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Alf Dubs: Priti Patel’s anti-migrant rhetoric is unworthy of a British home secretary

The Labour peer and former child refugee on Brexit's poisonous legacy, climate change displacement and escaping Nazi occupation.

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When Alf Dubs was six years old, his mother was kicked down the stairs by Nazi soldiers. Married to a Jewish man in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, she had requested an exit permit so her family could leave the country safely. They refused, throwing her outside along with her passport.

At that time soldiers had filled the streets of Prague, where Dubs was born. His earliest memories are tainted by violence and fear: “I remember gluing a picture of Adolf Hitler into the front page of my school book. For some reason this is something I remember vividly,” he says.

“Eventually my mother put me on the Kindertransport to Britain. The older children looked after the infants. I remember lots of anxious parents waiting on the platform, wondering if they would see their children again. We got off the train in Holland, and then on a lifeboat across the Channel. When we arrived in England, we had a medical examination and were put on a train to London. I was luckier than many. Some didn't have parents or relatives waiting to meet them. My father was there waiting for me.”

I talked to Alf Dubs over Zoom, on a sunny autumnal Friday. Aged 87, he has been a fierce and unstinting advocate for reform of the asylum system for much of his life, as an MP, shadow immigration minister, director of the Refugee Council and as a peer. His 2016 Dubs amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act has been responsible for the safe arrival of 478 unaccompanied child refugees in the UK. 

Our interview takes place the week after a fire tore through Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe, on the Greek island of Lesbos. The tent city was originally designed to house 3,000 but until recently was home to over 19,000 people. A year and a half ago, Dubs visited Moria. “It was a powder keg of overcrowding. People were arriving every day with children in danger. Somebody from Médicines Sans Frontiéres told me that boys were being raped in that camp at night, that the staff were unable to cope. They needed help long before the fire.”

[see also: The meaning of Moria: what we must learn from the refugee camp’s fires]

After the fire, 13,000 people were left without shelter or proper sanitation. “There has been no government response at all to the Moria fire. We have been unwilling to help when the Greeks made a plea. Other European countries did, and we didn't. I think it's bitterly disappointing, especially since some of these children are eligible for our help under our present arrangement.”

In January 2020, Boris Johnson’s new government overturned efforts by the Lords to put the 2016 Dubs Amendment in the Brexit Withdrawal Bill, having already resisted Dubs' efforts to get the UK to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Europe’s camps. “Recently there has been a very nasty atmosphere, which I think was engendered from the Brexit referendum. It has poisoned the climate in this country,” Dubs says.  

“We're going to be a multiracial, multi-faith society. Europe is going to be like that, most of the world's going to be like that, and I think we have to find a way of making that represent our values.” 

But since the 2019 election, the government has stepped up its anti-migrant rhetoric. This summer the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, suggested that navy warships be deployed to tackle the rise in people crossing the English Channel. She lashed out at “activist lawyers” giving legal support to those seeking asylum in the UK and attacked “do-gooders” advocating reform of the asylum process. News broke at the end of last month that the Home Secretary had considered relocating refugees to Ascension Island or St Helena, remote islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

[see also: Boris Johnson’s immigration policy is a recipe for chaos]

“Priti Patel has been absolutely shocking,” says Dubs. “These comments also result in nasty things happening locally [...] If we alienate ‘the other’, they will be threatened. It divides our society, and has a divisive effect on our sense of community. The only way we can cope with the world as it is, is by having a sense of our society and our community altogether. I think that her comments are so hostile and quite unworthy of a British home secretary. It is a tragedy.”

[see also: Cabinet audit: What does the appointment of Priti Patel as Home Secretary mean for policy?]

Dubs describes the divisive rhetoric of Patel and others as “a shabby way of getting heard and in a curious way, uniting much of the Tory party”. He is not convinced that it comes from a point of principle so much as an ideological vacuum: "I'm not even sure some of the Brexiteers believe in Brexit. If they do now, I'm not sure they did then. I expect Dominic Cummings is a bit behind this as well. Clearly his ministers are not as much in charge as previous ministers were.” 

Meanwhile, the threat of ever greater displacement is growing. Since 2008, almost 30 million people a year have been forced to leave their homes to escape natural disasters, and this number will increase as climate change becomes more severe. “Soon there will be other factors that drive the movement of people; we'll have desperate poverty caused by famine and climate change. This will force people to find safety as their lives will no longer be tenable – that is if they can survive some of the effects of climate change that are going to happen.”

“To prepare for more people moving on this planet we have to act in solidarity and say, this is going to happen in the future, let's all act together. I'm desperately keen that Europe should have a unified approach to these things. Whether we're in the EU or not, I hope we still have a part to play. It's not right that, because people move first to the Mediterranean, the Greeks and Italians have to take all this responsibility. We have to share it with them.” 

[see also: Yanis Varoufakis's Diary: The Brexit saga, and defending refugees in Greece]

Dubs is also keen to discuss the positive character traits of Britain, however. "I think we are essentially a very humane, tolerant country and we allow people to be different. We always have allowed people to be different and we have always helped people be part of us. We’ve got to have some positive vision,” he says. “When my mum landed at the bottom of those stairs, she said that her first thought was not what she had broken, but of her passport. They threw it down after her. That was what gave her hope.” 

On the way to the public gallery in parliament, there’s a small plaque commemorating the 75th anniversary in 2013 of the debate that led to the creation of the Kindertransport. “Sometimes when I’m in parliament, I take people there,” Dubs says. It gives him hope.

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.