Author: Stella Creasy
It’s almost two years since the police set fire to the Calais refugee campat our border with France, and three since the horrific death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned seeking refuge, woke up Britain to the plight of child refugees. Among the 10,000 people in that ramshackle site in France were at least 1,000 unaccompanied children, the youngest just eight years old.
On Thursday the court of appeal highlighted that, whatever Theresa May claims, it is not only those from the Windrush generation who have faced a hostile environment from this government.
The grave threats and abysmal conditions that these children faced were well known. They found a champion in Lord Alf Dubs – a former child refugee – who refused to let Britain abandon its proud tradition of giving sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. The Dubs amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act pledged us to relocate here some of the most vulnerable refugee children in Europe. Yet in the six months between the passage of the amendment and the demolition of the “Jungle”, the Home Office failed to transfer a single child under the scheme. More than two and a half years on, little over half of the places have been filled.
Fellow MPs and I have pleaded with the government to honour the promise of the Dubs amendment, to no avail. Instead, it has taken persistent legal action by Help Refugees, a charity that had become the largest actor in northern France. Indeed, it was only after its first legal challenge that hundreds of children were suddenly interviewed by officials, and some 200 unaccompanied children finally brought safely to the UK.
It is a true joy today to hear tales of their success – but it is in the untold stories of those rejected that we see what this government actually thinks of those seeking asylum. The Home Office has repeatedly failed to explain to children why they were refused transfer, leaving many confused about their status. Many have fled the temporary care of the French state and returned to sleep rough around Calais, determined to try to reach the UK by risking their lives by hiding in lorries or on trains. Others disappeared to who or what knows where.
Initially, the Home Office argued that it would have taken too long to give reasons for refusing entry to all of the children interviewed. Subsequently, they admitted they deliberately decided not give explanations, for fear that these children would then use this information to exercise their human rights. It is little wonder that the court of appeal ruled, following Help Refugees’ case, that the government has committed “a breach of the duty of fairness under common law”.
It’s not the first time that the courts have had to step in as this government runs roughshod over the rights of child refugees. In August, ministers had to concede that they had been counting children brought here under family reunification rules towards this target, not the orphans it was supposed to support. Help Refugees had to take legal action to compel the government to confess that it had “missed” 130 places offered by local authorities for these kids.
Tonight, some 150 unaccompanied children will be sleeping rough in northern France. Constant police abuse and their destruction of property has left the majority without tents. In Greece, over 2,200 lone children are on the waiting list for shelter; 700 of them listed as “homeless”. In Italy, more than one in ten sea arrivals are unaccompanied children – many having experienced horrific abuses in detention centres in Libya – and in September, more than one in five people who attempted the crossing, perished.
With anti-immigration rhetoric raising the political temperature, many find excuses to ignore these kids or pick apart the cross-party consensus on Dubs. Yet fulfilling our pledge does not absolve France of its duty to act. Nor does it create a “pull factor” that can outweigh the “push” factors of war, conflict and abuse that made these children run in the first place. This court ruling shows yet again the human consequence of inaction and indifference. The number of children the Dubs scheme can support is, in relative terms to the numbers in need of help, minuscule. But the impact that it can have is life-changing, if not life-saving.
It doesn’t need to be this way: there are safe places for them in Britain if our government fulfils the promise parliament made two years ago. Don’t let them abandon these children in your name or leave it to the courts to hold politicians to account.