While thousands of refugees languish in camps across Europe, the UK government has rowed back on its commitments. Alf Dubs, who spearheaded moves to help child refugees, sets out what needs to be done now
I visited the ‘Jungle’ refugee and migrant camp in Calais twice before it was demolished. I paid my third visit to Calais last month but this time the Jungle had gone. Last year the French authorities decided to get rid of the camp and dispersed the refugees all over France. But without hope of a future, several hundred have returned to northern France and are enduring a miserable existence sleeping in the woods. There are virtually no facilities and the refugees complain of police hostility.
It’s a depressing picture but, away from Calais, the situation is just as bad. There are thousands of refugees and migrants in the camps in Greece and in Italy; many are arriving daily across the Mediterranean. All over Europe the fences and barbed wire are going up to keep people out. The plea that all European countries should share the responsibility to help is falling on deaf ears. The Germans and Swedes have played their part – but even they are now having second thoughts.
The scale of the refugee crisis worldwide is huge. We have to remember that countries in the Middle East are looking after the bulk of Syrian refugees. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates there are 3 million in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon and 0.7 million in Jordan. At the end of 2016, UNHCR estimated that 66 million people in the world had been uprooted by conflict and persecution. How have we got to this situation? And how is it that children, the most at risk in this crisis, are still not being helped in sufficient numbers?
When the government finally accepted my amendment on child refugees back in 2016 I was quite hopeful that progress would be made, especially as ministers said they proposed to accept the letter and spirit of the amendment.
Even before my amendment was passed, introducing section 67 to the Immigration Act requiring the government to take in unaccompanied refugee children, there was provision for children to come to the UK under Dublin III. This is part of a European Union agreement which says that children in any EU country have the right to join family members in another EU country.
But until the amendment was passed, very few Dublin III children had come to Britain. However as the same NGOs were working in Calais and in Greece with both Dublin III and section 67 children, the pressure on the government was increased.
There are some excellent NGOs working with child refugees, especially Safe Passage and Help Refugees. They have outstanding staff and volunteers who have given a great deal of their time to assist and support vulnerable child refugees. It has been a privilege working with them.
The original amendment to the immigration bill included a figure of 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe which the UK would have been required to take in. This was based on our share of the estimated 25,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. As the debate progressed, Save the Children’s original estimate was revised upwards to 95,000 children. This meant that the original figure in the amendment was far too low, ironic in the light of subsequent developments.
Theresa May, then Home Secretary, asked me to see her and tried to persuade me to withdraw the amendment. Her argument was the ‘pull factor’ – she claimed the proposed legislation would encourage more child refugees to come to Europe. I politely refused her request, saying that we could not turn our backs on the thousands of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. We knew that many were in a vulnerable state, liable to be victims of traffickers, forced into criminality and facing daily danger.
After the Lords passed the amendment it reached the Commons, where we hoped a number of Conservative MPs would come out in support. A few did, but the government just scraped through, using the argument of ‘financial privilege’ in that the amendment would have required extra spending based on the 3,000 figure it proposed to help. Most Lords’ amendments are liable to involve expenditure and normally the government waives this objection. It did not do so in this case. Accordingly we had to reword the amendment to take out the figure of 3,000.
The revised amendment passed the Lords with a slightly bigger majority and Theresa May then told me in a second meeting that the government proposed to accept the amendment.
At that point it was fairly likely that this time the amendment would pass as enough Tory MPs were unwilling to support the government. And by now there was mounting evidence of public opinion coming out in support of the amendment. All over the country ‘Refugee Welcome’ groups were being established. The majority of the messages I received by email and letter were supportive and,surprisingly, a number of government ministers stopped me in the corridors to wish me luck.
My feeling is that British people are essentially humanitarian in their instincts. There was a deep sense of helplessness at the terrible pictures coming from the Mediterranean of boats of refugees sinking, culminating in the shock of a dead little boy lying drowned on a beach.
So when there was a clear campaign to help child refugees many people wanted give it their support. Offers of help came in: people were to become foster parents and to assist in campaigning. Yet it was not always straightforward: One problem was that local authorities are obliged to vet people who want to foster and this can take up to six months. And we also have to be aware that many of these children will have been shocked and traumatised by their experiences. One Syrian boy told me he had seen a bomb kill his father just in front of him. An Afghan boy described his fear of the Taliban and the dangers to his whole family. Additionally many of the children had been through long, difficult and dangerous journeys to get to Europe.
This means that the children arriving here need very sensitive help and support to enable them to adjust to life in the UK. This help needs to be at both a professional level but also in terms of friendship, English language, involvement in sport and other social activities.
So what progress has been made? So far, 1,050 Dublin III children have arrived in the UK, mainly from France. As regards section 67, the latest figure appears to be 200, all from France, and there have been no new acceptances for months. Before the general election the government said it would bring the scheme to a halt when 350 children had been helped. Then, just before parliament was dissolved for the election, the government said it would take a further 130 to reach a total of 480.
The government gave one main reason for stopping the scheme. The arrangement was that local authorities should provide suitable foster parents, although for the older ones some independent living accommodation with good support would bemade available.
The government maintained that local authorities were not able to come up with sufficient places. It did not take long for us to discover that this was not the case and that local authorities were willing and able to take more children. Hammersmith and Fulham council was particularly prominent among the councils offering places and in London they were joined by Ealing, Lambeth, Camden and Lewisham, among others. In Scotland too there was a willingness to offer more places to child refugees.
These issues are the subject of a judicial review in the High Court and as I write this we are awaiting the decision. But whether the review is successful or not, political pressure on the government to do more will continue to mount. So where do we go from here?
- The refugee crisis is probably the biggest challenge facing Europe and it is essential that all counties share in the responsibility to deal with it. The UK is taking 20,000 people who have fled Syria under the vulnerable persons scheme plus an additional 3,000, which will include children, all over a five-year period. But there are many more who do not fall under the scheme or have no other legal route to safety. That is why so many, including children, cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats or try and get to Dover on the back of trucks. As we are all too aware, some have died in the attempt. We must surely do more to address this daily tragedy.
- We must press the government to take more children under section 67 of the Immigration act. Local authorities should be approached again. The scheme should be kept open and children brought to the UK in line with local authorities coming up with foster places.
- The government has said that the scheme should apply to any children who reached Europe before 20 March 2016. This date should be relaxed as quite a number of the children arrived in Europe after that date.
- As regards Dublin III children, the government should stop dragging its heels. I have a suspicion that the government wants to bring the scheme to a close as part of Brexit.
- We need to do all we can to help establish a stable administration in Libya so that there can be better co-operation to catch people traffickers. It’s a vile trade and too often results in deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean. NGOs have said that many of the migrants who make the journey across the Sahara are raped on the way to Libya.
- We need to tackle problems in source countries both with economic aid and ensuring that people are better informed about the risks of the journey, the exploitation by traffickers, and the fact that if they cannot justify refugee status they may not be allowed to stay in Europe.
- We should stress that in terms of human rights, refugees – those with a well-founded fear of persecution or escaping war – must have the highest priority. It may simply not be possible for Europe to take in those who do not achieve refugee status.
Finally a request to all Fabians: approach your MPs and ask them to press the government both to keep section 67 going and to bring in more Dublin III children. Approach your local authorities and ask them what they are doing to take in refugees, adults and children. Finally join a local refugee welcome group and support their activities.
This country has a proud record on welcoming refugees, which I can confirm from personal experience as I arrived here in 1939 on a Kindertransport from Prague. This country gave me fantastic opportunities and I would like to think unaccompanied child refugees arriving today will be given a similar welcome.