Migration Crisis Contents

8Protecting vulnerable groups

Women and children

125.The migrant and refugee flows entering Europe in 2015 included a greater proportion of women and children than in previous years. In January 2016, 55% of the irregular migrants arriving in the EU were women and minors. This represents an increase of 34% compared to 2015.161 NGOs working in Lesbos in Greece have reported increased numbers of women, travelling alone or with children, and children and elderly people. They emphasise that women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, harassment and assault. The IRC said that many travelled in the hope of being reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe and that greater use of family reunion asylum arrangements would help these vulnerable people.162

126.The increase in women and children within the migrant flows is seen as both an indicator of the severity of the situation they are fleeing, and a reflection of the fact that male family members have already travelled ahead. Several submissions called on the British Government to make it easier for refugees to make family reunion applications.163 The Red Cross criticised the UK’s lack of use of family reunion visas, which it said was forcing family members to undertake dangerous journeys to submit an application.164 The Immigration Law Practitioners Association pointed out that family reunification helped provide a support network for refugees and played a significant role in integrating them into a new culture.165 Mr Chaouki said family reunion had helped the integration of new migrants into Italian society, and excluding family reunion could foster irregular migration.166

127.The latest iteration of the Dublin Agreement includes Article 9 which says that where an individual wishes to make a claim for protection and has a family member already residing as a beneficiary of international protection in a Member State, that Member State should be responsible for examining the application for international protection of the individual. Article 10 has the same effect if the family member’s application has “not yet been the subject of a first decision regarding the substance”.167

128.As we set out in our June Report on the Immigration Directorates, the Government recently announced that the UK would provide an additional resettlement route to the UK specifically for ‘children at risk’ from the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. The scheme is aimed at unaccompanied children and children separated from their parents or other family members, as well as other vulnerable children such as child carers and those facing the risk of child labour, child marriage or other forms of neglect, abuse or exploitation. The Government has committed to resettling several hundred individuals from the MENA region in the first year with a view to accepting up to 3,000 individuals over the lifetime of this Parliament. In May 2016 the then Prime Minister announced that further provision would be made for children who are already in Europe and not therefore covered by the ‘children at risk’ scheme’. Unaccompanied children who entered Europe before 20 March 2016 will now also be eligible for resettlement to the UK, although the Government has not stated how many unaccompanied children from Europe it expects to be resettled.168

129.When we took evidence from the Bishop of Durham in June, 157 unaccompanied children had been identified in Calais and northern France who were waiting to join their families in the UK. When we asked whether these children should be allowed to come to the UK, the Bishop stated very clearly that “They should already have arrived”.169

130.The then Minister for Immigration updated us on progress with these schemes on 12 July. This included consulting local authorities about their capacity to receive unaccompanied children and discussions with the UNHCR, UNICEF, NGOs and the Italian, Greek and French Governments “to strengthen and speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer children who meet the necessary criteria to the UK, where it is in their best interests”. The Minister pointed out that this required taking proper account of “complex legal and safeguarding systems” in the arrival countries and to ensure that the UK was “respectful of the domestic provisions that apply in those countries”. Specifically in respect of refugee children already in Europe, the Minister said that, since the Immigration Act was passed in May, 21 cases have been accepted from France and 17 people have been transferred. Funding to local authorities for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was also increased from 1 July with “a 20% uplift for children aged under 16 and a 28% uplift for 16 and 17-year-olds”.170

131.We accept the Government’s concern that allowing unaccompanied children to join family members already in the UK might create a “pull factor”, resulting in more vulnerable young people making dangerous journeys to try to reach the UK. We appreciate that these are sensitive and complex matters and that proper account needs to be taken of the legal and safeguarding requirements in the countries where unaccompanied children are currently located. We also acknowledge that some progress is being made on this. However, we agree with the Bishop of Durham that the 157 unaccompanied children already in Calais who have family members in the UK “should already have arrived” in the UK. The Government should, as a one-off action, accept all of these children into the UK now.

132.Separated children who arrive in the UK and require support are usually looked after by local authorities, under their requirements to take responsibility and care for all children living in their area. Local authorities are already looking after over 4,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as well as large numbers of children in destitute families whose asylum applications have been refused but who remain in the country. The concentration of arrivals of unaccompanied children in particular locations means that the burden of providing care mainly falls on a small number of local authorities, particularly in Kent and the London Boroughs around Heathrow, rather than being evenly distributed. The Local Government Association and individual local authorities themselves have pointed out they are struggling to cope with the number of children they are being expected to look after.171

133.The Bishop of Durham told us in June that the Home for Good charity, which was originally established by UK churches to encourage families to become foster carers for children in the UK, had responded to the problem of unaccompanied Syrian children arriving in the country by finding 10,000 volunteers willing to foster these children. He acknowledged that they would have to be vetted, and that not all 10,000 would be accepted, but he noted that “an extraordinary number of people” had stepped forward and that “they will be in a position to offer that kind of support to all kinds of people from all kinds of nations over the coming years”, while continuing also to offer foster homes to British children.172

134.Large numbers of women and child migrants are making dangerous illegal journeys across the Mediterranean, in the hope of being reunited with family members in the EU. We welcome the UK Government’s recent announcement of schemes to resettle unaccompanied children, both from the Middle East and North Africa, and some who have already reached Europe. However, it is important that the local authorities who are required to take responsibility for unaccompanied refugee children are properly funded and supported to take on this additional burden, particularly given the high concentration of arrivals in a very small number of locations, particularly in Kent and the Heathrow airport area. The Government should include steps to ensure the fair distribution of unaccompanied children across local authorities as part of the action we have called for in relation to dispersal of asylum-seekers.

