‘Saddened and shocked’ was the verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the government’s decision to end a scheme expected to bring around three thousand unaccompanied child refugees to Britain.
Only three hundred and fifty will have arrived. The government has justified its decision mainly on the basis that the scheme acts as a ‘draw’ and encourages people trafficking. But it has been widely condemned, including by several Conservative MPs. Should the government think again?
The scheme in question came into being last year when a Labour peer, Lord Dubs, persuaded the government to accept his amendment to the Immigration Bill, specifically targeting unaccompanied child refugees. In 2015 there had been estimated to be about 90,000 unaccompanied minors in Europe, most of them fleeing areas of conflict and war such as Syria. Lord Dubs wanted Britain to take its share of them, so saving them from the fate of exploitation, slavery or simply destitution that otherwise seemed certain to overtake them. Lord Dubs had himself been the beneficiary of such a scheme when, as a six-year-old child in Prague in 1938, he became one of 668 children rescued from Nazi Europe and brought to Britain by train under the so-called ‘Kindertransport’ arrangement.
Although no figure was put on the number of children likely to be brought to Britain under the Dubs amendment, it was widely expected to be around three thousand. But this week the government announced that it would close the scheme next month. By then only around 350 children will have arrived. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, gave several reasons for the decision, which was criticised for having been delivered initially in the form of a written answer when the political world was distracted by the Commons vote on Brexit. She said that local authorities simply did not have enough capacity to take more child refugees. And she claimed that the scheme acted as a ‘draw’, encouraging traffickers to ferry children to Europe.
She said: ‘I am clear that when working with my French counterparts they do not want us to indefinitely continue to accept children under the Dubs amendment because they specify, and I agree with them, that it acts as a draw. It acts as a pull. It encourages the people traffickers.’
Both she and the Prime Minister insisted that child refugees would still be able to come to Britain under other schemes, including the usual asylum route. And they emphasised how much Britain was doing to help refugees from the Syrian civil war stay in their own region. Britain is contributing £2.3bn to refugee camps in the area, the second-highest foreign contribution.
But these justifications for closing the Dubs scheme were widely attacked including from the Conservative benches. David Burrowes MP accused the government of having ‘cut and run from child refugees’. Will Quince MP cast doubt on the notion that local authorities couldn’t cope with the number of unaccompanied child refugees in question, writing in a letter to the Times: ‘We should praise those councils playing their part and name and shame those that are choosing to turn their backs.’ If there was a financial issue, Tania Mathias MP said, then the solution was clear: ‘Britain should be leading the way; there should be more resources for local authorities.’
The argument that the scheme encouraged the traffickers was dismissed by the Tory MP Heidi Allen as ‘utter rubbish’. The Labour chair of the Home Affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, agreed. She said: ‘Far from deterring traffickers, this decision to halt legal routes to sanctuary will encourage them instead. The government is pushing vulnerable children back into the arms of smuggler and trafficker gangs, and back into modern slavery. Already we are seeing hundreds of children starting to return to Dunkirk and Calais. Both France and Britain have an obligation to work together to make sure the dangerous Calais camp conditions don’t start all over again.’
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the government to reverse its decision, saying that refugees were ‘treasured human beings made in the image of God who deserve safety, freedom and the opportunity to flourish’. He added: ‘We must resist and turn back the worrying trends we are seeing around the world, towards seeing the movement of desperate people as more of a threat to identity and security than an opportunity to do our duty.’
But perhaps the most potent call for the government to think again came from Barbara Winton, the daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton, the man who organised the Kindertransport back in the 1930s. He ended up living in Maidenhead where the local MP, Theresa May, spoke at his memorial service last year. Barbara Winton reminded Mrs May of what the Prime Minister had said on that occasion. She had spoken of Sir Nicholas as ‘an enduring example of the good people can make even in the darkest of times’, adding: ‘I hope that his life will serve as an inspiration for us all … and encourage us to do the right thing.’ Barbara Winton said: ‘As the world once again teeters on the edge of dark times, I ask you to remember those words.’
Whether the Prime Minister will or not remains to be seen. From a purely political point of view she may feel she needs to learn the lesson of Angela Merkel, who paid a heavy political price for being so welcoming to refugees eighteen months ago. On the other hand she may fear a backlash if the plight of child refugees she has excluded from Britain itself becomes a source of political scandal in Britain.
To some people, however, such political calculation is itself unspeakable. There are thousands of unaccompanied children out there in Europe, having fled unimaginable horror in their own countries. It is simply a question of common humanity, they will argue, for Britain to accept its share of the responsibility for saving such vulnerable children from the hands of those who will treat them with utter inhumanity.
What’s your view? Is the government justified in putting an end to the Dubs scheme, or should it change its mind?
Let us know what you think.