How could MPs vote down a plan to save child refugees?
A Chinese curse, apparently, is “May you live in interesting times.” By that measure, we have all been damned, because the past week or so has provided us with a tsunami of headline-grabbing events, from Hillsborough to Sir Philip Green and the collapse of BHS, from the junior doctors’ strike to the meltdown of the National Union of Students.
Not forgetting, of course, the tragic implosion of the Labour Party, aided and abetted by London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone, a man who never saw a bandwagon without jumping on it. I very rarely get to call myself a prophet, but in this case I warned as soon as I saw Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the Labour leadership ballot — in pursuit of “diversity” — that trouble lay ahead, and so it has proved.
But I want to talk about one issue which has perhaps been overtaken by all the attention-grabbing headlines about antisemitism — and yet, of course, has a visceral connection to our lives here as Jews.
It is the issue of child refugees from Europe and the amendment to the Immigration Bill, tabled in the Lords by Lord Dubs, who, as everybody surely knows by now, was himself a child refugee, saved by the Kindertransport.
It is worth remembering what happened to the six-year-old Alfred Dubs, who was born in Prague in 1932. His father, who was Jewish, had fled to England on the day the Nazis arrived in Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. The little boy was rescued — along with 669 other, mainly Jewish children —by the heroic Sir Nicholas Winton.
Alf Dubs was told that he would meet his father at Liverpool Street Station. He later said that he clearly remembered leaving Prague station at age six and not touching the food pack given to him by his mother for the next two days. His mother was initially denied a visa but was able to join him and his father in London shortly afterwards.
I simply can’t imagine what it must have been like, a terrified six-year-old, travelling with a lot of other strange children, emerging, ultimately, in an enormous railway station in a foreign country, in the desperate hope that his father would be there.
Dubs was not just lucky, but he and the other Kinder on the Winton train were saved by a miracle of far-sightedness, of intelligent adults doing the right thing.
And over the years Britain has, rightly, been proud of its actions in taking in the Kinder. So many of them have made a contribution to British society, some. like Alf Dubs, in the political sphere, others in all walks of life.
I don’t know for sure, but I have never read of anyone opposing the arrival of the wartime children on the grounds of how they might become a danger to Britain.
So why was the government so apparently implacably opposed to bringing in a far lesser number — 3,000 unaccompanied children, many of whom have fetched up in the swamp that is the Calais jungle?
I asked my MP why he had voted with the government on the Dubs amendment which was defeated in the Commons last Monday. I received a standard reply with the worrying paragraph that “we do not want to make matters worse or cause inadvertent consequences where people traffickers encourage more children to put their lives at risk by making the dangerous sea crossing to Europe” — presumably from their countries of origin, principally Syria.
I watched Prime Minister David Cameron making just this argument at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, and I must say I have never seen anyone so unconvincing — almost as though he, to use a vogue phrase, was “saying things he did not agree with.”
Even the Daily Mail appears to have recognised that the government’s position is indefensible. It published a full-page editorial last week headlined “We must give these lost children sanctuary”. The Mail said: “Nobody has been more robust than this paper in giving voice to public concerns over the impact of mass, unrestricted immigration. But … we believe that the plight of these unaccompanied children now in Europe – hundreds of them on our very doorstep in the Channel ports of France – has become so harrowing that we simply cannot turn our backs.”
Whether it was the Daily Mail or the threat of rebellion from his own backbenchers, on Wednesday this week Mr Cameron announced a partial u-turn, and an unspecified number of unaccompanied children who have been registered in Greece, Italy or France before March 20, will now be allowed in to be resettled in Britain.
These are young children, living in appalling conditions, sleeping on roadsides, in police cells and in informal camps. This is the grim reality of the real world, not the effluvium of the Westminster bubble. And this could have been the fate of the Kinder, except for intelligent adults, determined to do the right thing.
It’s not an accident that such an announcement was made the day before Britain went to the polls. But at least, for once, the government is listening.