Take more refugee children from Europe, Tory MPs tell David Cameron following mission to Lesbos

Exclusive: Heidi Allen tells The Independent: 'I was prepared to be upset – I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale'

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A group of Tory MPs has urged David Cameron to take more refugee children from within Europe after witnessing first hand the "sheer scale" of the desperate situation on a Greek island at the centre of the crisis. 

The three MPs met with immigration minister, James Brokenshire, after travelling to Lesbos, where up to 6,000 asylum-seekers arrive from Turkey every day to squalid conditions and total administrative chaos.

Last week, the Prime Minister rejected calls from charities to take in 3,000 unaccompanied children who had already arrived in Greece and Italy, saying Britain would focus its efforts on Syria and other conflict zones.

The Independent can reveal that he now faces growing pressure to reconsider that approach from his own MPs, who reported back to Government with their findings last night.

Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, Caroline Ansell, the member for Eastbourne and Jo Churchill for Bury St Edmunds were taken out to Lesbos by Save The Children, one of the main charities providing relief to the thousands of refugees as they arrive on the island.

The three MPs met with Mr Brokenshire before they left on the trip in order, Ms Allen says, to be “filled in on the Government’s strategy” for the region.

But Ms Allen said that after seeing “the discarded life jackets, the broken ships and battered limbs” of people arriving in Lesbos, she would “bang every drum” to get the Government to do more for genuine asylum-seekers within Europe’s borders.

Ms Allen said she has seen people arriving 'battered and bruised' on Lesbos, and 37 people drowned the night the MPs were there 

Speaking to The Independent, she acknowledged Mr Cameron’s concerns about the “pull factor” of providing help to people who have made the journey to Europe themselves – possibly encouraging more to do so.

Nonetheless, she said: “I defy any country, and I would drag them to the table myself if I have to, if we identify however-many thousands of unaccompanied children who genuinely have not a soul in the world [not to do more to help them].

“We will find homes for them,” she said.

Save The Children say around 26-27,000 unaccompanied children turned up on Europe’s shores last year – but admit that this is just a best guess because of failures processing new arrivals.

And Ms Allen said that Government's must act now to help solve the crisis: “At the moment the difficult position is we just don’t know how many [unaccompanied children] there are,” she said. “And the faster we can process these people, the faster we can find out whether they do have true refugee status, then the faster we can work out how to help them and identify those children.”

‘I was prepared to be upset – I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale’

Conservative MP Heidi Allen plays with Syrian refugees during a visit to Lesbos, Greece (Matt Crossick/Save The Children)

Ms Allen said she agreed to the trip with Save The Children when she had a “gut instinct we should be doing more”, without a clear idea of what that would mean.

She says she was told of the need to “relieve the administrative pressure”, and even “wondered whether there could be a military operation… with people turning up on an island met by men in green uniforms”.

“We have seen such uncontrolled immigration, and countries risk losing their compassion because they are overwhelmed,” she said. “It seems to me if you are a person looking at the statistics and infrastructure you will be terrified and batten down the hatches and say no more.”

Ms Allen meets a family from Syria inside the Kara Tepe refugee camp (Matt Crossick/Save The Children)

She said she had “been privileged to lead a beautifully sheltered life” and, up until last week, had never met anyone “who had gone through this”.

When the MPs were there, though, they saw the boats people arrive in, helped distribute supplies and sat down with men, women and children who had fled from conflict.

 “I was prepared to be upset by it all – I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale,” she said.

Jo Churchill holds a baby during the visit (Matt Crossick/Save The Children)

“I’ll never forget the sight of a woman slightly younger than me, walking along with her two little children and barely able to open her eyes because her face was so obliterated by black eyes and bruising.

“And she didn't need to say a word, at a glimpse she told you exactly where she’s come from. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

'We need to step up'

Ms Allen said she was proud Britain had pledged to take in 20,000 refugees, as well as being “second only to America” in the amount it has contributed towards solving the crisis financially.

But she said she would also press the Government to do more for unaccompanied children in Europe and called on Europe as a whole to address the administrative issues preventing them from being identified.

She is hoping to go to Italy next with Save The Children, where the authorities have a better grasp on who arrivals are and where they have come from. 

“If I do get to Italy and I see there are unaccompanied children who have been identified, then I will be pushing hard [on the Government] because I feel that we do need to step up and take some of them,” she said.

“As the situation evolves and we get better at identifying children, I think there should be a review of that 20,000 figure,” she said. “I think that should be fluid.”

'A proud history of offering safe havens to children'

Ms Allen said her own rural constituency of South Cambridgeshire had not been called upon to take refugees yet as part of the 20,000 pledge, and said there were “great reservations” in the area about how people would be integrated into the community.

But having seen the situation in Lesbos, she said she would “want us to try” and do more if called upon by the Home Office. 

Caroline Ansell chats to a Syrian refugee in Save the Children's Child Friendly Space at Kara Tepe (Matt Crossick/Save The Children)

“We are extremely rural with very poor public transport links, so for the most part they would be stuck in the middle of nowhere and I don’t think that would be helpful.

“But I’ve had lots of people volunteering, and we would look to try and do something in the villages [near the city of Cambridge] where it might work.”