Children in need: and the UK government’s efforts to keep them out

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In the event, the second amendment, detailed below, was successful – albeit with a few codicils attached…

The piece which follows was written by me on Tuesday 26 April, hours after the UK government voted to refuse to allow 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to enter the country.

It was featured on 10 May as the lead story at Refugees Deeply, the in-depth online resource focussed on the international refugee situation for journalists and all other interested parties.

And on Wednesday 27 April it was also sent to every one of the UK’s 660 Members of Parliament.

Of course, it is impossible to say whether it had any effect, but it was certainly read (Winchester’s Conservative MP Stephen Brine deserves special mention here for replying to ask how old children are), and within days – on 3 May – UK Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that in the face of a likely backbench revolt, his government would not vote against a second attempt to pass a law allowing refugee children without family or guardians to enter the country.

On 9 May, at 10.39pm, the House of Commons finally agreed to allow vulnerable, lone child refugees already in the EU (that is, those who are now in France, Greece and Italy having fled war and risked death on the open sea) to be cared for in the UK.

But of course, that is not the whole story. Because even after the PM – knowing his government would fail in any new attempt it made to leave children to the worst which faces them if they are expected to survive alone – told MPs to vote with their consciences, the Commons still refused to accept a specific number of children at risk of death, to enter the UK.

And the government has still not made clear how soon these children may be helped to get here: the only figure so far quoted by the government is seven months (though Home Office Minister James Brokenshire has noted that this is the longest we should expect it to take to bring 3,000 children to safety in the UK) and seven months is an extremely long time in anyone’s life, particularly a child’s.

Equally, the government has – as it has done at every step of its meagre response to the international refugee situation – chosen not to offer safety to these children itself, but instead pushed local authorities to ‘volunteer’ to help them.

In short, then, the 9 May vote was a victory of sorts, for humanity and decency. But the UK and its government still has a long way to go before it is especially noted for either characteristic.   

Rory O’Keeffe, 10 May 2016


On 23 April, the UK celebrated the anniversary of the birth (and death) day of its greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, and the day of its national saint, George.

Two days later, the UK government voted to prevent its Immigration Bill from including a provision to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from European states.

To put that more simply, on 25 April 2016, 294 members of the UK government successfully stopped 3,000 desperate children, who have become separated from their families, from being allowed to experience the relative comfort and safety to be found here in the UK.

Of course, that may be seen by some as an overly-emotive way of putting it. But it is not. It is literally the simplest way to describe what happened.

In the aftermath of the vote, which the government won by a margin of 18 – a great deal has been said on social media, including the point that perhaps a government which won less than a quarter of the available votes in 2015 should not be behaving as if it has a mandate from the people to make such controversial decisions on matters of such extraordinary importance.

It’s easy to sympathise with this view: this is a government which failed to convince more than three-quarters of the voting-age population to vote for it, and so would be hard-pushed to prove it has its finger on the pulse of mainstream public opinion. But we should also note that the government won more votes than any other party – nobody in UK politics has the luxury of popularity right now.

The proposal to alter the government’s Immigration Bill to enable 3,000 children who have – either actually or to all practical effect – no family, to enter the UK, was not an initiative from the House of Commons, but the House of Lords.

Specifically, from Lord (Alf) Dubs, a Czech-born man of Jewish heritage (his father was Jewish) who was rescued from the Nazis on the ‘Kindertransport’ – a service operated by UK citizen Nicholas Winterton, which in the first eight months of 1939, rescued 669 children aged 17 and under from the Nazis.

Dubs’ proposal specified that 3,000 children should be given asylum in the UK to match a pledge made by the government last September (in the wake of public outrage inspired by the drowning of Aylan Al-Kurdi, a three year-old Syrian boy, off the coast of Turkey) to allow 3,000 children to enter the UK from refugee camps on the Syrian border, by 2020.

On 21 April, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire announced the proposal again, leading to criticism from humanitarian organisations that not only was the government not doing enough to help children and young people who have fled war and death and already reached Europe, but also that it was attempting to pretend it was undertaking new initiatives while in fact doing nothing of the sort.

