In a written statement to Parliament on 28 January 2016, James Brokenshire, the Minister of State for Immigration, revealed the Government’s proposed course of action for providing further assistance and protection to unaccompanied child refugees ‘from Syria, other regions of conflict, and for those in transit in Europe’. He said the government had asked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “to make an assessment of the numbers and needs of unaccompanied children in conflict regions and to advise on when it is in the best interests of the child to be resettled in the UK and how that process should be managed”. The Minister said that UNHCR had already been clear that these are likely to be exceptional cases.
The exact requirements for a child to fall within the resettlement criteria are unclear. According to The Guardian, government sources suggested that the additional numbers were likely to be in the hundreds and not thousands.
The resettlement of child refugees in the UK is additional to the UK’s existing promise to take 20,000 refugees from camps around Syria over the life of this parliament. Only 1,000 Syrians have been resettled through this scheme thus far. Campaigners additionally want the UK to take 3,000 children from Europe. However, the Prime Minister has said that doing so might spur more refugees to risk “lethal journeys”.
The written statement also says that the Home Office will host a roundtable to invite views from a range of NGOs and local authorities to see how the UK can provide more support for children in the region, in transit and domestically “to prevent children putting themselves at risk and making dangerous journeys on their own”. To meet concerns about child trafficking the Anti-Slavery Commissioner will visit ‘hotspots in Italy and Greece’ with a view to providing advice on protecting unaccompanied children and others from traffickers. The written statement recognises that children already in the UK may be victims of trafficking and will need to be provided with support.
The UK’s approach to providing more support to refugee children from the Syrian conflict now appears to be three-fold: first (but only exceptionally) to resettle a small number of unaccompanied refugee children in the UK where it is in the child’s best interests; secondly to assist in providing support for those in-transit to protect them from the risk of trafficking; and thirdly, to set up a new fund of ‘up to £10 million’ to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. The money will be used to fund targeted support such as providing safe places for children to stay, tracing services to help reunite children with their families, and legal and counselling services.
The written statement confirms the Government will also continue to meet its obligations under the Dublin Regulation. The Dublin Regulation cites the best interests of the child as being a primary consideration. It also states that responsibility of an asylum claim of a child asylum seeker will be the country where ‘a family member or a sibling of the unaccompanied minor is legally present, provided that it is in the best interests of the minor’. In other words, if a child claims asylum in another member state but has family in the UK then the UK could be responsible for that child’s asylum claim. Therefore, there is already a resettlement obligation on the UK for some unaccompanied child asylum seekers, although this has not stopped the Government from seeking to avoid this responsibility in respect of unaccompanied children in the Calais ‘jungle’ in the recent Upper Tribunal decision in R (ota ZAT and Others) v SSHD IJR  UKUT 00061 (IAC). Save The Children has stated that the Government in practice ignores its obligations under the Dublin regulation to unaccompanied children in the EU with relatives in the UK. However, as a result of the ZAT decision, the Government has had to bring a number of these children to the UK from Calais. In light of this background, the written statement does go well beyond the Government’s obligations under Dublin as it indicates it will take responsibility for some unaccompanied child asylum seekers even where they do not have any family in the UK, providing it is still in the best interests of the child, and directly from conflict zones.
In real terms, however, particularly in light of the huge numbers of Syrian refugees who have fled their country, the help announced in the statement is very limited.