Last week saw the government backing out of the ‘Dubs’ amendment, a policy which promised to take in 3000 out of the 95000 unaccompanied migrant children. Instead we will accept a maximum of 350.
It is now essential that the public take responsibility into their own hands to speak up on behalf of these children whose voices are being smothered, whose lives are being threatened and whose human rights are being violated by a government accountable to and representing – us.
This disgusting and shameful move on the part of the British government is indicative of the landslide in ideology towards the extreme right, nationalism, xenophobia and self-delusionary resistance to globalisation. Following Trump’s Muslim ban, it is shocking to see the UK government rapidly mimicking such sentiments with political action. Currently 200 children (under 15s) have been accepted under the Dubs amendment, and in a sly low-key announcement on Wednesday 8th February it was revealed that the scheme is set to close once another 150 children have been brought to Britain, leaving the total amount of children allowed refuge here 10% of what was originally promised.
This is a deeply worrying decision, not only because of the wider political attitude it speaks of, but because of the real life impact it will have on thousands of destitue children around Europe. Those who are unthinkably traumatised, hugely vulnerable to abuse, sexual exploitation, trafficking, disease, suicide, homelessness and to whom we promised refuge, are now to be left abandoned to fend for themselves. Around 95,000 unaccompanied migrant children in Europe are in dire need of help. Over 10,000 are missing. Of the migrants arriving in Europe by sea in 2015, 31% were children, and children make up about 30% of asylum seekers in the EU. Last year almost 150 children are known to have drowned whilst seeking refuge crossing the Mediterranean sea.
The number of unaccompanied child refugees to be accepted into the UK will now be determined by individual local authorities. With neither example nor policy being set by central government and with limited funding available (especially after recent cuts) it is likely that very few councils will step up to welcome these children. If each constituency offers refuge to just 5 unaccompanied minors then 3,000 children will be brought to Britain. If each constituency takes 30, then 19,500 children would be brought, making an enormously significant impact in the near 100,000 seeking help. Despite the UK’s ability and responsibility to contribute towards this situation’s resolution, the political climate is clearly encouraging a retractive distancing from the issue, and there is little sign of a strong or united grassroots movement on its behalf to pressure MPs and Whitehall into action. It seems increasingly, however, that grassroots campaigning is one of the few and most effective choices being left to UK citizens who disagree with their country’s shutting of eyes and doors to one of the most disastrous humanitarian crises of our time. Indeed, public pressure on MPs who in turn put pressure on parliament was the principle factor which caused the Dubs amendment to be passed in May 2016. Similar pressure can be applied to similar success in the wake of this callous and frightening act.
Immigration minister Robert Goodwell saw his announcement as a ‘proud’ moment for the nation: “The UK can be proud of its record helping refugee children and I can today announce, in accordance with section 67 of the Immigration Act, that the government will transfer the specified number of 350 children pursuant to that section, who reasonably meet the intention and spirit behind the provision.”
Human Rights Watch identified the Dubs criteria for acceptance as ‘restrictive’ and deemed its execution as inconsistent with its purpose << the process for children to seek transfer to the UK has been non-transparent and arbitrary, and that children’s mental health has suffered. Children said they did not have information about how and when they would learn the outcome in their cases, the selection criteria, what recourse, if any, they have if they are not accepted, and how they could follow up with the UK Home Office […] The UK Home Office should broaden their criteria for application of the Dubs amendment to ensure that older children are not precluded from consideration>>.
The May 2016 consensus of 3000 children – a number identified by the International Development Committee – as being the UK’s fair share in the Europe-wide effort towards humanitarian relief for unaccompanied children, was already meagre and unambitious considering the scale of need, the UK’s position as the sixth richest country in the world and the enormous wealth which is held by banks and financial institutions which the taxpayer bailed out with tens of billions of pounds. Last week’s backtracking on the Dubs’ amendment was justified by saying that the local authorities responsible for the children’s care have limited capacity. However, after a Conservative MP pointed out that the new cap represents fewer than two children per local authority, Home Secretary Amber Rudd offered an alternative reason, claiming that the provision is encouraging human trafficking. Regardless, Rudd’s remarks in the House of Commons suggest that the real reason for this decision is to reduce refugee numbers. “We do not want to incentivise journeys to Europe,” she said. This echoes the government’s statement that it wants to avoid creating a “pull factor” that might encourage more parents to send their children across Europe, but Vincent de Coninck who manages an emergency day centre on the edge of Calais said it was ridiculous to think that any of these minors or their parents had any knowledge of UK asylum law: “They don’t know anything about the system. I try to tell them they will be better off staying in France, but the smugglers give them false information. The only way to fight against this mafia is to offer a legal way to get to the UK, and yet the British government has just done the exact opposite,” he said. “I can’t decide who I feel more angry with – the French or the British.”
This week’s ditching of the Dubs amendment comes just as the UK government announced it is also suspending the resettlement of disabled child refugees, and is a retreat from
involvement in refugee protection at a time when it is desperately needed. A separate accelerated scheme to bring unaccompanied refugee children with direct family links to Britain under the Dublin convention is also to come to an end. Theresa May ordered
the Home Office on Monday to look into reports that children dispersed from the Calais camp before Christmas were now returning to the French port. The charity ‘Help Refugees’ will be legally challenging the government in May, claiming that it has violated the 2016 Immigration Act’s clause 67 o
n ‘Unaccompanied Refugee Children: relocation and support’ which states that ‘The number of children to be resettled […] shall be determined by the government in consultation with local authorities.’ There has been minimal if any communication from central government with its constituencies: Hammersmith and Fulham councils’ repeated offers to take in more child refugees has been ignored by the Home Office.