135.Family reunion of migrants has been shown to have benefits in terms of integration and support networks, in addition to the human rights requirements of allowing families to be together, and there is clear scope for further measures to facilitate women and children joining husbands, fathers and other male relatives who have reached the UK. We recommend that the UK Government increase its use of family reunion visas for refugee asylum cases, to make it easier for applications to be made in countries of origin and to help avoid women and children feeling obliged to attempt high-risk and illegal travel to Europe in order to be reunited with male relatives. We also recommend that the UK broaden the scope of family reunion rules, and work with expert NGOs to make it easier (including through provision of legal aid) and speedier for applications for family reunion visas to be made, particularly in countries of origin or their vicinity.

Missing child migrants

136.Unaccompanied foreign minors are defined as individuals under the age of 18 who are stateless or from non-EU countries, who enter the territory of a Member State without being accompanied by an adult who is responsible for them. Europol found that over 85,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the EU in 2015, and the number is growing—the 2015 total is three times higher than the number for 2014.173 A more recent estimate by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggested that there were over 95,000 asylum applications by unaccompanied minors in Europe in 2015.174

137.Worryingly, many minors go missing from reception centres shortly after arrival. Brian Donald, Europol Chief of Staff, stated that 1,000 unaccompanied minors were unaccounted for in Sweden, and that Europol has estimated that there are at least 10,000 unaccompanied minors who have gone missing since arriving in Europe.175 The IRC said that “thousands” of unaccompanied children were reported missing in Europe, and there was no joined up mechanism for monitoring children moving along the migration routes.176

138.The situation in Italy is illustrative of the problem. In 2014, 50% of the minors recorded as arriving were unaccompanied; in the first nine months of 2015, 73% were unaccompanied (10,322 of the total 14,109 minors rescued). Of those who were traceable, 95% were male and 81% were 16–17 years old. But many disappear from arrival centres. As of 31 August 2015, over 5,400 of the minors that had arrived were untraceable, and of those, over 3,800 were from three countries: Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia.177 Mr Chaouki told us that the situation in Italy is exacerbated by the involvement of organised crime in human and organ trafficking.178

139.As part of its assistance for unaccompanied children, the Government has established a £10 million Refugee Children Fund within the Department for International Development (DFID) for vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. The Government says that the Fund will support UNHCR, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to work with authorities in host countries to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children. This work will include: identifying vulnerable children, providing for their immediate support, referral to specialist care, and helping find solutions such as family reunification.179

140.Europol estimates that there are 85,000 unaccompanied minors amongst the migrant population in the EU. We were astonished to hear reports that large numbers of these children go missing from reception centres shortly after arrival and that they then face abuse, sexual assault and discrimination. At least 10,000 minors are estimated to have gone missing since arriving in Europe. EU countries must do more to protect these highly vulnerable young people. The Government has announced a £10 million Refugee Children Fund for vulnerable children in the EU. This should be used, and if necessary augmented, to ensure that effective support and protection are provided, and that this extremely serious problem is properly addressed.

161 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU, February 2016

162 International Rescue Committee written evidence (MIG0064)

163 ILPA written evidence (MIG0047); Refugee Council written evidence (MIG0058)

164 British Red Cross written evidence (MIG0051)

165 ILPA written evidence (MIG0047)

166 Oral evidence taken on 26 January 2016, Qs233–234

167 Refugee Council written evidence (MIG0058)

168 See Second Report, Session 2016–17, The Work of the Immigration Directorates (Q4 2015), HC 22, paras 50–51

169 Oral evidence taken on 7 June 2016, Q92

170 Oral evidence taken on the Work of the Immigration Directorates, 12 July 2016, Qs214–218

172 Oral evidence taken on 7 June 2016, Qs22 and 82–85

173 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU, February 2016

174 Safya Khan-Ruf and Maeve McClenaghan, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 12 April 2016, “Fourfold rise as 95,000 unaccompanied children claim asylum in Europe in 2015”

175 The Guardian, 30 January 2016, 10,000 refugee children are missing; Daily Telegraph, 11 November 2015, Sweden calls on Britain to help with migrant crisis as it re-imposes border controls,

176 IRC written evidence (MIG0064)

177 Study Group on the reception system, Report on the reception of migrants and refugees in Italy, Rome, October 2015

178 Oral evidence taken on 26 January 2016, Q231

179 Written Statement on refugees and resettlement, 21 April 2016, HCWS687

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

28 July 2016