Syria crisis: UK should take in 3,000 children, say MPs
The UK should take in 3,000 child refugees stranded in Europe, as part of its humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict, MPs have said.
The International Development Committee said it backed calls from charities for the UK to accept more unaccompanied minors as a matter of "utmost urgency".
Lone children risked being forced into prostitution or the drugs trade unless given sanctuary, the MPs said.
The UK has taken 1,000 refugees so far as part of a 20,000 five-year target.
But humanitarian campaigners say this is inadequate and that refugees already in Europe should qualify for resettlement under the UK's Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme, which is currently restricted to those in refugee camps in Syria and neighbouring countries.
Now, a campaign headed by Save The Children, urging the UK to give a safe haven to 3,000 unaccompanied children fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and other war zones has won the backing of MPs from all parties.
The cross-party committee commended the government's response so far to the refugee crisis, which it said was the worst since World War Two.
It praised the £1.1bn in humanitarian aid the UK had given to Syria and its neighbours to help the millions of people displaced by the civil war and challenged other wealthy countries to also meet their humanitarian pledges in full.
But it said more needed to be done, warning that 80% of children in Syria were in need of humanitarian assistance and the number of unaccompanied children ending up in Europe in search of safety was likely only to increase.
It was originally Save The Children which came up with the suggestion that Britain should take 3,000 Syrian children who had made it to Europe unaccompanied by adults. The charity pointed to statistics from the Italian authorities suggesting that up to 4,000 children had simply disappeared off the official radar in 2014. The fear is that these children may have been preyed upon by people-traffickers.
Previously, PM David Cameron has been set against resettling refugees from inside Europe, arguing that it is better to take people directly from the region around Syria. His logic is that if you take refugees from Europe, you might encourage more people to risk dangerous journeys in unseaworthy boats.
The UK has also given £1.1bn to the region to help improve conditions in camps near Syria's borders, in the hope that will help more refugees to stay nearer to home.
But it feels like political pressure is growing on the government to tweak its policy and to find more room for children who have already arrived on Europe's shores. Save The Children was heartened that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, backed their proposal before Christmas.
The International Development Committee has now added its weight to the suggested plan. Officially, ministers say it is still "under discussion". They will be all too aware from an earlier episode in this crisis that photographs of vulnerable children can have a strong effect on public opinion.
Stephen Twigg, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said it would welcome any commitment by ministers to meet the 3,000 figure.
"Children are clearly some of the most vulnerable refugees this crisis has created," he said. "The first refugee casualty of 2016 was a drowned two-year-old boy pulled from the sea off the Greek coast.
"Having survived the treacherous journey, there is a grave possibility that unaccompanied children become the victims of people traffickers who force them into prostitution, child labour and the drugs trade.
"This is an issue of utmost urgency."
The government has said Save the Children's proposal is "under discussion" as part of a wider review into the help given to orphans.
"What we are doing is looking at the issue of whether or not countries such as the United Kingdom should do more to help vulnerable children, particularly orphans, that arrive in Europe, as opposed to all the work we are doing to help vulnerable children in camps," a spokeswoman said.
Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the UK's focus should continue to be on providing a "direct route" to safety for the most vulnerable Syrians and not to encourage them to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean by boat, which has seen hundreds perish.
As part of the UK's response, an additional 216 Syrian refugees were resettled under the VPR scheme between January 2014 and mid-2015, while the UK has also granted asylum or other forms of protection to 1,868 Syrians in the year ending September 2015.