JUST over three months ago, the tragic death of a little boy and his brother exposed the world to a refugee crisis which governments, including our own, had been doing their best to avoid.
As you will know, that three-year-old boy was Aylan Kurdi and his brother was Galib. Both were Syrian refugees travelling with their parents to seek safety and sanctuary in Europe.
UNHCR’s latest figures show that over 900,000 people have made similar journeys, over sea, to Europe this year and that 23 per cent of these are children. That’s over 200,000 children who have fled their homes in search of a new life.
Many of these children have travelled with their families, as Aylan and Galib had before they drowned. But tens and thousands of children travel alone. They are without parents or relatives, and have made their way to Europe in the toughest of circumstances. It is this particularly vulnerable group which my Parliamentary bill on safe havens addresses.
There are serious concerns, which have been echoed by Europol’s chief of staff Brian Donald, that vulnerable, underage refugees are being preyed upon by organised criminal gangs intent on forcing them into prostitution and slave labour.
According to the Italian Ministry of Labour and Welfare, of the 13,000 unaccompanied children who were registered there in 2014, almost 4,000 disappeared after arriving. That’s 4,000 children without official protection of any kind – they have no access to education, to healthcare or to a safe home.
We do not yet have comparable numbers for 2015, but given the rise refugees this year, we can expect a much higher number of disappeared children.
This is not a far off problem to be dealt with by distant governments. It is here in Europe, on our own shores. It is our responsibility to protect all refugees, and none more so than orphaned children with no other hope. It is shameful that this Government has so far ignored these children, and it is time they did the right thing and help them.
Three thousand children is just a small part of the overall number, certainly small enough for our local authorities to handle given the appropriate resources and support. It amounts to just five children per Parliamentary constituency and is less than a third of the children we took in during the Kinderstransport, a programme very similar to this proposal.
There is no doubt that it was right to take in those Jewish children in the 1930s, and with the same morals at the core of what it means to be British, there is no doubt that these children are also deserving of our help.
This isn’t the first time I have called for this in Parliament, so I can predict what response this Bill might receive from the Government. They will tell us that they would not want to risk separating children from their families, and that there are some concerns that the proposed programme would do that. That argument is simply not true.
Of course all efforts should be made to ensure children remain with or are reunited with their families. However, for the children in this programme, reunification with parents or their primary carers is not possible. These are children who have been registered by the UN Refugee Agency in Europe as unaccompanied, have no family with them and no known family to be sent back to.
From talking to civil society groups, I know that there are enough families willing to foster an unaccompanied child. For example, Home for Good has registered 10,000 prospective adoptive families. If the Government supports local authorities and agencies to provide the requisite training, the UK will be well equipped to support these children.
My final point is that it’s time for the UK to stand up and be a leader. Instead of waiting for something high profile to happen before doing the minimum, as we saw after the death of Aylan Kurdi, the Government has the chance to acknowledge a problem and actually do something about it.
The UK could make a significant difference by working with UN agencies and civil society to put in place a relocation scheme for unaccompanied children in Europe.
If the UK were to initiate this programme, other EU countries would follow – and many thousands of children would reach the safety and security they so desperately deserve.
Tim Farron MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats.