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Government Must Salvage Its Child Refugee Policy In Thursday's Debate

21/02/2017 17:23 | Updated 22 February 2017

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Thousands of refugee children remain at risk of trafficking, exploitation and abuse close to British shores. We, as a country, made a commitment to help these children and we cannot shy away now.

Firstly let's put this into perspective, the numbers of refugees in Europe are just the tip of the iceberg - millions remain in settlements across parts of Africa and the Middle East.

This week, MPs will debate the UK's support to child refugees residing in Europe, including the Dubs scheme, which a recent government statement has said may grind to a halt as soon as 150 more unaccompanied children are brought to the UK.

Those who argue in favour of scrapping the Dubs scheme say it only encourages more families to make the unthinkable, heart-breaking decision to send their children off to Europe alone, leaving them at risk of exploitation by traffickers. But this argument fails to recognise the reality, which is that a Dubs transfer is a way out of the hands of the criminals. Many of these children are already the victims of modern slavery - an issue the Prime Minister rightly prioritises.

Many of these children have lost their homes, parents, friends and schools. Left where they are, these children will struggle to access the services and long-term support they need in countries with overwhelmed systems. The traffickers and smugglers prey on exactly this kind of vulnerability.

But, by the time the Dubs scheme may come to an end, just 350 children will have been resettled in the UK. This paltry figure does little to match the spirit and energy that galvanised the government to introduce the amendment in the first place.

The situation for children is particularly worrying in Greece and Italy. Last year alone, these two countries saw the arrival of over 30,000 unaccompanied children from conflict-affected countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Yet, just eight children have been resettled in the UK from Italy and Greece.

We do not end the control of criminals over children by ending a legal route. Instead, if we really wanted to undermine the ability for smugglers and traffickers to take advantage of children we would look at ensuring that the UK's rules on reuniting refugee families align for those outside Europe with those within it. Under the UK Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion, children can reunite with a parent in the UK. These rules need to be extended. Under the current system, for children to reach a more extended family member - like a grandparent or a sibling - in the UK they must first make a dangerous crossing into Greece or Italy to apply from there.

Local Authorities' capacity to take in more child refugees has been given as the other reason for capping the number of Dubs children. We are told that there is only space for 350 children. But there are 217 local authorities with responsibility for looking after children, which means that less than 2 Dubs scheme children will be supported by each local authority. Simply put, the scale of the response is not matching the scale of the crisis.

At Unicef UK we are calling on the Government to adopt simple and practical measures that will ensure the long-term safety of more vulnerable, unaccompanied child refuges in Europe. The Government should agree to ongoing consultations with Local Authorities to determine and resolve capacity issues, consulting them every financial year. It's also important for Local Authorities to publish up-to-date numbers of children who are supported so that NGOs, local communities and MPs can work together to realistically and practically support and resettle more children.

For those children with family links in the UK, the Government needs to make the law work for children, by finding ways to speed up family reunion processes from key countries such as Greece and Italy. Currently children's cases can take more than a year - an extraordinarily long time to wait in such perilous conditions - so it is no surprise that most children who are eligible do not enter the official family reunion system, or they give up on the system and make their own way, risking their lives with smugglers or traffickers.

With thousands of unaccompanied children alone, cold and in danger, the Government must also make arrangements to find unaccompanied children with family links in the UK and assist them through the process of being reunited with their families. They should also use their discretion to assist vulnerable children who are not alone, but are in great need of being transferred with an accompanying relative to be with their other family members here.

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Children fleeing war and disaster are at some of the highest numbers since World War II. We cannot pull the last hope of safety from under their feet without thinking through the consequences or - at the very least - providing an alternative. At Thursday's debate, the Government must take the opportunity to show that it is not shying away from its commitment to protect children from traffickers and criminal gangs. Many of these children will have lost everything. Many will have experienced traumas that are beyond our comprehension.

Let's not take away their last chance for a better future.

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