In 2016, almost 100,000 people signed a petition calling for Britain to not turn its back on the vulnerable child refugees in Europe. The Dubs Amendment was passed. Yet more than two years on, the government has failed to fulfil its promises: almost half of the spaces identified for vulnerable children remain unfilled. This week, I’m in court with my colleagues at Help Refugees to challenge this failure and attempt to reopen the Dubs Amendment.
I remember the situation in Greece as we began setting up our organisation. People’s lives were in constant danger: in the pitch black of night, dinghies were crashing against rocks or capsizing. Every day, 10,000 people arrived on the Greek islands, over half of whom were children.
We saw a post on Facebook from a volunteer on Lesbos in Greece, calling out for doctors to come to the island. Help Refugees had just begun crowdfunding and we knew we couldn’t sit by after seeing these images, so we sent doctors over to Greece. Within a few days they had reported back to us that children’s feet were rotting. It had been raining for ten days and they had no shelter. They said the islands were on the brink of a catastrophe. I remember being on the phone to one of the doctors when they worryingly muttered the words “the morgue is already full”. It was horrifying.
We got to work to start supporting grassroots groups on the island and across Greece, to try and help keep people relatively safe. It was only then that teams on-the-ground realised how many unaccompanied minors were there. It is estimated that almost 100,000 have arrived in Europe since the crisis began in 2015. We can give them a shelter, clothes, a phone, food, but it isn’t enough. We had to put a case forward to the UK government, so we teamed up with Lord Alf Dubs to pass the Dubs Amendment in parliament in 2016. The Dubs scheme as it became known, was designed to help bring the most vulnerable children in Europe to safety in the UK, much like the Kindertransport had in the run up to World War II. After the law passed, nothing happened for six months, no child entered the UK through the scheme until Help Refugees Ltd, out of sheer desperation, launched this legal challenge in October 2016.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to survival, protection and education regardless of their race, religion or abilities. The UK signed up to this, and the Dubs Amendment was an opportunity to uphold these rights and protest these vulnerable kids.
But there is little evidence on the ground of the support the state is supposedly providing in identifying children for transfer under the Dubs scheme, which means the process is long, arduous and bureaucratic. In nearly two and a half years, half the 480 Dubs places promised to unaccompanied refugee children remain unfilled. Meanwhile, 4,000 unaccompanied minors are currently living in Greece, two-thirds of whom are on the waiting list for formal shelter. This means they are homeless, living in squats, on the street or in parks. 140 are living in the woods in Calais today, thousands more across the rest of France and Italy. Children are being exploited, they are going missing, and they are being let down.
The government’s consultation with local authorities on the number of child refugees to which they could offer sanctuary has been described by councillors as “incompetent”, “chaotic”, “cursory”, “puzzling” and “wholly inadequate”. One Director of Children’s Services described the process as “an invisible consultation”. The deadline for the process was also so poorly communicated that 91 per cent of places for children offered by Scottish authorities weren’t included in the final numbers, leaving only six local authority places for the whole of Scotland, and six places counted for the whole of Wales. This appeal revisits this evidence, and calls for a consultative process that’s fit for purpose.
Through our litigation, the Home Office was forced to admit it had “missed” an additional 130 places. We don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to speak to other local authorities, as we have, to find the true capacity of the UK for helping unaccompanied refugee children through the Dubs scheme. Or indeed to honour their commitment to resettle the places already committed to.
I have seen the transformative effect the scheme can have on the lives of kids. Recently, we took 13 children who had been transferred under the scheme to watch Afghanistan play cricket at Lord’s. Boys who once looked frail, terrified and unwashed were clean and happy. They looked like different boys. I asked one child who I knew from Calais, Ally, about his new life. Ally was ten when he lived in Calais, now he’s 12. He told me that he loves his new foster family and that his favourite subjects are mathematics and English.
All of these children have the potential to be anyone. These very children have told me of their dreams to be doctors, to cure cancer, to change the world. But right now they are living in bleak limbo, unable to have the childhood they deserve. I hope our case can offer hope and a new life to some of these children. They deserve to be safe, in school and given the opportunities to realise their full potential.
Josie Naughton is the co-founder and CEO of Help Refugees. Find out more about the Dubs Amendment, and the work of Help Refugees, by clicking here.