Amber Rudd, who has succeeded Theresa May as home secretary, started her speech to conference on a compassionate note.
Pledging to help those “right at the very bottom”, she told conference: “I have met victims of domestic violence. I have met victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. And I have met victims of modern slavery.”
And then she moved onto refugees. “Our compassion does not stop at the border,” she said:
“There are vulnerable, unaccompanied children in Calais at risk of people trafficking and abuse.
“Where those children have a relative in the UK, or it is in their best interests to come to the UK, we are doing all we can to bring them over here.”
In principle, Rudd’s decision to highlight the plight of vulnerable child refugees is laudable. But don’t be fooled by the rhetoric.
The Dubs Amendment, which was only passed after huge efforts by the Labour peer Alf Dubs, forced the Government to offer unaccompanied child refugees sanctuary in the UK. He and other MPs have identified and submitted the paperwork for 387 children in Calais who may have the right to come to the UK. But so far, the number of children helped by it is precisely zero, and the camp where they live is set to be demolished. Activists I met in Calais believed bureaucrats were being wilfully obstructive. Dubs himself told me: “I am disappointed and angry with the government.”
The SNP MP for Midlothian Owen Thompson represents a Syrian family who came to the UK under the resettlement programme. They are desperately worried about their nine-year-old son Mohammed, who is stuck in Syria and who is expected to cross a wartorn border before he can apply for reunification.
Thompson asked for help at Prime Minister’s Questions in mid-September, and was told by May that she would ask the Home Office to look into it.
He has heard zilch.
He told The Staggers: “If Amber Rudd is serious about the government’s commitment to unite child refugees with their families, then her time might be better spent dealing with the very serious situation of child refugees currently alone and in danger rather than spouting destructive and dangerous rhetoric designed to appease angry Tory Brexiteers.
“It has been almost three weeks since the Prime Minister pledged to me in the House of Commons to look into the case of Mohammed Karou – a nine year old boy who became separated from his parents. To date, I have not even had an acknowledgement.”
“It is becoming apparently clear that the Tory party conference has become an echo chamber for an increasingly draconian, right-wing set of ideas that is devoid of any humanitarian approach to the most devastating set of circumstances faced by children alone in war zones.”
So why has Rudd chosen to highlight this issue in her speech? A cynical interpretation would be that, by introducing herself as a compassionate figure, it is easier for her to dole out the other draconian policy announcements, like her “Controlling Migration Fund” which rather than supporting new arrivals will “reduce rough sleeping by illegal immigrants”.
A more hopeful version of events would be that the campaigning has paid off. The Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, one of the leading campaigners for the Dubs Amendment, wrote to Rudd in early August on the plight of children in Calais. She finally heard back a week ago, from a junior minister, Robert Goodwill.
She said: “It is welcome to hear Amber Rudd now admit we have a responsibility to those children, but it is not enough unless it is backed up by a plan of action.
“Otherwise, by the end of October these children could be lost in Europe again.”