The Do-Good, the Bad and the Priti

Meme by the author

Normally Mondays bring on a bout of the blues, but 5 October bucked the trend. It was a day for rejoicing, because the Lords inflicted a string of defeats on the government’s controversial immigration bill. Two of the amendments, both proposed by Lord Alfred Dubs, concerned children. You’d think amendments safeguarding children would pass unanimously, wouldn’t you? But no. The vast majority of Tory peers voted against both: one to allow any children with EU citizenship, currently in the care system, leave to remain, and the other granting unaccompanied child refugees the right to reunite with family already settled in this country. The former passed by 323 to 227 and the latter by 317 to 223 votes.

It is the amendment on the right of family reunion that is the subject of this article. To understand it, we must take a closer look at its sponsor, Lord Alfred Dubs. He came to this country during World War II, fleeing the Nazis at the tender age of six to join his father, who was already settled here. He was one of 669 Jewish children rescued from Prague aboard a ‘Kindertransport’ train organised by stock broker Sir Nicholas Winton (much admired by Theresa May, who was his MP) to save them from the Holocaust. His mother joined them later, but his father died soon afterwards, so Lord Dubs grew up poor. Nevertheless, he went on to study at the London School of Economics, serve as a Labour MP for Battersea for eight years and head up the Refugee Council for another seven years, before being made a life peer in 1994.

In essence, this latest Dubs Amendment is a continuation of certain provisions of the Dublin III Regulation after Brexit. This is the regulation that establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which of the Member States (MS) is responsible for examining an asylum claim made in the EU. It permits refugee transfer requests between MS —the same provision described by Priti Patel in a Home Office video clip recently, as being “rigid, inflexible and abused by migrants and activist lawyers”.*

When the government rubbishes something, if we look behind their rhetoric, we often discover that what it wants to get rid of are rights, principles and values that we hold dear and very much want to hang on to. I am willing to bet few Brits would vote to give government a mandate to keep families apart, especially when the part of the family left out in the cold is a child.

A Dubs Amendment had been passed previously, in May 2016, it required the government to ‘act as soon as possible’ to relocate and support unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe. Local Authorities were to be consulted to determine the number of children each council had the capacity to help. Initially 3,000 vulnerable children were to be welcomed, but the government capped it at 350 – although this was later increased to 480 when it was discovered that 130 places offered by councils here in the Southwest had been overlooked.

Those 480 places were filled in May this year, four years on. Using the coronavirus crisis as cover, Boris Johnson refused to renew the scheme. He shut down the last safe, legal route for unaccompanied child refugees without family in Britain to find sanctuary in our country, despite Local Authorities pledging 1,400 places for these lone children. Lord Dubs has been battling for an extension of the scheme, even watering it down to cover only unaccompanied child refugees with a family member already settled in the UK. Alas, to no avail.

At the end of last year, Johnson vowed that he was “absolutely committed to ensuring that this country will continue to receive unaccompanied children” after Britain left the EU. Once he had his 80-seat majority he stripped all protections for child refugees out of the Withdrawal Agreement and whipped his MPs to vote against re-instating them in January 2020. The excuse was that the Withdrawal Agreement wasn’t the right place for them, the Immigration Bill was where they belonged. Then when the Immigration Bill was introduced, MPs were once again whipped against voting for Dubs-style protections, in June 2020. Yet still the government claimed its official policy was to help unaccompanied child refugees. Now Johnson will be presented with a third opportunity to make good on his word. What will he do?

The government seeks to obfuscate its intransigence and lack of charity by throwing around misleading statistics. When the Minister for Immigration Compliance, Chris Philp, tells us 44,900 children have arrived since 2010, that number does not help us measure how well we’re doing in protecting the most vulnerable child refugees, who could end up being trafficked into slave labour or worse. These fears are not unfounded, as a report from May 2019 found that the increase in child slavery cases exceeded 800 per cent over two years. County Lines drug gangs in particular prey on these youngsters.

Of the 44,900 children cited by Philp, roughly 10,000 are unaccompanied child refugees. It is astonishing that the government includes them in a figure it cites to pat itself on its back for its own generosity, because 9 out of 10 of them came into the country illegally, risking their lives using dangerous routes, like hiding in the back of a lorry. While the UK is only the fifth most likely destination in Europe for child refugees as a whole – 10,295 in 2019, versus 71,420 in Germany, 26,160 in France, 25,165 in Greece and 21,175 in Spain – it is the top destination for unaccompanied or separated child refugees (3,650), ahead of Greece (3,330), and Germany (2,690).

The UNICEF figures cited here are for 2019 as a whole. Looking at the 12 months from June 2019 to June 2020, the Refugee Council found the number is declining, with 2,868 applications for unaccompanied child refugees recorded for that period. Note, these numbers relate to those who make an application to seek asylum, rather than those who are successful in being granted asylum, which is only 46 per cent (compared to 59 per cent for Europe as a whole). It is also worth mentioning that asylum seekers represent only 9 per cent of immigration as a whole.

Charities say there are currently over 6,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, more than 200 in Calais and Dunkirk alone. Two-thirds are boys, roughly 80 per cent are in the 15-17 age group, and most come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela and Eritrea. The resettlement procedure is lengthy and could not possibly be navigated by children alone without the help of a lawyer. Once children attain the age of 18 years they no longer qualify, even if the resettlement process has been commenced. The UK press has in the past been hostile to older teenagers coming to the UK, and refused to acknowledge that the harsh conditions of refugee life can leave children looking older than their years.

Britain has experienced waves of refugees before. During World War I, we accepted an estimated 250,000 Belgian refugees. No community was left untouched, with refugees lodging with families the length and breadth of the four home nations. The Belgians are little remembered now, as the British government was keen to send them home, and the Belgian government was happy to receive them to help rebuild the country. Ninety per cent left. Perhaps their most enduring legacy was the fictional detective Hercules Poirot, based on a Belgian refugee the author Agatha Christie met during the First World War.

In the mid 1970s, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher reluctantly agreed to accept 10,000 Vietnamese refugees (from an estimated total of 800,000), who came to be known as ‘Boat People’ because many of them fled the murderous communist régime, crammed aboard barely seaworthy boats. Decades later Tat Wa Ley shared his story. When he, his mother and brother came ashore in England with just the clothes on their backs, they expected hostility and racism, but a scruffy young man stepped forward and offered his coat, a gesture soon imitated by others.

“My mother has never forgot that moment, when she was able to use a coat to wrap her boys so they could stop shivering,” he wrote. “My brother can still remember the warmth that coat gave him and it stays in his heart to this day. It’s these things that British people do, that make them truly British.”

Tat went on to say that because the UK took his family in, they were able to give so much back. Three of his family have become NHS doctors, while a further 27 have opened small businesses from restaurants to nail bars. These refugees didn’t steal our jobs. They created their own and some extra ones for Brits.

Lord Dubs is proposing that we take 1,000 lone child refugees a year for ten years. We, the British people, are far more generous than our government and the media. We must do more to push them to act in accordance with our values. Why not write to our MPs (again), as well as our local newspapers, and ask them to back the Dubs Amendment? Third time lucky.

*See the article, Activist lawyers, indeed! How dare anyone hold Patel and her crew to account? by our Editor Anthea Simmons, explaining that lawyers doing their job and applying the law are not “activists” and it’s an alarming escalation of populist rhetoric for government to make this unfounded accusation.