Policies protecting unaccompanied refugee children do not encourage irregular migration to the United Kingdom, Lord Alf Dubs argued alongside aid experts yesterday in front of the U.K. Parliamentary International Development Committee.
Representatives from UNICEF UK, Human Rights Watch UK and Safe Passage UK offered evidence to the IDC to support the claims made by Lord Alf Dubs, the peer behind Section 67 of the U.K. Immigration Act 2016, which has now been closed.
Widely known as the “Dubs Amendment,” it required the U.K. Home Office to resettle unaccompanied refugee children from elsewhere in Europe based on the capacity of local councils to receive them. Campaigners had hoped the scheme would help around 3,000 children.
However, after only a year in operation, the Home Office issued a statement on Feb. 8 saying it would close the Dubs scheme after resettling just 350 children, citing concerns that it acted as a “pull factor,” encouraging young people to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
“The government wanted to stop the scheme because the scheme encouraged trafficking, to which I would say emphatically not,” Lord Dubs told the committee.
“Where there are legal paths to safety, then traffickers don’t get a way in. But we know from elsewhere, particularly in Calais and so on, that the traffickers do best when there are no legal paths to safety,” he said.
Save the Children estimates there are currently more than 80,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, one-third of whom lack access to regular food, shelter or health care. Beth Gardiner-Smith, child refugee coordinator for Safe Passage UK, told Devex the organization estimates that roughly 1,250 of those in Greece would have been eligible for resettlement under the Dubs scheme, with “many more” scattered throughout Italy.
The Home Office did not offer evidence to support its claim that the Dubs Amendment created a “pull factor” for more refugees to make the journey to the U.K. The government had previously said that only children who had arrived in Europe by March 20, 2016, would be eligible for the scheme, in order to avoid this effect.
Evidence cited by humanitarian and aid groups, including Save the Children and Human Rights Watch, also suggests that safe routes for children disrupt the operations of smugglers and traffickers by reducing the number of refugee families willing to take this option.
The U.K. has committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, with children accounting for approximately half of the arrivals so far. Most of those were transferred from in or near the Middle East and North Africa region. In addition, it will resettle 3,000 vulnerable refugee children and their families direct from the MENA region.
Given its geographic location, the U.K. is among the most difficult European destinations for refugees to reach. It receives six asylum applications for every 10,000 U.K. residents, among the lowest in Europe. To maximize profits, smugglers may encourage parents to send their children first. Melanie Teff, senior humanitarian adviser for Unicef UK, said it isn’t unusual for refugee children to wait years in camps for their asylum application to be processed.
Last year, Europol reported that 10,000 unaccompanied children were missing from processing centers in Greece. “Children drop out of the system because it just takes too long for their cases to be processed — even the system for family reunion can take a year,” said Teff. Children drop out because they fear they will never be resettled or that they will turn 18 while they wait, losing eligibility for Dubs and other programs and increasing the likelihood of deportation.
She added that, as children grow desperate for cash to pay for the rest of the journey, rates of underage labor and prostitution among migrant and refugee populations in Greece continue to rise.
“More children will be at risk of falling into the hands of people traffickers as a result of this closure,” Martha McKenzie, deputy head of government relations at Save the Children, told Devex.
“There is very little evidence in this particular context that a scheme like Dubs would act as a pull factor. There is evidence that safe and legal routes protect children. So the question we should be asking ourselves is, what intervention is most likely to make children safe?” she said.
Dubs told the committee it is important to resettle unaccompanied refugee children from elsewhere in Europe — rather than from their countries of origin — because the burden of hosting displaced people has fallen disproportionately on a small number of European countries, where public services are now severely strained, and because there are few other schemes focused on processing and resettling unaccompanied children throughout Europe.
The EU Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors and Children — which focused on the prevention of unsafe migration, as well as reception and procedural guarantees for unaccompanied children arriving in Europe — expired in 2015, with no plans to renew or update.