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Roger Roberts writes: we must do more for the Calais children

November 3, 2016 11:40 AM
By Lord Roger Roberts in Liberal Democrat Voice

Roger RobertsThe crisis that we are faced with in the UK and Europe is only part of a worldwide migration crisis. We hear from the United Nations that there are 65 million displaced persons in the world, and we know that in Europe alone, as already mentioned, there are 88,000 unaccompanied children. In the years to come, our legacy will not be a good one for our children, because with global warming, economic disasters and conflict, the flow of refugees could well become a torrent. So we have to face years ahead when we will need to tackle problems such as this far more effectively than we have this migration crisis.

When we debated the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I was very sad to see 200 Conservative Members of this House walking into the Not Content Lobby so as not to accept the 3,000 children mentioned in that amendment. I felt heartbroken that noble Lords could even think of going into the Not Content Lobby on that amendment. I hope that in the future we realise that this is not a one-off. It is something that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to face in a far more serious way than we have. I would really like to see an investigation - a commission, possibly - to look into why we acted as we did on this crisis. Why did we delay, month after month, before taking action to accept them?

Noble Lords are probably very tired of me proposing things and asking questions. I have asked the Government to take positive action in Oral and Written Questions on 13, 16, 22, 27 and 28 June, 7, 12, 13, 14 and 20 July and, since the Summer Recess, on 13, 14 and 15 September and 10, 12, 13, 17, 19 and 24 October.

Nobody can say that we have not tried to move the Government on this issue. At one time we were accepting into the UK only one child every 18 days. Requests to local authorities went out on 14 October.

There has been delay here. The Minister and Ministers before her know how I have struggled with this and how I have been so saddened, time and again, because we did not move. Because of that, we come to this present situation: the only time the Government moved was when the bulldozers were in Calais. This really is shameful. We are a compassionate people, yet we delay.

I have here lists of the children in the camps. Yes, some are 16 and 17 years old: they are not cuddly children, but they are still under 18. Not only that-as has been mentioned, some of them have been trudging from parts of Africa for two or three years. That must have aged them. I know that nowadays I feel pretty exhausted when I walk a few miles. These kids have suffered tremendously. I had a message this morning from Calais: there are about 2,000 remaining in the camps-no way is it 1,500 - and they are in containers. Each container has 12 beds but there are 20 youngsters in each container and they are also sleeping on tables and on the floor. The heating is on, so they are not cold, but there is not enough food to go round.

The message this morning said:

  • The weaker kids will be struggling because of the pecking order with other kids. They have no idea what is happening to them.

He estimated that there were also 300 people outside the container. This is a situation we should not tolerate as a civilised nation in a civilised Europe.

These children are being bussed out in coaches - I think tomorrow - thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Queens Park Rangers F.C. is ready to be part of this, though I do not think that will happen. But we must keep tabs on all of these children as they are scattered around France. There are many there who have a right to be here under the Dublin III regulations and many more under the noble Lord's amendment for vulnerable children. They have a place here.

I had another message this morning:

  • Tomorrow, underage children from the temporary accommodation centre will be leaving by bus for juvenile centres all over France, where their applications to be transferred to the United Kingdom will be dealt with by the British Authorities. No further applications for transfer to the United Kingdom will be dealt with in Calais. All cases will be handled and all departures for the United Kingdom will take place from the juvenile centres. You will be given a wristband which has your bus number on it. The buses will be leaving throughout the day starting at 8 a.m.

The message goes on:

  • The British authorities will be accompanying you on the journey.

We have tried to face this crisis, but we have not done well at all. The promise is that we will have 20,000 refugees in the UK by the end of this Parliament. If we cannot handle 300 or 400, how can we think of handling 20,000? We cannot delay the organising of this any longer. We cannot have them all coming in the last fortnight; it is impossible. If we are to keep that promise, it must be an ongoing process now.

I suggest that we should be in touch with Canada - not just because it has a Liberal Government, though it helps - to see what it has done. It has accepted 32,000 people in three months. They have more land than us, but they have bigger hearts than ours.

It gets more difficult as time goes on, but the people here are ready to embrace these youngsters and the others who will follow. It is not easy but it can be done. At the time of the Blitz, 3 million people were moved from the big cities to places such as north Wales in a month. If we did it then, we can do it now.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords