Mr. Chris Mullin ( Sunderland, South) (Lab): First, and with all due respect to the Minister present, may I say that I regret the absence of the Minister of State? I know that government is seamless, but over the years I have noticed that some Departments are more seamless than others. Secondly, I commend the debate pack prepared by the Library. It is relevant to the debate and contains a lot of information that hon. Members with an interest in this subject might find useful.
I have taken an interest in asylum and immigration policy for some time, both during my four years as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and in my two years as entry clearance Minister, among other things, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wish to make it clear from the outset that I am generally supportive of the Government's tougher stand. It cannot be right to leave decisions about who enters the country to people traffickers and other criminal networks. I support the measures that have been taken over the years to speed up the process, to reduce the number of fraudulent claims and, when practically possible, to remove those whose claims have failed. I welcome the fact that in the past few years, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister and successive Home Secretaries, we have begun to get to grips with what once seemed an intractable problem.
I have said that to demonstrate that I am not a soft touch on asylum policy. However, I believe in combining a robust approach towards asylum with basic human decency, especially when young children are involved; that is the point of the debate. For some years I have been worried about the fact that we are removing, to countries where they could face destitution, families with young children who, because of past failures in the processing system, have lived here for many years. I referring not to children from countries where, although living standards might be low, there is a degree of stability, but to children from places such as Congo, Angola or southern Sudan, large parts of which have seen their social fabric disintegrate entirely.
I am not talking about recent arrivals, either. I am talking about children who know no other life than ours-children who, in some cases, were born here and have grown up alongside our children, played with them and shared the same classrooms. Whatever the sins of their parents, those children are entirely innocent and have no inkling of the fate that awaits them. They disappear from class without even a chance to say goodbye to their teachers and friends, and in many cases they are never heard of again. Sometimes the children reappear because of a hiccup in the removal system, only to disappear again a few months later. Who knows what becomes of them? On rare occasions there is a letter or a phone call about what happened next. Sometimes the news is good; at other times it is not. Usually, however, there is only silence.
To those of us who are-or were-members of the Government, the children tend to be only numbers. In a previous incarnation, I attended meetings at No. 10 and the Home Office where there was talk of targets and tipping points. When it is sensible to do so, I have no problem with setting targets. Indeed, given the failures of the past, I am sure that it is necessary. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings. Members of Parliament, especially those who represent areas such as mine, to which asylum seekers have been dispersed, have to look such people and their children in the eye, and to us they are not statistics.
I recall, as I expect we all can, some moving cases. Let us consider the little boy who was plucked from school in mid-term and who, in the hour that was left to him while his parents were hastily packing their meagre belongings and immigration officers were waiting to take them away, made out a will in which he wrote, "I leave my Pokémon cards to so and so, and my Lego to so and so." It was found on his bed a few days later when friends came to find out why he had disappeared.
I once successfully intervened on behalf of a young woman who was from southern Sudan originally, but who had come from a refugee camp in northern Kenya. She faced removal despite having been in the UK for some years and having given birth to a boy who was two years old by the time she was threatened with removal. As it correctly says on the Foreign Office website, the war in southern Sudan is over. However, anyone who has seen at first hand, as I have, the state of refugees returning to the south of Sudan, and the absence of facilities to cope with them, will know that to send there people who have tasted our lives here would be an act of great cruelty. I dread to think what would have become of that woman and her child had she been returned.
I am currently doing what I can to help a family who came from Angola in April 2001. The case prompted me to ask for this debate. The family have two boys. One is now aged eight, but he was three and a half when he came here. He is blind in one eye; according to his mother, that happened while she was being beaten with the buckle end of a belt by soldiers who were searching for his father. The boy was said by his teachers to be traumatised when first enrolled at a local school. The other son, who is now aged four, was born in the UK and knows no other life but ours.
After years of delay, the parents' claim for asylum has failed and they may now be returned to Angola at any time. They are well aware of the fate that awaits them there and are unlikely to be persuaded to return voluntarily. So far as I can see, the intention is just to drop them off at Luanda airport and wish them good luck. We are talking about people with few, if any, resources. The woman and the older boy were camped in a church when they were last in Angola, and the father was in hiding. What will become of them? Presumably they will join the millions of anonymous, displaced people in that tragic country.
I know that it says on the Foreign Office website that the civil war in Angola is over, but it lasted for 27 years and much of the country is in ruins. The Angolan Government are unwilling or unable to provide even the most basic services for their citizens. Where such services do exist, they are mainly provided by foreign NGOs or United Nations agencies. Only about half of Angolan children receive any form of education, and the country is ranked third in the world for infant mortality. Much of the population, including many people in the capital, is destitute or living on the edge of destitution. Violence and lawlessness are rampant, and justice is non-existent or arbitrary. The few functioning institutions are riddled with corruption.
Sending there young children who have tasted our life and who, as in the case of the older boy, know of no other life than ours, is an act of unpardonable cruelty. Needless to say, I have put all this to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality-and he is unmoved. In a letter dated 22 November he wrote:
"It would frustrate the proper and necessary object of immigration control in the more advanced states if people could not, save in the most exceptional circumstances, be returned to the less developed countries of the world."
That is not, of course, what I am arguing, and I agree with what he says; I accept that just about all failed asylum seekers come from countries poorer than ours, and that it would be nonsense to argue that no one should be returned to such a country.
My point is a narrower one. First, I am talking about families with young children who have lived in the UK for years and who, in some cases, have been born here and know no other life. Secondly, I am talking about removals to a handful of the world's most dysfunctional countries, where living standards are not merely lower but catastrophically so, and where hunger and destitution awaits those children. As I have mentioned, child mortality in Angola is the third highest in the world.
Thirdly, I am arguing that if we must return families to such countries, we should take some interest in what happens to them after they have disembarked. That might involve putting some money in their pockets, employing an NGO to see them safely through the airport and back to where they came from, and perhaps a little help with reintegrating. I do not argue that that should happen in every case, but only when young children are involved, and are at risk.
The Minister of State rejects that idea too. He wrote:
"We do not normally give returnees money, nor do we arrange for their reception in their country of nationality, or liaise with Non-Governmental Organisations as regards their future welfare."
My question is: why not?