The UK is shirking its responsibility to care for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, dismissing them as “somebody else’s problem”, a report has concluded.
Unaccompanied migrant children have been systematically failed by the EU and its member states, including the UK, and as a result, thousands are living in “squalid” conditions, treated with suspicion by authorities and preyed upon by traffickers and people smugglers, according to the House of Lords EU home affairs subcommittee report. More than 10,000 children are estimated to have gone missing.
The UK’s reluctance to take its share of these children is “deplorable”, says the report, entitled Children in crisis: unaccompanied migrant children in the EU.
Financial pressures have encouraged a culture of disbelief across the EU, where officials sometimes find it preferable to overestimate the age of an unaccompanied child with no documentation to avoid having to take responsibility for a minor at greater expense, according to the report.
A Save the Children official told the committee that the “overstretching of resources had created incentives for national authorities not to treat minors as children”.
The report highlights the difficulties that authorities have in correctly assessing the age of a child and notes that inaccurate age assessments have meant that some children have been wrongly held in detention centres intended for adults. There is a “widespread reluctance to believe unaccompanied migrant children’s narratives”, the report states.
In 2015, 88,265 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the EU, including 3,045 to the UK, an increase of 56% on the 2014 UK figure. At least 137 children have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of this year.
The report says: “We are concerned that the EU and its member states, including the UK, may have lost sight of the plight of unaccompanied migrant children. [The children] face a culture of disbelief and suspicion. Authorities try to avoid taking responsibility for their care and protection.”
The committee was told about children in Italy and Greece “burning or otherwise damaging their fingertips in order to avoid registration”, because they were afraid of being detained or forcibly returned to transit countries.
As well as being exposed to “deplorable” conditions in camps, children were often found in emergency accommodation such as hotels or schools, without “reliable access to food, water, sanitation, official information or any form of legal advice”, the report states. Others were found “sleeping in car parks, metro stations, hospital waiting rooms or on the street”.
Save the Children’s Italy programme “found that 50% of the children they are dealing with have a sexually transmitted infection. That is evidence of them being sexually exploited in transit,” the Lords committee heard. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder were all common, according to aid agency representatives.
The committee expresses concern that large numbers of young adults who left their countries of origin as children were being returned to those countries without adequate support. It heard that 657 former child refugees have been returned to Iraq since 2007.
David Cameron made a commitment in May to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Greece, Italy and France, but last week, Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who fought for more children to be given sanctuary, expressed concern that so far he knew of no children being resettled under the agreed terms.
The chair of the committee, Lady Prashar, said: “The current refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian challenge the EU has faced in its lifetime. At the sharp end of this crisis are unaccompanied migrant children, who are being failed across the board. We found a clear failure among EU countries, including the UK, to shoulder their fair share of the burden. We deeply regret the UK government’s reluctance to relocate migrant children to the UK, in particular those living in terrible conditions in the camps near the channel ports.
“We urge the EU institutions and the UK government to address these complex problems urgently. At the end of the day, unaccompanied child migrants are children, first and foremost, and we need to work together to care for them in a decent and humane way.”
The Lords committee report is critical of all member states for making “so little progress in relocating unaccompanied migrant children within the EU”.
“In particular, we deplore the continuing reluctance of the UK government to show solidarity with its European partners in helping to relocate such children,” the report says, adding that despite the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Britain remains a full member, with all the responsibilities that entails.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “More than 20 children have been accepted for transfer to the UK since the act was given royal assent and the majority of these have already arrived. We are consulting with local authorities across the country to confirm available capacity and ensure appropriate support systems are in place.
“We are also in active discussions with the UNHCR [United Nations high commissioner for refugees] and the Italian, Greek and French governments to strengthen and speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer children to the UK and ensure this in their best interests.”
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