My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on securing this debate and on highlighting the intractable problem of how we cope with people whose age we cannot be certain about. We can all agree that we should open our arms to children who arrive in a safe country alone, unaccompanied because their parents or guardian may have been killed or died en route, while they were fleeing persecution in their homeland. Likewise, a young teenager, who has fled his or her homeland because their parents have been killed or jailed, and they were destitute and had no alternative but to flee their country, are worthy and deserving of our support and refuge. However, such circumstances are comparatively rare and the numbers involved would not be a serious problem, I would have thought, for our social services or immigration system. After all, in those circumstance, very few children would be able to obtain the finances to pay people smugglers to bring them illegally to this country.
Can the Minister tell us more about the reasons unaccompanied children give for arriving here without parent, relative or guardian? I am told that, pretty frequently, they are sent here by their family in the perfectly understandable, and in many ways laudable, hope that their child will find a better and safer life here. Parents may not be able to obtain the money to pay for more than one passage, so they send a teenager in the hope that he or she will at least have a better life than they have back in their homeland.
However, there are probably innumerable families in poor and troubled countries who would willingly send a child here if they could; they are essentially economic migrants, not political refugees. Can my noble friend confirm that that is why we do not provide an unlimited safe and legal route for children in these circumstances, if they have no relatives here already and that, if we did, it would impose a considerable burden on our local authority children’s services? Still less should we create a loophole for anyone who can pass themselves off as under 18 to enter this country and obtain costly support.
The problem is, of course, deciding on the age of a young person—a person claiming to be under 18—if they have no evidence of their age or year of birth. Adults are invariably told by the traffickers to destroy their papers en route, but young people who are genuinely under 18 would be better advised to bring and retain evidence of their age. Can my noble friend tell me whether such evidence tends to be available for young children in the sort of countries from which many of them come? If so, for those countries where it might be reasonable to expect a person to have some proof of age, should not the absence of that proof count in the decision as to whether their age is what they claim to be or what they appear to be?
As I said at the beginning, it is an intractable dilemma that we face because there is no scientific way of proving beyond peradventure the age of someone claiming to be a child. I have spoken to a former Minister for Education who said that in his experience, from having seen many of those purporting to be children, he was convinced that many were not. But we are talking, of course, of people coming here illegally from Europe. If they are worried about the fairness of the system here, they can of course put themselves in the hands of the authorities in Europe. It is always odd to me that so many people who want us to remain in Europe are so keen that everybody else gets out from that terrible place.