The far right ideology driving this rejection of child (and other) refugees is not only inhumane, it’s self-delusionary. In this year’s January/ February issue of Foreign Affairs Richard Hass argues for a new model of world order ‘World Order 2.0’ centering around the notion of sovereignty as global responsibility, or ‘sovereign obligation’. He argues that the system of independent nations conducting their behind-border affairs as they please is now defunct. In an increasingly globalized world problems such as climate change, cyberspace, health (epidemics and spread of disease), nuclear armement and migration have come to affect all countries, regardless of their perceived responsibility in the problems themselves. These are border defying problems, and nations should collectively accept responsibility for the resolution of new global challenges. If every country behaved like England is now, these new most serious challenges would be totally neglected and continue to escalate freely. Hass sets out his clearer vision for this new kind of world order that needs to come, saying that ‘globalization is here to stay, and the inadequacies of traditional approach to order […] will only become more obvious over time’. If the UK government thinks it can hide from the wind of globalization by burying it’s head in the sand, it is more frighteningly blind than many of use believe. Engaging in the resolution of issues such as the migrant crisis is part of being a nation in today’s world, whether the Conservatives like it or not. To prioritize weak points of national self interest in the face of this humanitarian calamity is not only irrevocably damaging to those experiencing it, but is politically out-dated, regressive and foolish, as well as damaging to the global community – UK included.
Parallels abound with 1930s and 1980s are ringing truer than ever, but not eliciting a discernable response to the impending danger which seems to loom, electrical, before us. There is a resounding echoing of xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments which were legitamised by the British immigration policy in the 1930s-40s. According to Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948 by Louise London: “The process…was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps 10 times as many as it let in. Around 70,000 had been admitted by the outbreak of the war, but British Jewish associations had some half a million more case files of those who had not. The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945. This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable, and is still adduced to support claims that Britain has always admitted genuine refugees, and that the latest harsh measures against asylum seekers are merely designed to exclude bogus applicants. . .We remember the touching photographs and newsreel footage of unaccompanied Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransports. There are no such photographs of the Jewish parents left behind in Nazi Europe. . .The Jews excluded from entry to the United Kingdom are not part of the British experience, because Britain never saw them. . .Memories of the unsuccessful public campaign to persuade the government to rescue Jews from mass murder faded quickly.”
In Calais over 1000 unaccompanied refugee children were left to fend for themselves after the Jungle’s destruction. Almost 400 of those had been identified as having a legal right to come to Britain, and there are now at least 200 sleeping rough in the area. Hundreds who had been in the camps have been identified by charities such as Care4Calais as now officially missing. These are children set on coming to England either to join their waiting families across the channel, because they already speak good English, or because their parents have told them to go to the UK. Student volunteers offering food, hot drinks and sleeping bags to these homeless children had their names and addresses taken by police, and were told that what they were doing is illegal. There are increasing reports of abuse against child and adult asylum seekers by French police (and ordinary citizens), and since November’s destruction of the Jungle authorities are taking a very hard line in crushing the beginnings of new camps which may try to form around the area. Police run regular patrols at night so the children sleep without tents, or even standing against trees, to stay hidden. They do not risk staying two nights in the same place or lighting fires to keep warm. If conditions in the vast camp were highly inappropriate for children, they are now far worse. Many get hypothermia from living outside unprotected. Many have no food, water, toilets, bed, access to shelter, physical or mental health facilities, legal advice, or any kind of support for neither their asylum applications nor their general wellbeing. There have been reports of children beginning to bury food so that they can find it even if they are chased by the police. These children are not only horrifically neglected, but made to live in a state of fear due to active persecution by French authorities, and the active rejection by British ones.
Many children are suffering from PTSD. Many children cried in their assessment interviews. Many children described having bottles thrown at them, being racially abused or otherwise harassed by the public. It is important to condemn, petition and pressure the English (and French) government in their despicable handling of this crisis. It is also important to recognise their shunned responsibility as our own – not just because we are human beings, but because we are privileged citizens with whom the power to change this situation lies. It is important to read and think about this situation not as a series of worsening statistics and facts, nor as a messy array of socio-political and legal issues. It is important to think about this as an enormous group of real individual children living real nightmares. As much as the discourse on this topic balloons into political fencing and the hypothetical practicalities of housing and space and foster care and benefits… in any situation what is fundamentally being discussed are these individuals’ lives and deaths. That fact cannot be escaped. It is important not just to read and think about it. Not to just understand and care about it. Because if we read and think and care but don’t act, we may as well not care at all. Public passivity, apathy and silence is what has allowed these political actions which create the children’s personal realities. And ‘public’ does not mean the wider national disengagement – it means the summation of every single individual’s (in)action. Empathizing and caring about these children is the same as hating and rejecting them if it isn’t translated into action. We must talk about this with the people around us. We must contact the council and offer up our homes as refuges. Crucially, we must write to our MPs demanding our constituencies accept more unaccompanied children, and we must encourage others to do the same.
We are all individually answerable to the suffering of these children. The responsibility lies with us.