range from 12 to 500. Surely, the UK can do its bit, and show that its sense of responsibility for child refugees is not contingent on EU membership?
What is at stake here is about more than this scheme – as important as it is. This is about Britain’s international leadership as we leave the EU, and have opportunity to further grow on the world stage. I do not want to see us starting this new period in our history by turning our back on our proud humanitarian principles.
Brexit finally gives us the ability to control our own immigration policy – and with that control we must establish a more compassionate welcoming asylum system, not go backwards and water down rights for those fleeing war, persecution and violence.
When Boris was the Mayor of London he was a good advocate for welcoming refugees. Now as PM, he should rethink the Government’s approach to family reunion in the EU negotiations so refugees do not lose out, and take other steps to ensure Britain is a leading humanitarian force in the world.