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22 January 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 7:59am

Britain is doing good work for refugees in the camps – but it needs to do more for the ones who reach Europe

Refugee children are increasingly being forgotten once they arrive on the continent. 

By johnny Mercer

When I visited Turkey’s border with Syria in September, a refugee mother begged me to take her child from her. As a parent, I have thought about this many times since; I cannot imagine a more heart-breaking symptom of total desperation. Over 2.5 million Syrians have fled into Turkey from their country’s seemingly interminable civil war. I was impressed by the work of their hosts, and the efforts of international donors to help them. The British government has led the way, committing £1.1 billion not only to provide food and shelter, but also to build sustainable education and health systems that give refugees the chance of a future. Alongside this, the UK’s ‘Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme’ has created a lifeline for the most at risk, and I’m proud that the government has committed to re-settle 20,000 people under the programme over the course of this Parliament.

In the face of laudable efforts in Syria and the surrounding region, we cannot become complacent. It is not a numbers game; it is about resolving the crisis and mending lives. We should not fall into the trap of responding to questions about the situation in Europe with answers about our role in the Middle East. We can always do more for the millions of desperate people who have reached our continent.

Tens of thousands of refugee children are alone in Europe. They have not only come from Syria, but also places such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. This context sheds a different light on the mother who pled with me to give her child a home. These children, fleeing conflict, terror and persecution, are not only homeless and alone, but, according to Europol’s Brian Donald, they are systematically targeted by criminal gangs for trafficking into the sex and drugs trades. Abuse is rife and reports of sexual exploitation are widespread.

The cross-party International Development Committee published a powerful report this month that makes a bold proposal for Britain to better play its part. They echo Save the Children’s call to give a home to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees who meet two critical criteria: they have nowhere else to go; and only in cases when it is in the best interest of the child. 3,000 children nationwide is fewer than five per Parliamentary constituency, and the charity Home for Good has already mobilised as many as 10,000 willing foster families across the country. We certainly have the capability, I know we have the compassion, we just need the action. This is a small, simple, common-sense move, in the tradition of the Kindertransport, which could save the lives of 3,000 children who are currently at unimaginable risk.

This government has done the right thing by the people of Syria thus far. The Prime Minsters multi-factoral approach in aid, military action, in-region support and taking refugees from the camps, means Britain is playing a leading role in resolving the crisis that is taking so many lives, and destroying those left behind.

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But there is still more to do, and I do not want to see the conversation stop there when there are unaccompanied refugee children at such risk of exploitation in Europe. Lets not forget them, and keep working hard for peace.

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