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Mike Wood: It is a pleasure to follow Stuart C. McDonald, who made a number of points that certainly deserve far more examination and scrutiny. Like other Members, I congratulate Angus Brendan MacNeil on securing this important debate. I did not know whether I would get the pronunciation of his constituency right, but I think I was close enough—I am afraid that that might be as good as I get on Thursday afternoon.
It is fitting that this debate is taking place during Refugee Week, because refugees are among the most vulnerable people on our planet. Whether they are fleeing war, famine, national disaster or religious persecution, refugees make perilous journeys to seek asylum in a safer country, often leaving behind their families and friends.
As my hon. Friend Kwasi Kwarteng said, the United Kingdom has a proud history—it goes back centuries—of welcoming people from abroad who have fled danger. Although he clearly has far more historical understanding and expertise than I could ever hope to have, I am sure that we are all aware of a number of waves of immigration from people fleeing persecution—from the Huguenots and other Calvinist and Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in Europe, right through to the 20th century, when we welcomed Jewish refugees from the continent. We can also be proud of and grateful for the incredible work that is done in all our communities by many individuals, groups and community organisations, particularly faith-based organisations that do so much to welcome and support those who seek asylum and safety within our shores.
Our current rules allow for partners and dependent children under the age of 18 to be granted a refugee reunion visa, but there is scope to extend those parameters in exceptional circumstances. However, I recognise that those powers are perhaps used rather less flexibly than they ought, as we heard from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. As many Members have said, only refugees over the age of 18 are able to sponsor those visas.
Many of us are extremely sympathetic to the intentions of the two Bills that are currently before Parliament: the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar; and Baroness Hamwee’s Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill in the other place. As a matter of principle and policy, we clearly wish to keep families together whenever possible, as that is usually in the best interests of children. Of course, we do have to look at the possible unintended consequences of any change, although that does not necessarily mean that we should be against the change. We need to proceed with some caution as there could be an impact due to behavioural change, particularly if that could lead to additional people being put at risk. Whereas the current policy means that refugee family reunion exists in many circumstances, we need to look at the best way of keeping families together without creating an incentive in which more children are put at risk by becoming unaccompanied migrants, which involves a huge amount of danger.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East asked whether there was any evidence that changes in western policy were having an impact on migration flows. A 2017 UN report that looked at child refugees into Italy offers some empirical evidence. The number of unaccompanied child refugees travelling into Italy rose from 75% of all refugee children travelling into Italy in 2015 to 92% in the year to February 2017. That is clearly a significant change in the pattern of migration. It undoubtedly has many causes, but it seems likely that part of the reason behind it is an assumption that unaccompanied children are more likely to be granted asylum and that their families might be able to join them at a later date.
Neil O'Brien (Harborough)
My hon. Friend’s point goes squarely to the important question asked by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the evidence. Of course it is difficult to prove anything when we are dealing with hypothetical questions, and we must look at what has happened in other countries, particularly if their policy has shifted from not allowing children to sponsor adults to allowing that to happen. Does my hon. Friend agree that one difference between the countries of southern Europe and countries in northern Europe such as Denmark and the UK is that the northern countries are more likely to experience secondary movements than primary movements? Given the physical geography involved, people are more likely to arrive first in countries such as Italy, whereas secondary movements are more likely to occur further north in countries such as Britain, which can be attractive for all kinds of reasons.
Mike Wood: My hon. Friend is clearly right. We have seen with the migration from the middle east and Africa—particularly from Libya and Syria—that the first destination is overwhelmingly one of the Mediterranean countries, for the obvious reasons that have been highlighted.
Our policy needs to be one of trying to keep families together whenever possible and appropriate, but it must also limit the risk to those fleeing danger and persecution. We hear reports about the transport used by asylum seekers and refugees, particularly the maritime transport. We talk about refugee boats, but anyone who has seen the footage of the vessels that those people are travelling in—some hon. Members will have seen this in real life—will know that “boats” hardly seems an appropriate word. Too often, the vessels are barely more than flotsam and jetsam—almost anything that will float on the ocean and that people can get on top of or cling to. One of our aims must be to minimise the number of people, and particularly the number of unaccompanied children, making these extremely hazardous journeys. I recognise the points that have been made about whether we could provide safer routes and methods that could hold out hope for those who desperately need a safe haven without playing into the hands of those who would take advantage as traffickers and without putting people in unnecessary danger.
Neil O'Brien (Harborough)
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the BBC’s brilliant series “Exodus”, which gave the lucky people like us who were born in this country an insight into the unbelievably harrowing experiences of refugees travelling across the Mediterranean? Does he agree that an attractive idea would be to spend a larger proportion of our aid budget on trying to help people feel that they no longer need to put their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean by helping them to build a future in their own countries?
Mike Wood: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I am afraid that I have not seen that series, but I will certainly look out for it. On his second point, a key part of our international development aims is to try to tackle absolute and abject poverty, and the risks to people’s safety and security that often drive large waves of migration and lead to people seeking asylum. One of the strongest arguments for why it is right that, as a country, we commit to spending a proportion of our national wealth on international development and overseas development aid is absolutely that it helps to reduce the numbers of people involved and the risks and dangers to them.
UNICEF’s six-point agenda for action acknowledges that children who travel alone are more easily preyed on and more vulnerable to violence and abuse. We should be wary of changes to legislation that risk increasing the numbers of children put into that position if there are other means of keeping families together and of being able to offer people a safe haven from danger.
I look forward to listening to the debate about changing the rules on the sponsorship of refugees and whether it would be right and effective to allow those under 18 to sponsor. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to debate such legislation without too much more delay. However, other action could be taken to improve the welfare and safety of those seeking asylum—refugees coming into the United Kingdom. The first, as we have heard, is to ensure that, after Brexit, the United Kingdom and the European Union continue to operate on the basis of keeping families together so that refugees with close relatives in the United Kingdom who come into another European Union country are able to join them here, and the few refugees who come into the United Kingdom and have relatives in another European country are similarly able to join their relatives in those countries. I was very pleased to hear the Solicitor General commit to ensuring that that happens after Brexit.
What would clearly make a big difference to not only child refugees but refugees more broadly would be to make sure that asylum claims are processed quickly, without unnecessary delay. It is not only those claiming asylum who are adversely affected by long delays in processing claims while they are unable to work, because our local economies and local societies similarly miss out because those people’s ability to contribute to those local economies and societies is severely restricted while their claims are being processed. I look forward to hearing the Minister say what more can be done to make sure that asylum claims are processed in a timely and efficient manner so that those who need asylum in our country are able to live here, to settle, to contribute and to integrate, and so that our communities are able to welcome and support them.