The European Union is ‘systematically’ failing unaccompanied child refugees, a UK parliamentary report, which criticised Britain for not taking in its fair share of asylum seekers, has warned.
The House of Lords EU Committee report, published today (26 July), said that a conservative EUROPOL estimate put the number of missing child refugees in Europe at more than 10,000. The committee scrutinises EU law on behalf of the upper house of the British parliament.
Chairman Baroness 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 that these children face suspicion on arrival. They are seen as ‘somebody else’s problem’, and the conditions they live in were described to us as deplorable and squalid.”
Such treatment forced children into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers, the report said. In 2015 88,245 unaccompanied kids applied for asylum in the EU.
The UK, then led by Prime Minister David Cameron, exercised its opt-out from EU asylum rules at the height of the refugee crisis last year.
Member states without the opt-out were told to relocate refugees from swamped countries such as Italy and Greece – but were slow to do so.
“We found a clear failure among EU countries, including the UK, to shoulder their fair share of the burden,” Prashar said.
The British in January agreed to take some lone child refugees directly from North Africa and the Middle East. But it rejected calls to accept 3,000 children who had made it to Europe.
In May, under growing pressure, Cameron said the UK would take in more unaccompanied Syrian child refugees but did not commit to a number.
“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,” said Prashar.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry highlights a lack of burden-sharing between local authorities in the UK, with one authority caring for 412 unaccompanied migrant children, while many others have none in their care.
The report called for the establishment of an independent guardianship scheme, at EU and UK level, introducing minimum standards to ensure that decisions are taken in the best interests of migrant children.
Such a scheme exists in Scotland, but the Committee called on the government to set up a similar scheme in England and Wales, the report said.
The protection of vulnerable migrants, including unaccompanied minors, is a top priority for the European Commission. EU legislation on asylum, immigration and trafficking in human beings includes specific provisions on the protection of the interests of unaccompanied minors.
The European Commission told EurActiv.com that the common European asylum system provided for representation of unaccompanied children.
“The protection of vulnerable migrants, including unaccompanied minors, is a top priority for the European Commission. EU legislation on asylum, immigration and trafficking in human beings includes specific provisions on the protection of the interests of unaccompanied minors,” a spokesperson said.
On 13 July this year the Commission proposed an overhaul of EU asylum law.
“Under the new rules the responsible authorities will be obliged to appoint a guardian as soon as possible and no later than five working days from the moment an unaccompanied minor makes an application for asylum,” the spokesperson added.
But the UK has an opt-out for those rules, which it has regularly exercised, and is likely to continue doing so, given the vote to leave the EU in the 23 June referendum. That vote was dominated by fears over immigration.
The refugee crisis has highlighted deep divisions in the EU, with member states reintroducing border controls in the passport-free Schengen zone.
About one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, 97% of them arriving by sea in principally Greece and Italy.
Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee