A High Court hearing against government closes as the future of thousands of children hang in the balance.
Last Thursday 22ndJuly I went to the end of a three-day high court hearing in London, the result of which will dictate the fates of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable children.
The charity Help Refugees brought a legal challenge against the UK government over its implementation of the ‘Dubs Amendment’, a clause in the Immigration Act allowing unaccompanied asylum seeking children into the country. The challenge was made in reaction to the horrifying U-turn made by the government earlier this year, which brutally slashed the number of children that the Dubs Amendment would permit entry to from 3,000 to just 350 (not even 1 space per constituency).
The futures of many unaccompanied asylum seeking children hung in the balance on Thursday. In the Royal Courts of Justice, Leigh Day Solicitors argued against the defendant representing the Home Secretary – AKA Amber Rudd. The premise was that the ‘consultation’ conducted with local authorities to arrive at the appallingly meagre number of 350 spaces was seriously flawed, if not just nonexistent.
With over 95,000 unaccompanied children now in Europe having fled persecution and violence, and more than 10,000 recorded as missing here, the urgency that these children be helped is something hard to put into words.
It is important to think about this not, however, as a series of worsening statistics and facts, nor as a messy array of socio-political and legal issues, but as a group o
f real individual children living real nightmares. Now. Children are homeless. Children are subject to violence and abuse and from the police and general public. They are falling victim to smuggling, to human trafficking worth billions of pounds, to sexual abuse, exploitation, disease, psychological trauma and suicide with every day that passes. As much as the discourse on this topic balloons out into political fencing and the hypothetical practicalitiesof housing and space and foster care and benefits… in each case what is fundamentally being discussed are these individuals’ lives and deaths. That fact cannot, and must not, be escaped.
The preliminary number of 3,000 spaces for these children, according to the state’s own legislation was meant to be reached through a consultation process run by central government with all 650 UK constituencies. The constituencies would then supposedly assess their capacities on a local level to see how many spaces were available throughout the country, giving an overall national figure.
Help Refugees’ lawyer argued that this process was ‘so unfair as to be unlawful’ – listing evidence demonstrating the crippling inadequacy of the government’s pretense at consulting local authorities. She argued that the government ran a ‘stealth’ consultation during which apparently, most local authorities did not even know they were being consulted. They certainly didn’t know that there was a consultation “cut-off date”, let alone when that actually was. The result of all this obscurity was the warping of England’s so-called ‘capacity’ for these infants into almost nothing: The whole of Scotland was recorded as having just 6 spaces. The whole of Northern Ireland was recorded as 0. The whole of the East Midlands was recorded as 0.
This wasn’t because these regions didn’t try their best. 91% of places offered by Scotland, 86% of those in Wales and 45% of English spaces were not counted at all because they arrived after the secret cut-off date.
The government admitted that an ‘administrative error’ led to 130 of the extra places not being counted.
The prosecutor was the one person during the entire day who struck me as demonstrating some real compassion and engagement with the human essence of this court hearing. Even the judges became irritable – at one point one of them interrupted by yelling something resembling “this is just intolerable!”, standing up and leaving. So the court took a 5 minute tantrum break. Apparently this was because the evidence was being given too fast and the prosecutor was ordered to massively condense and speed up her argument. To me this impatience seemed kind of tragic really, but then so did the fact this monumental decision lay in the hands of a tiny, demographically predictable handful of people.
Mr Magnell, The Home Secretary’s defender, listed off reams of statistics which were punctuated with an array of sparklingly sharp arguments (here paraphrased in my own words). Arguments such as “well, constituencies should have contacted central government if they didn’t understand the details of the consultation they didn’t know was happening”… were heard, alongside a dash of …“we got one email from someone saying Northern Ireland didn’t want to have an event about Dubs ‘at this point in time’, so clearly we could only conclude that there was not a single space available in the whole of Northern Ireland, and that there would be no point replying or contacting them again in any form until after the deadline they didn’t know existed for the consultation they didn’t realise was happening, had passed”.
Stunningly, in about 30 minutes Help Refugees’ prosecutor managed to rip through these, and many more of Mr Magnell’s points of steel (which he had been carefully honing since 10 am that morning) with a brilliantly viscous conclusive argument, hammering in the absurdity, unfairness, and down right unlawfulness of the whole thing. She strongly urged the judges that the whole consultation should be redone, with children being accepted into the UK on a rolling basis in the meantime.
Lord Alfred Dubs himself slipped into Court Room 3 during the proceedings and sat at the front to watch the concluding hour of the legal battle over his addition to the Immigration Act. Dubs, at 6 years old, was a child refugee himself who fled the Nazi Regime in Czechoslovakia along with over 600 other unaccompanied children who arrived in England via Kindertransport. Since then he has led a left-wing political career culminating recently in the championing of the rights of those who today are reliving versions of the journey he once took.
All that’s left now is to wait for the decision. According to one of Leigh Day’s lawyers I chatted to after the hearing, the judges can can take more or less as long they fancy to let us know. From weeks, to months (although she thought anymore more than 6 months is very unlikely). Every day that passes though, is another day thousands of children are languishing in quite literally unthinkable circumstances. And besides, whatever the result, ‘Dubs’ is just the tip of the iceberg.
Now more than ever it’s up to us to take responsibility. Power always lies with the governed, not the governors, as Chomsky said. We have the collective power to influence this situation. This was the feeling I was left with after that day in court. Because even those within the institutions trying to make a dent in this ‘hostile environment’ by wading through the political and legal bogs, are seriously impeded. At the end of the day, the power which is dictating these children’s current reality is accountable to us. This, people, is democracy in action: the 5th biggest economy in the world slamming its doors on the largest humanitarian crisis in living memory. Which, by the way, it more than helped to create.
In Bristol only 3 ‘Dubs children’ are currently being caring for, leaving a further 7 empty spaces which are still on offer… This is a number which must increase. Groups such as Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers Campaign, Borderlands, Bristol Refugee Rights and Bristol City of Sanctuary are all doing invaluable work to aid vulnerable asylum seekers on a local level and can always use more support.
Reading and informing yourself about these situations is tantamount to ignoring them if it leads to nothing. As I write this, and as you read about me writing it, there are tens of thousands of individuals who are living the reality behind these words. We must talk to each other about this. A lot. To people we normally wouldn’t talk to. We must contact the council and offer up our homes as refuges. We must pick up a pen and paper – not a computer – and write letters to our MPs. Letters demanding they not only fulfill their original Dubs quota, but go beyond that to accept a higher number of unaccompanied children… and we must encourage others to do the same.
This is not just because we are human beings, but because we find ourselves in positions of safety and privilege which carry with them not just the power, but the responsibility to enact change.
Want to take action?
Now is the time.