Like me, child refugees should get a second chance of life in the UK

Lord Alf Dubs, Rabbi Gluck and representatives from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality at a demo in support of child refugee resettlement (Credit: Dinendra Haria - via Jewish News)
Lord Alf Dubs, Rabbi Gluck and representatives from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality at a demo in support of child refugee resettlement (Credit: Dinendra Haria - via Jewish News)

I can recall the day my mother put me on a train at Prague station. The German army had occupied the city for several months when my mother managed to secure me a place on the Kindertransport.

The train I rode all the way to London to meet my father was one of eight that left the city between then and the outbreak of war. I have no doubt that I would have died if I had stayed in Czechoslovakia: all the other Jews we knew went to concentration camps.

So I owe my life to Sir Nicholas Winton, whose Kindertransport operation remains one of the great examples of British and humanitarian statecraft.  

Today, there are other refugee children in Europe who need our help.

As I write, there are around 4,253 unaccompanied child refugees on the Greek mainland and its islands.

However, there are only 1,873 places available in long term accommodation.

Over 1,000 unaccompanied children in Greece are living in “insecure housing conditions”, typically meaning they are homeless, experiencing the real and daily risk of exploitation by traffickers and people smugglers.   

Lord Alf Dubs (right) meets with Sir Nichols Winton and his daughter Barbara in 2014. (Via Jewish News)

It is shocking that in 2016, Europol estimated that more than 10,000 refugee children had gone missing since arriving in Europe over a two year period.

Refugee children face dangers every day.

In Greece for example, there are reports of children dying in camps. Some die on the journey there: only last week, a child drowned off the coast of Samos. 

But there are also vulnerable children much closer to home, risking their lives to cross the Channel in unfit dinghies and boats.

Channel crossings are rising, and rising because—as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has acknowledged —those who make the decision to risk the dangerous crossing to the UK feel they have no other choice.

Without safe or legal routes, refugees have no choice but to risk their lives on dangerous journeys by land and sea. Over the past twenty years, almost 300 people, including 36 children have drowned trying to reach family or safety in the UK. 

Despite these deaths – the awful consequences of the Government’s existing strategy – the Home Office continues to push to criminalise refugees.

Indeed, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has stated her desire to make Channel crossings “completely unviable”, ramping up the kind of rhetoric that has led 46 percent of Britons to believe that, in comparison with other EU countries, the UK has taken in “more than its fair share” of refugees.

It’s not true.

We take in fewer refugees than many of our European partners.  And the refugee resettlement programme, ostensibly suspended following the outbreak of COVID-19, has yet to resume. 

Lord Dubs with JCORE campaigners, calling for the government to support refugees in January.

The shutting down of these safe and legal routes only pushes refugees to take ever-more dangerous journeys – the deaths of two children aged nine and six off the coast of Dunkirk shone a painfully bright light on the need for these safe and legal routes to protection.   

I had hoped last month that these tragic recent deaths might give the Commons reason to rethink the Government’s strategy and back my amendment to the Immigration Bill, allowing unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with close relatives in the UK.

Many of those trying to reach our shores—and there are far fewer people trying to reach the UK than France or Germany—are doing so because they have family here, perhaps their only family.

That amendment may have been voted down. But it is not the end of the matter. It is my view that so long as there are vulnerable children trying to reach the UK to be with their loved ones, we will have a responsibility to protect them.  

The UK must draw on its long-standing values of compassion and leadership, as it did during the Kindertransport programme, and reintroduce a resettlement programme for unaccompanied children. The need for safe and legal routes to the UK has never been more pressing.  

Local authorities, who are on the coal face of the current refugee crisis, are willing to welcome more unaccompanied children. More than two dozen councils have agreed to house some 1,440 child refugees, so long as they are supported by the government. 

I was one of 10,000 children given a second chance in the United Kingdom. Some of my fellow “kinder” went on to become Nobel Prize-winners, entrepreneurs, poets, architects, chemists, but the majority simply wanted nothing more than safe and decent lives free from danger.

As a nation we have a proud history of compassion and respect for human rights.

As Europe grapples with the worst refugee crisis since World War Two, it is right that we once again show the kind of compassion that I and so many others were shown.

On World Children’s Day, this is the least we can do. 

About the Author
Lord Alf Dubs fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport before the Second World War and went on to become a Labour MP, CEO of a charity and Member of the House of Lords. To this day, he is a tireless campaigner for refugee rights and is now a patron of many charities working in the field.
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