UK being ‘nicer than Trump’ on refugees is not good enough

Last week, an American newsreader broke down on live TV. Rachel Maddow was overcome with emotion while trying to read a report about babies and young children being forcibly separated from their parents by US authorities.

While the newsreader apologised for “losing it” on the broadcast, she had inadvertently spoken for millions of people like myself, who had watched and read the same reports with absolute horror. The treatment of these migrants by Donald Trump’s administration is a disgrace.

I know many British Jews felt the same revulsion. Indeed it was articulated passionately by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner – Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism – a few days ago.

In January last year, when visiting a mosque in Bradford, I spoke out against Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim countries. As I said at the time, even though he is the most powerful man on the planet, we will still sometimes have to tell him when he is wrong. The same applies this time.

Jews know what it is like to be treated as the ‘other’ in societies across the world. In the Torah it is written: “If a stranger comes to live in your country, do not mistreat them… You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself, for you too were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Jewish community takes a particular interest in the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers.

It is to our own Government’s credit that, in the UK, the detention of unaccompanied children is largely consigned to history. Since 2014, the detention of unaccompanied children for more than a 24-hour period has been outlawed. And since 2010, great strides have been made to minimise the circumstances in which families with children are detained.

The impact of these changes has been huge. Over 1,000 children were detained for the purpose of immigration control in 2009, by 2016 this had fallen to just 71.

But Britain can still do better.

The UK is also the only country in the European Union which does not have a time limit on how long people can be detained by the immigration system, depriving people of their liberty for an unlimited number of months or even years.

I agree with Rene Cassin – the Jewish human rights charity – which is campaigning for a 28 day upper limit as the maximum length of time that a person can be held in detention, as is the practice in most of Europe.

The UK is still not doing enough for child refugees. The proposal by Lord Alf Dubs – one of the Jewish children brought here on the Kindertransport – was accepted by the Government in May 2016, and committed Britain to helping children to come to live safely in the UK.

Lord Dubs and his supporters hoped the UK would help 3,000 but, after two years, fewer than 250 have arrived. Now the Government says it is ending the Dubs scheme, which seems like a huge missed opportunity.

And in the year when we should be celebrating 70 years since the arrival of the Windrush – and the contributions of the people it brought here – this anniversary has been tainted by the shameful way that many of those Caribbean-born British citizens have been treated.

British Jews are lucky to live in a thriving democracy which respects our freedom of worship and celebrates diversity.

But “nicer than Trump” isn’t good enough. Britain can be so much better than that. Let’s make sure Britain lives up to its reputation as a welcoming place for those seeking refuge, or a better life, as many of our own parents and grandparents did.

About the Author
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
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