EU Withdrawal Bill - Unaccompanied Child Refugees

Let me say upfront - there has never been any question over family reunion for unaccompanied child refugees. The issue has been over how this is to be achieved rather than whether it should be achieved. 

Over the past week, there has been considerable debate surrounding Clause 37 of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which deals with family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Government supports the principles set out in the amendment tabled by Lord Dubs but does not accept that this is the right place to deal with this issue. As one report has accurately set out: “The Government has already committed to introducing new legislation within two months to protect the mechanism, which allows refugee children in one EU country to be reunited with relatives in another.”

In addition, this issue is bigger than the EU.  It is important to highlight the role of the Council of Europe in family reunification for asylum-seeking children. The Council of Europe, a non-EU body established in 1949, published an action plan on protecting refugees and migrant children in 2017. As a member state of the Council of Europe, the UK signed up to this action plan and as such, has already committed to strong protocols to protect and integrate refugee children into host societies.

Currently, the UK participates in the Dublin Regulation, an EU agreement which ensures that unaccompanied child refugees within the EU have the right to apply to be reunited with their close relatives in another EU country. Whilst it is true that after Brexit, we would no longer be covered by this regulation, the Government is committed to seeking a similar agreement with the EU so that we can ensure these children can continue to reunite with family. We need to negotiate a new agreement post Brexit and indeed the Home Secretary has already written to the European Commission to commence negotiations.

The UK has granted protection to over 41,000 children since the start of 2010, with the UK receiving over 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children in 2018. This accounts for 15% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children across the EU – making the UK the third-highest intake country in Europe. Clearly, we have reason to be proud of our record on the issue of family reunification and there is little to suggest that the Government are planning on watering down these commitments.

I understand that one of the reasons fuelling the speculation on the Government’s commitments to asylum-seeking children is the decision to remove the statutory obligation to ‘seek to negotiate’ an agreement from the primary legislation of the Bill. However, this does not imply that the Government is seeking to renege on its promises. Rather, it relates to our desire to restore the traditional division between Government and Parliament after the confusion of the last few years. A statutory commitment to seek to negotiate something does not form part of the traditional relationship between Government and Parliament. Negotiating objectives should not be laid in primary legislation and the Government’s hands should not be bound by Parliament in negotiations. As the Government has already written to the Commission to commence negotiations, it is inappropriate to maintain the statutory obligation in legislation now. The legal basis for the family reunion provisions agreed with the EU will be the international agreement itself.

Of course, any future agreement with the EU is a matter for negotiations, and not within the gift of the UK Government alone. Furthermore, implementing an agreement will require the close cooperation of the EU and EU Member States. This primary legislation will not guarantee this.