Child Refugees

I believe it would be helpful to set out the position on family reunion and unaccompanied refugee children. The Government remains resolutely committed to the principle of family reunion, as well as to supporting the most vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis.

I previously raised the concerns about family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with the Home Office, and you can find a letter on the subject from the Rt Hon Brandon Lewis CBE MP below as well as a Q&A. If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to read both carefully.

The Minister confirms that Government policy has not changed on this matter and that protecting vulnerable children remains a key priority.

The Government has a proud record on supporting the most vulnerable children. The UK has granted protection to over 41,000 children since the start of 2010.  In 2018, the UK received over 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children – 15% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children across the EU – making the UK the third-highest intake country in Europe. Intake in the year ending September 2019 rose to over 3,500. 

I am pleased that the Government remains fully committed to ensuring that unaccompanied children can continue to be reunited with specified family members who are in the UK and that this is a negotiating objective with the EU.

The Home Secretary wrote to the European Commission on 22 October to start negotiations with the European Union on future arrangements on family reunion rights. This amendment would have added nothing to what is already happening.

I am disappointed that yet again the opposition parties have chosen to grandstand rather than to assess the reality of what the Government is doing.

 

The Government’s strong record in supporting vulnerable children.

The Government has a proud record on supporting the most vulnerable children. The UK has granted protection to over 41,000 children since the start of 2010.  In 2018, the UK received over 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children – 15% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children across the EU – making the UK the third-highest intake country in Europe. Intake in the year ending September 2019 rose to over 3,500. 

Over 5,000 unaccompanied children are being cared for by local authorities in England alone – a 146% increase from 2014. 

In addition, over the last five years we have granted over 27,000 family reunion visas for individuals joining family members granted refugee status in the UK under the refugee family reunion Immigration Rules.

The UK also continues to resettle vulnerable refugee children direct from conflict regions.  Over 18,000 refugees have been resettled in the UK from conflict regions under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), and over 1,700 children and families resettled under the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme (VCRS), with around half of both those cohorts being children.  This year the Government will launch a new global resettlement scheme, with the aim to resettle around 5,000 refugees in its first year of operation, again with around half expected to be children.

In parallel the UK continues to offer support aimed at alleviating the pressures on the Greek islands and to lead to sustainable improvements within the Greek migration system, including contributing £500,000 from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund towards urgent humanitarian support in the Greek island reception centres.

Finally, the UK has some of the world’s leading children protection laws, in the form of the Children’s Act.  The UK will also continue to uphold its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights (EHCR) and the Refugee Convention – obligations this Government takes extremely seriously.

 

Q&A on Clause 37 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill

 

Are you taking away the right to family reunion from the most vulnerable children?

No. The Government remains resolutely committed to the principle of family reunion, as well as to supporting the most vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis.

As a result of leaving the EU, the UK will cease to participate in EU instruments at the end of the implementation period, including the Dublin Regulation. This means that the ability of unaccompanied children under Dublin to reunite with family will end, unless a replacement agreement is negotiated. The Government is committed to seeking such an agreement so that we can ensure these children can continue to reunite with family.

Section 17 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act as it originally stood (annexed to this document) did not guarantee the family reunion rights of unaccompanied children. It simply required the Government to seek to negotiate an agreement – section 17 did not guarantee the rights of these children and it is not possible to do so without an agreement with the EU.

Similarly, Clause 37 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill does not remove any such rights. The Government has repeatedly stated its commitment to seek an agreement. Moreover, Clause 37 goes above and beyond the previous obligation in section 17 in that it provides a statutory guarantee that Parliament will be updated on the Government’s policy regarding family reunion for unaccompanied children within two months of the Bill's passage, giving Parliament the opportunity to provide scrutiny.

 

What does Clause 37 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill do?

Clause 37 does not repeal section 17. It replaces the statutory obligation upon the Government to “seek to negotiate” an agreement with the EU for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which currently take place under the Dublin Regulation, with an obligation upon the Government to make a statement to Parliament on its policy with regards to such an agreement.  The statement must be made within two months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

The Government remains absolutely committed to seeking an agreement with the EU which will enable unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in an EU Member State to be reunited with specified family members in the UK, where it is in the child’s best interests, and for children in the UK to be reunited with family members in an EU Member State in equivalent circumstances.

It should be stressed that Clause 37 and section 17 only relate to provisions with the EU for the family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.  Our other policies relating to family reunion and wider asylum issues are not affected by the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

 

Why is the Government removing the statutory obligation to ‘seek to negotiate’ from primary legislation?

The Government has been clear that we remain committed to seeking an agreement with the EU on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and the Home Secretary has already written to the European Commission to commence negotiations.

We are not removing section 17 from the 2018 Act. Rather, the Government has gone above and beyond its original obligation in section 17 and are now providing a statutory guarantee that Parliament will be updated on Government policy in this area. This guarantee, which was not part of the original section 17, gives Parliament an opportunity to provide scrutiny on the Government's policy and progress.

