As we look forward to spending quality time with our loved ones over the festive season, we often think about how we can make sure this period is a special one for children. Among the Christmas trees, turkeys and present-wrapping, the most vulnerable children in the world are struggling to survive – fleeing war, criminal exploitation, torture – all they want at this time of year is a home.
Those who have lost their parents are in need of the safety of close family, wherever they can find it. They are some of the children most in need of compassion any time of the year, but especially when it turns cold.
Yesterday, the Immigration White Paper was a crucial opportunity for the UK to show we intend to help these children – but it was missed.
Sadly, the Home Office didn’t take the chance to make a simple change to the law, meaning more children will continue to risk everything in desperate attempts to reach the safety of their loved ones.
Although the White Paper does recognise the need to support vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis, it does not go far enough in addressing this. Instead, it states that there is already a ‘comprehensive framework’ in place.
Yet, in reality, we know that the existing legislation titled Rule 319x, and the discretionary powers contained therein, simply do not work for children. There is no legal advice available for this complex route and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that UK Entry Clearance Officers routinely reject such applications when they are first made.
Subsequently, children are forced to make dangerous journeys across to Europe in the hope that they will be reunited with their family. Once here, children experience long and frustrating waits in camps in Italy and Greece. Currently, in the Greek Islands, there are over 3,600 children trying to forge an existence in overcrowded Reception Centres.
Earlier this year, Unicef described the conditions as ‘dire and dangerous’. Some children are even living in broken shipping containers. Especially as the temperatures plummet in the colder months, this is no place for a child.
We could prevent many children from having to make the dangerous journey to Europe and experiencing horrendous conditions in refugee camps by setting up a practical system where they can reunite with close family members from outside of the EU.
While these issues often feel insurmountable, the UK can make a massive difference to the lives of vulnerable children. By amending its Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion to allow children to join uncles, aunts, adult siblings or grandparents in the UK, we can prevent the need for children with close family from undertaking dangerous journeys.
Until the Government fixes the rules, we will continue to see the footage of children crammed onto dinghies or clinging onto lorries. No child should have to do this – especially if they have family who already reside in the UK.
While the Government has provided for refugee and migrant children in the camps with UK Aid provision, they still have a responsibility to ensure safe and legal routes so that children can be reunited with their family.
MPs from all sides of the House agree that these routes must be provided. Last year, Conservative MPs were clear that they would amend the Immigration Bill to ensure vulnerable children were protected.
Therefore, the Government should use the year-long consultation process to listen to organisations who are appealing for this change. Otherwise, they may find their hand is forced by their own MPs in Parliament.
Time is running out. We urge the Government to change the law so that children do not continue to risk everything in desperate attempts to reach the safety of their loved ones.