And the accusation that the government is failing to help children and young people certainly seems reasonable.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 95,000 unaccompanied children – that is, people aged 18 or under, without families –applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 (Spain refused to share its figures, while France stated that its data would be published ‘later in 2016’).

Europol, the European Union’s joint police and investigative body, reported in January that since 2014, 10,000 refugee children had gone missing, feared to have been forced into illegal labour or into the sex trade.

And the crisis is not confined to Europe’s Southern and Eastern borders. At Calais, where 4,946 men, women and children are currently stranded, 129 children ‘disappeared’ in just one month between March and April this year. Now, 294 remain. Their safety is at best precarious.

Since January 2014, the UK government has allowed a little over 1,000 Syrians into the state (there are now more than 4.8 million officially registered Syrian refugees, 2.7m in Turkey, 1.125m in Lebanon, and around 700,000 in Jordan), and argued – as Prime Minister David Cameron did in January this year – that allowing anyone who had already reached Europe to enter would ‘encourage more people to attempt the lethal Mediterranean crossing’.

The logic of that statement stumbles on two major points.

First, the proposal to take unaccompanied minors from other parts of Europe would apply only to those who are already in Europe.

The number proposed is only a little more than three per cent of the unaccompanied minors estimated to have entered the EU in the last 12 months alone: it is in no way an ‘invitation’ to people outside of the EU to enter.

Secondly, and of at least equal importance, people are already coming to the EU. Almost 1.3 million refugees – men, women and children, desperate to escape war, terror, torture, oppressive regimes and shortages of food and medicine (often caused by conflict itself) – have arrived in Europe since January 2015. More than 5,000 have drowned in the attempt.

To claim that allowing a tiny number of desperate people to enter the UK will ‘encourage’ new people to arrive is not only to ignore the huge number who are already here and in desperate need of help and protection, but also to ignore the fact that people are fleeing towards the EU regardless of whether the UK government allows a fraction of those who need help to receive it.

It is to state – as has far too often been the logical conclusion of the UK government’s narrative on this situation – that we must be willing to literally sacrifice the lives of some children to prevent from happening something which is already happening.

During the debate on Lord Dubs’ proposal, Mr Brokenshire argued that the UK was already providing aid money to other European states to: ‘support our other European partners, to stand by their responsibilities.’

But the UK is the world’s fifth richest state. It has more money than 142 other states combined, and a population of 62 million people.

And the EU is a 28-member organisation. Taking 3.15 per cent of the children left desperate, alone and defenceless in Europe is in fact slightly below what we might expect the UK to do as one of 28 EU member states, and far below what we might hope the world’s fifth-richest nation might commit to. In population terms, the 3,000 would increase the total number of people in the UK by just 0.004 of a per cent.

And these are not featureless statistics. They are desperate young people, boys and girls posing literally no threat to the UK, alone and in urgent need of care and safety.

In June last year, Nicholas Winterton, the rescuer of hundreds of young people trapped in Europe, died, aged 106. David Cameron tweeted: ‘The world has lost a great man. We must never forget Sir Nicholas Winton’s humanity in saving so many children.’

Lord Dubs – one of the children Mr Winterton rescued – responded swiftly to the rejection of his proposal. By the end of 26 April, less than 24 hours after it had been defeated, he had steered a new amendment to the Immigration Bill through the Lords.

It reads: ‘Unaccompanied refugee children: relocation and support.
(1) The Secretary of State must, as soon as possible after the passing of this Act, make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe.

(2) The number of children to be resettled under subsection (1) shall be determined by the Government in consultation with local authorities.

(3) The relocation of children under subsection (1) shall be in addition to the resettlement of children under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.”

It is to be hoped it succeeds where its predecessor did not.

The alternative is that 25 April 2016 – just two days after the anniversaries of its patron saint and arguably the greatest creative mind it has ever produced – will be remembered as the day the UK turned its back on desperate, lonely children: one of the lowest achievements possible for any nation state.

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