25 April 2016

Act now to help thousands of unaccompanied refugee children

By Tim Farron

After visiting first Calais in August then Lesvos in October last year it became clear to me that the UK – despite its generous humanitarian aid to Syria and the region – was not doing enough to help those refugees who had already made treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean and had arrived here in Europe.

During both visits I met unaccompanied children. Some had travelled alone and others had been separated from their families along the way. It is these unaccompanied children that we have the chance to help now.

In the months since I first raised my concerns about this particularly vulnerable group with the Prime Minister, I have heard a number of excuses about why the government will not help them. First they tried to deny that these children even existed. Once they could no longer deny the facts, they argued, and will no doubt do so again, that if we do anything at all for these youngsters it will act as a pull factor, driving many more to dangerous sea routes.

They deflected, by talking about refugees they were taking from the region, a resettlement programme that only happened because of the work of Nick Clegg when he was Deputy Prime Minister, which I support, but does not address the very real crisis faced by the child refugees who are here in Europe.

An estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children came to Europe last year and 10,000 of them are now missing. The strongest likelihood is they have been trafficked and some are now subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse. European leaders should be ashamed that there are children in this situation on our continent, in the 21st century. We have failed those 10,000, and have failed to live up to our values in the process.

This week MPs have the choice to start to reverse this failure, and show the world that Britain is a country that protects the most vulnerable; a country that puts the rights and needs of a child above party politics or calculation.

There is an amendment to the Immigration Bill, decided on Monday, that will allow just 3,000 unaccompanied children who are currently in Europe to be resettled in the UK. That’s only five kids per parliamentary constituency, but the difference this will make to the lives of each of those three thousand is impossible to quantify. The House of Lords overwhelmingly supported this amendment, led by Lord Dubs, himself a refugee brought to the UK as a child during the kindertransport.

My message to MPs, especially Conservative ones is this: it is tough to vote against your party but I ask you to think deeply about your principles, your values and what makes you proud to be British. Join me in the voting lobbies on Monday. We can make a difference to the lives of thousands of young people.

That is why I will continue to fight for these children, and hope the other politicians, charities, communities, churches, and individuals who have used their own voices to support this campaign will continue to as well. I urge Tory MPs to join me and make history.

The amendment to the Immigration Bill on the 25th of April was rejected by 294 to 276.

Tim Farron MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats.