Almost 80 years ago, I boarded a train in Czechoslovakia that took me safely to the UK. I was one of the lucky ones. My father had fled the German invasion some months before, and he was there to greet me as I arrived at Liverpool Street station. I remember the relief and the joy of that reunion very well.
This Memorial Day weekend, I caught myself remembering that train journey away from home, into a new, safe life. This has always been an important time of year for me, to see thousands of people gather across the country and remember the great courage shown by men and women who fought the Nazis, and helped children like me escape them. But as we have collectively recalled one of the darkest hours of human history, we must also reflect on the situation in Europe today – especially the dreadful conditions faced by unaccompanied refugee children.
These children have been forced to flee without their families: they have survived perilous journeys and endured the dangers of life on the streets or in camps without the protection of their loved ones. These children will not be greeted by their parents upon their safe arrival to a new home. But they will be safe, and that’s the most important thing. I, alongside many politicians and aid organisations, have never argued that we should take in all child refugees, but I do believe that Britain can, and should, do more to protect these vulnerable children.
I have been proud to support the legal challenge, brought by Help Refugees, that seeks to hold the government to account for their unfulfilled promise to provide sanctuary for unaccompanied children. Last week, it was announced that the case will be heard at the Court of Appeal – but for this to happen, we need your help.
Two years ago, I proposed an Amendment to the Immigration Act – the Dubs Amendment. This would help resettle some of the most vulnerable children from France, Greece and Italy to the UK. I visited the “Jungle” camp in Calais; I met boys as young as eight who were living in second-hand tents or wooden shelters, risking their lives every night to try and reach the UK. The need for safe and legal routes was obvious: the camp was no place for anyone to live, let alone vulnerable children.
The Amendment had incredible public support, yet the initial proposal to resettle 3,000 children – less than five per constituency – was voted down in the House of Commons. It passed in April 2016 with a watered-down pledge to resettle a “specified number” of lone children, to be decided in consultation with local authorities. But its passage was followed by six months of governmental inaction. Between April and October 2016, not a single child was brought safely to the UK under the Amendment.
It was only with the eviction of the Jungle looming, public pressure mounting, and Help Refugees’ issuance of a legal challenge to the government, that transfers began. While the camp was razed to ground, 200 children were safely resettled in the UK – but the scheme then ground to a halt.
In February 2017, the Home Office announced that the scheme would be capped at 350 children. However, under pressure from Help Refugees’ litigation, the Home Office was forced to concede that it had “missed” 130 places offered by local authorities. The number was raised to 480, a fraction of our initial proposal.
The government has failed to honour this paltry commitment. More than half of these spaces remain empty. Last year, not a single child was resettled under the Amendment until September.
Only a handful of children have been brought to the UK from Greece – despite the fact that there are an estimated 3,350 unaccompanied minors in the country, and shelter spaces for less than a third of that number. The remaining children are forced to sleep in squats, camps, detention centres, or on the streets. The risks of exploitation are both obvious, and well-documented. The British government’s indolence has left children out in the cold and at acute risk, when they could have been starting their new life in the UK.
This appeal is an opportunity to bring a greater number of unaccompanied children, some of the most vulnerable children on European soil, to safety. The crisis that they face is no less acute, no less urgent now than it was when the Amendment was passed. Approximately 200 lone children, some as young as ten, are sleeping in the forests of Northern France without any form of shelter. The French authorities (funded by British taxpayers’ money) regularly seize their blankets and destroy any form of shelter. The unbearable conditions are pushing refugees to take greater risks in their attempts to reach the UK, with fatal consequences. At the end of last year, three people died at the border in three weeks – including a 15-year-old boy, who was trying to reach his brother in the UK.
It was the result of hard work, and serious public pressure, that Home Secretary Amber Rudd conceded on the government’s arbitrary deadline for children to have entered Europe, in order to be eligible for transfer under the Dubs scheme. It is a step in the right direction, but the woefully inadequate “specified number” must be revisited. This appeal provides us the chance to do exactly that. Councillors across the country have denounced the consultative process as “cursory”, “chaotic”, “puzzling” and “wholly inadequate”. The least we can do is ensure that the capacity and willingness of the UK to help vulnerable children is respected by our government.
At the outbreak of World War Two, ordinary people pooled their resources and offered to help. The British public opened the door and welcomed me, alongside 10,000 children, into their lives. Without the actions of everyday people, the Kindertransport would never have happened.
It was a similar collective voice that pushed the government to recognise, and commit to protecting, unaccompanied children under the Dubs Amendment. But the Home Office’s consistent failure to do so means that we must, once again, come together. We have the chance to save the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in Europe. We must use it.
Alf Dubs is a Labour peer. Those wishing to donate to Help Refugees Ltd’s CrowdJustice appeal, can do so here.