This is a very difficult issue, and one which I admit to having found hard to resolve. I have set out my thoughts below in a little detail.
Before turning to the specifics, it may be helpful to rehearse a little context.
1) UK Aid in the Middle East
The UK can fairly be said to be doing enormously important work to address the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. The UK has already pledged £2.3 billion – more than any other nation in the world except the United States – to bring food, shelter and support to some of the most vulnerable people displaced by the fighting. Some £105 million of the funding will help Syrians who are still in Syria.
The Royal Navy has been deployed to the Mediterranean, saving thousands of lives. And unlike France, Germany, Italy or the United States, the UK is meeting its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our GDP on overseas aid – over £10bn each and every year.
2) UK Action - Refugees
As you will know, the Vulnerable Persons Relocations scheme (VPRS) is up and running, and is welcoming Syrians to the UK. This scheme is making a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable Syrians by giving them protection and support in the UK.
And in addition Britain will resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. Further details in respect of additional child refugees are set out below.
3) Help for Refugees in Greece
The UK is offering expert personnel to help with processing and administration of migrants in Greek reception centres, act as interpreters, provide medical support and bolster our existing team assisting the Commission to ensure effective and efficient co-ordination. We will also provide vital equipment and medical supplies.
The teams we send to Greece will include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. This will help ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible.
4) UK Action - Children
Earlier this month the UK launched a new resettlement scheme to resettle ‘Children at Risk’ from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. On the UNHCR’s recommendation the scheme will not target unaccompanied children alone, but will be extended to all ‘Children at Risk’ as defined by the UNHCR and will extend to at risk groups and nationalities within the region, not limited to Syrians. Through this category the UK will resettle 3,000 of the most vulnerable children accompanied by their families where the UNHCR deems resettlement is in the best interests of the child. This unique initiative will be the largest resettlement effort that focuses on children at risk from the MENA region.
The UNHCR are fully supportive of this measure.
Turning to family reunification in Europe, DfID have committed £46m to help support refugees and a £10m fund focused specifically on the needs of children in Europe. This includes how we can support reunification with family they may have been separated from and who are in other EU countries including the UK. This fund will be administered by three specialist organisations including Save the Children and UNHCR.
We have also seconded additional resource into the European Asylum Support Office totalling over 1000 days of expert support to Italy and Greece to implement and streamline the process under the Dublin Regulations, including to quickly identify children who qualify for family reunion.
In addition, DFID has created a £10 million Refugee Children Fund specifically to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. This will be used to support the UNHCR, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee (IRC) to work with host authorities to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children in Europe and the Balkans. This includes identifying vulnerable children, providing for their immediate support, referral to specialist care, and helping find solutions such as family reunification.
Reasons for the Vote
There were three core reasons for my vote:
1. The ‘pull factor’.
In any response, I believe we need to be very careful not to inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead, creating a perverse incentive for refugees in the region to trust their fate to the people traffickers who do not care if they live or die.
2. Focus on the Region.
In my view, it is right and proper to focus on taking 3,000 children from the region who are most at risk. Through the ‘Children At Risk’ scheme noted above we will seek to assist all categories of ‘at risk’ children, as defined by the UNHCR.
I considered carefully whether this was morally equivalent to the Kindertransport. In my view, on reflection, that is not an appropriate comparison. It is important to note that many of the affected children in this crisis are in countries such as France, Austria and Germany which can properly be considered safe countries.
As I say, this was one of the toughest votes in my time in Parliament. I hope the above sets out why I reached the decision I did.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.