With 21,000 refugee children currently stranded in Greece, Conservative MPs the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, Tim Loughton MP and Theo Clarke, CFID Director, met some of them affected by crisis and learned more about how the UK should be helping.
Speaking at the end of a two day visit to Athens, Greece, MP for Loughborough Nicky Morgan said: “We went to see for ourselves the reality facing these children today. A lot of very desperate children who have fled absolute horror in their homelands have arrived on the islands of Greece and are now still trying to find a place to rebuild their lives in safety. This is not just Britain’s problem alone, but it is clear there is more we can do as a nation to help, whether by offering Greece our expertise or making sure that if children have family in the UK they can reach them quickly and safely without ever having to travel through gateway countries like Greece or Italy.”
The CFID MPs travelled with Unicef, which is providing education, child protection and accommodation to the most vulnerable, including an estimated 2,100 unaccompanied children.
The MPs met many of these children at a shelter for unaccompanied children. Nicky Morgan said, “I met a smart boy named Mohammed, looking after his younger brother in the shelter in Athens. He was checking in everyday on Skype with their parents back in Syria. But he has been waiting too long to be safely transferred to his family waiting for him elsewhere in Europe. The risk is he will become impatient and instead turn to smugglers who could put him in great danger. Those children with family and a safe, warm bed waiting for them in Britain shouldn’t have to risk their lives getting across the sea to Greece or Italy before they even start the legal process of getting to the stability of their family.”
Alastair Harper, UNICEF UK’s Government Relations Manager, who travelled with the MPs said: “With the announcement of the closure of the Dubs refugee programme earlier the year, and with the risk that our involvement with the European-wide family reunion scheme will end with our exit from the EU, there could soon be no legal way left for refugee children to get to the UK from Europe. These children still need to reach safety and some have no choice but to turn to criminals gangs that will exploit them or leave them stranded in awful camps like we saw in Calais.”
Since the start of 2016, there have been no transfers at all from Greece to the UK under the Dubs scheme, and only nine children have been reunited with family members in Britain under the Dublin family reunification scheme.
Nicky Morgan said: “We were hosted by a seven year old girl and her big brother Amlan. They were so full of life despite the awful things they have been through. These children deserve the chance of security and to be able to finish their education and that is what UK aid was giving them but we were told this money would soon end.”
Theo Clarke said, "It was an informative trip which really brought home the difficulties that refugees face when they are fleeing war and violence in the Middle East. At a shelter in Athens I met several unaccompanied minors, who had escaped from Homs and Aleppo, and decided to take the dangerous crossing by boat to reach safety in Greece. They are trying to rebuild their lives in Europe but are stuck in a bureaucratic system with little hope of moving on. They clearly cannot stay indefinitely in limbo and so the question now is what more can the UK Government, and our European neighbours, do to help those who have already arrived in Europe, especially those who have family here, without encouraging more young children and families to make the perilous journey to Greece."
The group also travelled to the Skarmangas refugee camp, just outside the capital, where UK aid money has been used to introduce educational programmes for children in refugee camps, ran by Unicef and the British Council.
Theo Clarke said, "I was extremely impressed by the teaching being provided through British expertise in the Skarmangas refugee camp. It was clear that the education on offer through the British Council and Unicef was making a huge difference to the young children there by giving them vital English language skills, a structure and focus to their time while they are stuck in a camp and giving them all renewed hope for their future.
We met young children who have been in transit for nearly a year, including time spent sleeping in local jails on a Greek island due to a lack of accommodation, who were dropping out of the education system as they lacked any local language skills. The British Council school was providing excellent educational care and had impressively managed to bring together into a cohesive group students from different countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was very helpful to visit a camp to meet with the refugees directly and different agencies working on the ground to hear from them how important DFID funding had been in providing emergency shelter and care from the outset of the refugee crisis. It was apparent that UK aid and British expertise is providing an essential helping hand to people in desperate need and that this help needs to continue. British leadership has and will continue to play an important role to play going forward."