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21 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 8:51am

Theresa May’s speech at the UN offered little hope for refugee children

A robust and comprehensive global action plan to help the world's most vulnerable children is needed.

By Hannah Stoddart

On Monday and Tuesday this week, global leaders convened for two major summits to address the refugee crisis — one hosted by the UN to address large movements of migrants and refugees, the other convened by President Obama as one of his final efforts on the world stage before leaving office. The summits took place in response to a growing displacement crisis. There are currently 28 million children displaced by conflict and persecution — War Child estimates that if current trends continue, this could swell to 63 million in the next ten years. Without further action, more than 12 million children will end up out of school.

Behind these almost inconceivable numbers are the devastating stories of individual boys and girls — many who have seen their families killed by barrel bombs in front of their eyes, others who are survivors of sexual violence or have been recruited into extremist armed groups. What they all share is that they and their families have been given an impossible choice — to stay put and risk their lives, or to flee and face other unimaginable horrors on the dangerous journey ahead.

It is worth remembering the news which emerged from Greece before these summits took place. There, on the island of Kos, the UN’s refugee agency was forced to step in to deal with large numbers of unaccompanied children who, according to local aid workers, were being held in squalid, “medieval” conditions. One witness described boys and girls being held by police in filthy cells alongside adults, granted one meal a day and only allowed outside wearing handcuffs. It beggars belief that scenes like could be witnessed on European soil.

So, it is disappointing that the stance of the UK government during the UN summits did little to address the plight of displaced children — or to build trust with countries that are disproportionately shouldering responsibility for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The prime minister’s insistence on the inalienable right of countries to protect their borders, and her suggestion that refugees should seek asylum in the “first safe country”, sent quite a clear message that the UK is not open for business when it comes to resettling a fairer share of refugees. If implemented, this policy would shift almost the entire responsibility for hosting refugees to neighbouring countries – even though refugees make up 18% and 9% of the population in Lebanon and Jordan respectively, compared to the UK’s 0.2%.

The emphasis on the need to better distinguish between refugees and economic migrants shifted the debate to who is least deserving, rather than focussing on those most at risk. The government’s commitment to tackle modern slavery was a welcome antidote to this – yet there was no support articulated for the development of safe and legal routes for refugee children to be reunited with their families in Europe. The absence of such legal routes means that vulnerable boys and girls end up at the mercy of criminal networks for merely trying to get to their loved ones.

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This stance was further exemplified by the financial pledge made by the prime minister at Obama’s Summit – to dedicate £100 million across Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya on a variety of projects including combatting terrorism that will aim to stem the flow of refugees seeking asylum in Europe or the UK. When less than 5% of aid is dedicated to the protection and education of children, despite them making up half of those affected by conflict, it doesn’t feel like such a pledge responds to where the need is greatest. 

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This is a far cry away from a robust and comprehensive global action plan for children forced to flee — which War Child and thousands of its supporters called for from Theresa May’s government ahead of the summit. Instead the message seems clear — refugees are not welcome here.

Hannah Stoddart is the advocacy director of War Child UK