Today, on World Refugee Day, Help Refugees‘ legal action against Home Secretary Amber Rudd goes to the High Court. It’s the last chance to re-open the Dubs Scheme and give hope to some of the 95,000 unaccompanied refugee children across Europe.
As a six-year-old in 1939, Alfred Dubs was one of 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia who escaped to the UK thanks to a young stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who has been described as Britain’s Oskar Schindler. There were a number of such initiatives, known collectively as the Kindertransports, taking children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Danzig to safety in the UK – overall around 10000 children were rescued. An American initiative saved another 1400 children. Some of them were subsequently reunited with their parents, others were the only survivors from their families. The transports took place between Kristallnacht, the point at which awareness of the grave danger facing Jews in Nazi territory became much more widespread, and the outbreak of war.
Even at such a time there were those who opposed any mass influx of refugees from Nazism, on the usual grounds (we’re full, we don’t have the resources, they’ll take ‘our’ jobs/houses etc) – but these objections seem to have been largely dropped when it came to the proposal to rescue the children.
The British government had just refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Palestine, but the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom. It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” (http://www.kindertransport.org/history03_rising.htm)
Alf Dubs, now a Labour peer, sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act in April last year that required the government to relocate to the UK a number of refugee children who had reached Europe unaccompanied. Though his proposed figure of 3,000 was not included in the law, many MPs and peers believed the government had committed to accepting something around that number.
However, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs that the UK had admitted many children through other refugee schemes, amounting to a total of 8,000 in the year to 2016 (including those resettled directly from camps in or near Syria). But, she said, that “the specified number of 350 children … reasonably meets the intention and spirit behind the provision” of the Dubs amendment.
The Government have always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children. That is why children must have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016 to be eligible under section 67 of the Immigration Act. The section 67 obligation was accepted on the basis that the measure would not act as a pull factor for children to travel to Europe and that it would be based on local authority capacity. The Government have a clear strategy and we believe this is the right approach.
Yvette Cooper’s response was robust:
This week, the Government cancelled the Dubs scheme after it had been running for less than six months. The Home Secretary said that it has not closed, but will she confirm what it said in the statement yesterday: that once those 350 children are here, that is it—it is closed? Where does it say in the Hansard record of our debates on the Dubs amendment that I have here that we will help lone child refugees for only six months? Where does it say that, instead of the 3,000 that Parliament debated, we will help only one tenth of that number? Where does it say that when we get the chance we will somehow turn our backs once again? It does not, because we did not say that at the time.
The Home Secretary knows that what she is doing is shameful. Not only has she closed the Dubs programme, but she has cancelled the fast-track Dublin scheme to help those with family here. The Home Secretary did very good work in the autumn of last year to help those in Calais and to make sure we could take as many children as possible, and I commended her for it. But she also knows that most of those have family here already and were entitled to be here. She has said local councils cannot do more; the truth is that many local councils have said they can do more with more support or more time. It takes time to set up these schemes, and they should not be closed down so quickly.
There are still so many children in need of help. The Home Secretary knows there are thousands in Greece in overcrowded accommodation or homeless, or in Italy still at risk of human trafficking, or teenagers in French centres, which are being closed down now, who have nowhere left to go. The Home Secretary talked about clearing Calais; they are heading back to Calais, and back to Dunkirk: back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings—back into the modern slavery that this Parliament and this Government have pledged to end. … We can do this; Britain can do better than this. Will the Home Secretary accept that and reinstate the Dubs programme now?
Clearly, the Home Secretary was unmoved. Thus the legal challenge which goes to the High Court today.
All we’re asking for is the government to do their job properly and talk to local authorities about the actual number of spaces available. We know, and they know, there are hundreds more spaces available across the UK waiting to be filled.
How is it that, when there is evidence that we do have the capacity to support at least the number of unaccompanied minors proposed in the Dubs Amendment, the Government is unwilling to do any more? Could it have anything to do with what they anticipate would be the response of certain newspapers, always obsessed with the threat posed by ‘migrants’?
Analogies with the Kindertransports are, of course, not precise. As was pointed out by one Tory MP opposed to the scheme, today’s child refugees are already in countries that are deemed safe, having already survived the threat that they faced in their home country, and the perilous journey to Europe. And the very real threat of Islamist terrorism makes it easy to demonise the adolescent males who would be eligible to come here under the Dubs scheme. It’s not the same.
But at heart, it’s still just as simple as it ever was. There are children and young people who have fled from unimaginable horrors, who are orphaned or have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight, who are vulnerable because of their youth (even those boys in their mid-late teens who look almost like men, but aren’t). Of course they are ‘our’ problem, ‘our’ responsibility, if we regard ourselves as members of the human race first and of a particular nation second. It’s a moral question first, and only secondarily a political or even a practical one. There’s a very clear and obvious right thing to do so we should do it, and deal with the political and practical impacts as necessary.
Tragically, and to our shame, that isn’t the way the government sees things.
Mrs May calculates that the acceptance of refugees in any numbers constitutes a political problem. She sees the provision of asylum not as a moral or legal duty but as a risk of contamination. She looks at Europe’s refugees as a continental affliction best managed by quarantine. And she will gladly suffer the opprobrium of liberal-minded MPs, charities and religious leaders – including the archbishop of Canterbury – if it means escaping wrathful tabloid headlines stoking fear of invading foreign hordes. The numbers actually involved in the Dubs scheme are tiny, the least the government could do after every effort had been made to prick ministerial consciences. Now even that ember of compassion is to be extinguished.
The manner of its snuffing out – the news buried in a statement issued on the eve of parliament’s recess – proves that the government knows what it has done is shameful. That does not mean the prime minister or home secretary are truly ashamed. They hope the moment will pass; that not enough people will care about the cold-blooded cruelty of their actions; that the political cost of callousness is negligible. For the sake of Britain’s reputation as a country that still knows some solidarity with victims of war and terror, we must hope they are wrong. Mrs May must reverse this decision or be haunted by it.
History is likely to judge us harshly for this failure. Meanwhile, there are children and young people who could by now have been starting a new life here, safe and secure, with the chance to regain their health and confidence, make friends, develop their skills and fulfil their potential, but who will at best continue to live the half-life of a stateless refugee, at worst who will vanish for ever.
Those who do give a damn aren’t giving up though. No chance.
“In February Theresa May put Britain on the wrong side of history. To our country’s shame, she decided to shut down the Dubs Scheme, which promised child refugees a safe future in the UK. We fought tooth and nail to win this last year. I won’t let it slip away. Join me in saying YES – I want Britain to rescue the most vulnerable child refugees. The Dubs Amendment was a promise to us – to honour our proud British tradition of welcoming those most in need. I saw that compassion and courage in Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued me as a child from the Nazi regime, along with 669 Jewish children. Acts of heroism like this define our country. They characterise the values we hold dear. Now we are faced with another such turning point in our nation’s history. Will we choose to follow Trump, or to honour our tradition of generosity, compassion and courage? We’ll need to fight harder than ever, organising our communities in the days to come. In the streets, in the offices of MPs, by joining local actions. We’ve won before. We will win again.”
Lord Alf Dubs.