Geoffrey Cox highlights our obligations to do more for unaccompanied children arriving in Greece and Italy

23rd February 2017

Geoffrey Cox calls on the Government to do more for unaccompanied children arriving in Greece and Italy and make practical and effective our obligations under international law.

Some 30,000 unaccompanied children entered Greece and Italy last year. Are we simply to leave them there, while this great country, which for hundreds of years has had a tradition of offering asylum to those fleeing persecution, stands back and washes its hands of their fate? I do not believe that it is in the interests of this country, of its international reputation or of its moral sense of self-worth and dignity for us simply to stand back and say, “That is not our problem—it is yours.” I completely accept that great work has been done in the region to assist those who are in such a plight, but I do not believe that we as a nation can afford the damage to our reputation that is currently happening throughout Europe, because we are being seen to fail and fall down in the obligations—modest as they are—that we have undertaken, in international law and otherwise, to assist with the plight of unaccompanied children in Europe.

As I understand it, the Dublin regulation requires us, as a matter of law, to deal in the first instance with any application for asylum that is made by a child who has family receiving international protection in this country. That is an obligation under international law. It is incumbent on us, incumbent on this House and incumbent on the Government to ensure that that obligation is not simply paid lip service to, but is made practical and effective. That can be done only if we reach out to those tens of thousands of people in Greece and Italy and if we look actively to find those who are entitled to be here under international law and whom the Government, on behalf of this House and the nation, have promised to deal with because it is our obligation.

I fear for the reputation of this country when it assumes an obligation and does not provide the means to realise it.


The hon. and learned Gentleman is making an immensely powerful speech. Does he agree that it is not just our legal, but our moral obligation to give refuge to refugees? That is one of our best defences against the tyrants, the bullies and the terrorists who oppose the values that Britain stands for.


I agree with the right hon. Lady, but let us leave aside arguments of conscience and compassion. Let us concentrate on our legal obligations. I say that to the hon. Lady not because I disavow or seek to reduce the importance of the moral arguments, but because moral arguments do not always appear in the same light to everybody.

The arguments about the push and pull factors that are sometimes used surround the problem with what I understand are difficult equations and judgments about the practicalities and complexities of whether we should take children or not. But sometimes we can surround a problem with a web of complication. Sometimes, I would prefer to be a fly than a spider, and the plight of the child is one example. The plight of a child transcends the complexities of push and pull factors.

Nobody is suggesting for a moment that we should take every single one of the 30,000 children a year who enter Greece and Italy. All that the Dubs amendment meant was that we should take a modest few. Those of us on this side of the House who voted for that amendment believed that we would take a modest few, but we did not believe that it would be only 350.

Let me return to the question of our obligations. It is not in the interests of our reputation as a country to be seen to be a nation parsimonious and mean-spirited in the fulfilment of an obligation. We should have in Greece and Italy now not only the valiant single lady, Miss Malahyde, who seems to be doing tremendous work—dozens of Home Office officials should be actively searching for the children whom it is our legal obligation to find and process.


The dispiriting and depressing issue is that back on 21 April, the then Minister for Immigration explained that

“The teams we send to Greece will include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. This will help ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible.”

Now we hear from the Red Cross that it is taking 10 months to process a child’s case. It is our legal and practical responsibility to have ensured that those 75 experts were about protecting the vulnerable, not getting rid of them through to Turkey.


I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is our duty to process the children and to deal with those who have connections and family in this country.


Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?


No, I must make progress, given the time.

It is our duty to find those children, and I do not accept for a moment that a single person is sufficient to make our obligation effective.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that we should be doing much more in Greece and Italy—not, I repeat, to take many tens of thousands of children, but simply to interpret our legal duty according to the spirit and manner in which this country ought to be interpreting it: making it real, practical and effective. It is the cruellest of charades to acknowledge an obligation and not to carry it out with a full heart and a full sense of responsibility.

I say to the Minister from his side of the House: let him not think that all of us on the Government side—and I do not believe, properly interpreted, many of us—would feel that we should stand aside and do nothing for those children who arrive in Greece and Italy. I do not believe that that is our party’s approach to this problem.

I ask the Minister to do more for those children in Greece and Italy and make practical and effective our obligations under international law—whether under Dubs or Dublin. We need to be seen to do more. The plight of a child, wherever they are—in Europe or the middle east—is much more important morally and legally than the kinds of arguments sometimes deployed about pull and push factors:

“Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me”.—[Applause.]

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