Thank you Mr Speaker. With permission I would like to make a statement on Calais.
The French government today began the clearance of the migrant camp. I am clear this is in the national interests of both the UK and France. It is the start of a challenging but necessary humanitarian operation and an important step in bringing an end to the difficult situation.
Our priorities are to keep our border secure, to tackle the criminal gangs that profit from the lives of the vulnerable, and to ensure those in the camp in need of protection are moved to places of safety.
Today’s camp clearance supports all these objectives.
On 10 October I updated the House, having just met with my French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve. We had discussed, amongst other things, the importance of keeping all children safe during the camp clearance operation. My officials have been working with French authorities to ensure that this protection is provided, and UK personnel are taking an active role on the ground today, helping to move all children to a place of safety. They will continue to do so for as long as necessary.
That meeting with M. Cazeneuve was one of many over the past few months. And we have made good progress to speed up the process for transferring children with a close family link to the UK. More than 80 children with a family link to the UK were transferred from France in the first 9 months of this year under the Dublin Regulation But I have been pressing to go even further and this House will recall that on 10 October I stated my absolute commitment to bring to the UK as many children as possible with close family links before the closure of the camp; and I also made clear my intention to transfer unaccompanied refugee children from Calais who meet the criteria of the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act of 2016.
Since my statement, working in partnership with the French, we have transferred almost 200 children. This includes more than 60 girls, many of whom had been identified as at high risk of sexual exploitation. They are receiving the care and support they need in the UK.
I want to make clear to this House the government has sought every opportunity to expedite the process to transfer children to the UK.
My officials were only given access to the camp to interview children in the last week, and, similarly, we have only recently received agreement from the French government that we could bring Dubs cases to the UK. Before this, we worked closely with the French behind the scenes, but without their agreement it was not possible to make progress on taking non-family cases from Calais.
In the last 7 days, my officials have interviewed 800 children in the camp claiming to have close family in the UK working in conjunction with NGOs and charities. Every child presented in the last week has been interviewed by UK staff. Much of this work has been carried out in difficult conditions, and on a number of occasions interviews have been paused and UK staff have withdrawn for safety reasons. I would like to thank the French authorities for the additional protection they have provided throughout and to put on record my gratitude for the work done by my staff in what has been pretty challenging conditions.
Until a few weeks ago the French government requested we did not transfer children outside of the Dublin Regulation process. Again this was due to their concerns that this may encourage more children to come to Calais.
So that is why, until recently, we have focused our efforts under the Dubs Amendment to children in Greece and Italy, where we have 50 cases in progress. It is only in recent weeks that this has changed.
Looking ahead, we will be bringing more children from Calais to the UK in the coming days and weeks. As well as the remaining children with close family in the UK, we will continue to transfer unaccompanied refugee children from Calais under the wider criteria of the Dubs Amendment.
We will be following 3 guiding principles in determining who we bring to the UK from Calais under the Dubs Amendment. We will prioritise those likely to be granted refugee status in the UK; we will also prioritise those 12 years old or under; and we will consider those assessed as being at a high risk of sexual exploitation. In doing this we are also establishing whether it is in each child’s best interests to come here.
But through this process it is important we do not encourage more children to head to Calais, risking their lives in the hands of traffickers. That is why we will only consider those present in the camps before the start of the clearance operation today.
We will continue to do this quickly, but it is essential that we carry out the proper safeguarding, age assessment and security checks, working closely with local authorities and social workers here in the UK to ensure that the children are eligible and that it is in their best interests to come.
I am pleased to say my French counterpart has agreed to support minors in safe facilities in France during the weeks we now need to carry out these important checks. It is also important that on arrival in the UK the identities of these children are not compromised, and they are allowed to begin their life here with the support that they need.
It is crucial we ensure local authorities are able to manage the numbers coming here. As part of our commitments under the Dubs amendment we have been consulting with local authorities on capacity. It is clear that there is the capacity to support the children we intend to take from Calais, as well as continuing to meet our other commitments. The key now is to make sure that we get these places up and running as soon as possible.
I’d like to pay tribute to the work and generosity of local authorities so far in providing both the temporary and permanent support that the children arriving require. However as more children arrive in the coming weeks we will need to identify further places and we will be working with local authorities over the coming days to ensure that happens.
Whilst responsibility for Calais lies with the French government, the juxtaposed controls are a vital part of the UK’s border security, and are a valuable economic link.
That is why the UK government will be contributing up to £36 million to maintain the security of these controls, to support the camp clearance and to ensure in the long term that the camp is kept closed. This funding will also be used to help keep children safe in France.
This contribution is not made unconditionally, and we will continue to work with the French government to ensure that the clearance operation is full and lasting.
Work in Calais is important, but the situation there is a symptom of a wider migration crisis. We are clear about our moral responsibility to assist those who are suffering, including by providing support in conflict regions, development work upstream and by providing protection to those who need it.
Mr Speaker, the French authorities face a huge challenge over the coming days and weeks to move people out of the camp in Calais. But let me be clear – neither government is prepared to allow people to continue to live in those conditions, and neither government is prepared to allow people smugglers to continue to profit from risking the lives of the people there. We will continue to support the French government in the operation, and will continue with our progress in bringing those children with a right to come to the UK as quickly and safely as possible.
Clearing the camp isn’t just about fulfilling our legal and moral obligations; it is also in our national interest. The rise in the number of people in the camp has led some in France to question the Le Touquet agreement. This agreement has helped us better protect our borders and ensured strong trade links between Britain and France. By clearing the camp we can help secure the future of the juxtaposed controls, as well as playing our part to help those most in need in Calais.
I commend this Statement to the House.