The Government is restoring the traditional division between Government and Parliament. A statutory commitment to seek to negotiate something does not form part of the traditional relationship between Government and Parliament. Negotiating objectives should not be laid in primary legislation, and Government’s hands should not be bound by Parliament in negotiations.

Primary legislation is not necessary to deliver this commitment.  As we have already written to the Commission to commence negotiations, it is inappropriate to maintain the statutory obligation in legislation now.  The legal basis for the family reunion provisions agreed with the EU will be the international agreement itself. 

However, it is important to note that any future agreement with the EU is a matter for negotiations, and not within the gift of the UK Government alone.  Furthermore, implementing an agreement will require the close cooperation of the EU and EU Member States.  Primary legislation will not guarantee this.

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is fundamentally about delivering EU exit.

 

 

What agreement is the Government seeking?

The Government remains committed to seeking an agreement with the EU as defined in section 17 – namely a reciprocal agreement for the family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children where it is in their best interests, after we leave the EU.

The Government is absolutely committed to ensuring the best interests of these children are served.  That is why it is important that this agreement should be reciprocal, as outlined above.  This is so that, where and only where it is deemed to be in the child’s best interests, a child in the UK can also be reunited with a family member in an EU Member State. 

The Government is seeking an EU-wide agreement, to enable vulnerable unaccompanied children in all Member States to reunite with family in the UK if it is in their best interests. However, any future agreement with the EU is a matter for negotiations, and not within the gift of the UK Government alone.

 

How does the Government intend to negotiate this agreement?

The UK is committed to maintaining a close relationship with the EU on asylum and migration, and any agreement negotiated under section 17 of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 will form an important part of this relationship.

The Home Secretary has already written to the European Commission on 22nd October to commence negotiations with the EU on a future agreement for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, once the UK is no longer bound by the Dublin Regulation.

However, any future agreement with the EU is a matter for negotiations, and not within the gift of the UK Government alone.

 

Who are specified family members?

Section 17 defines those family members with whom unaccompanied children would be eligible to reunite with under a future agreement (subject to EU agreement) as:

  1. a spouse or civil partner of the child or any person with whom the child has a durable relationship similar to marriage or civil partnership; or
  2. a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, brother or sister of the child.

Section 17 specifies that, in order for the child to be eligible to join their family member, that family member should either be a lawful resident of the country they are in, or have made an application for international protection there which has not yet been decided.

The Government is not amending this part of section 17 in Clause 37.

 

When will the UK cease reuniting children with family members under the Dublin Regulation?

The UK will continue to participate in the Dublin Regulation during the implementation period.  This means that unaccompanied children seeking protection in an EU Member State will continue to be able to reunite with eligible family members in the UK until the end of December 2020.

Additionally, the Immigration, Nationality and Borders (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 makes provision that we will continue to process Dublin family reunion referrals which entered the system before the date of the end of the implementation period, after this date.

 

Won’t there be a gap in provision for new child family reunion cases at the end of December 2020?

Our intention is to reach an agreement with the EU as quickly as practicable and before the end of December 2020.

 

What other policies does the UK operate allowing for the family reunion of refugees and asylum seekers?

Separate to the Dublin Regulation, the UK has existing and extensive legal provisions to guarantee family reunion.

Individuals with immediate family members in the UK who have been granted refugee status here will still be able to apply to join those family members under the refugee family reunion Immigration Rules.  This route is not impacted by EU Exit in any way.

The UK continues to resettle refugees direct from conflict regions under the VPRS and VCRS.  With the completion of the schemes this year, the Government will launch a new global resettlement scheme aiming to resettle around 5,000 refugees from conflict regions around the world in its first year of operation, again with around half expected to be children.

The Government remains fully committed to relocating the specified number of 480 unaccompanied children to the UK under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 (‘the Dubs Amendment’) as soon as possible, and we are making good progress in doing so.  Unlike Dublin, this is not a family reunion route.

None of these routes are affected by Clause 37 Withdrawal Agreement Bill, nor by our exit from the EU or the end of the implementation period.

 

Does the arrival of unaccompanied children via family reunion impact on Local Authorities in the UK?

The UK receives a large number of asylum applications from spontaneous arrivals of unaccompanied children – these are children who have entered the UK clandestinely.  Local authorities are placed under significant burdens to support these children in care.

For those unaccompanied children who arrive via the current Dublin family reunion mechanism local authorities do play a role in those cases e.g. by carrying out a family assessment on the UK based family the child is seeking to join for safeguarding purposes.

Additional burdens are placed on local authorities in supporting unaccompanied children who join family members under Dublin who are subsequently unable to care for them, or whose family relationship subsequently breaks down following transfer under Dublin. Some children will therefore end up in care following a Dublin family reunion transfer although we recognise that this is not the case for all transfers.

 

How many children are currently reunited under the Dublin family reunion provisions?

In 2018, the UK reunited 159 children with family members in the UK under the Dublin Regulation. Between 2016 and 2018, 426 UASC were reunited with family in the UK under Dublin.

 

 

 

 

Attachments

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Dear Colleagues Letter from Security Minister - Clause 37_0.pdf 109.09 KB