Josephine Thum explains the injustice behind Britain’s actions towards child refugees.
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.
These children’s rights to freedom of expression are being blatantly violated. Under the UN every child has a right to education. A right to learn how to express themselves and be protected by receiving an education. In rejecting these children who have been identified as having a right to come here (and whose untenable home environments were in part created by the same government which is now turning them away) the UK is violating not only their rights to an education, but their freedom of expression. The statements and justifications of politicians are widely heard in the press, but the means for these children and other asylum seekers to equally express their case is repeatedly extinguished. In not being provided with humane living conditions nor access to education the voices and stories of destitute people waiting at our borders are being smothered.
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 a self-deluded resistance to globalization. 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 destitute 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.
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.”
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.”
The far right ideology driving this rejection of child (and other) refugees is not only inhumane, it’s self-deluded. In this year’s January/ February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, 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 armament 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, serious modern day problems the world is facing 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 its head in the sand, it is more frighteningly blind than many of us 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 outdated, regressive and foolish, as well as damaging to the global community – UK included.
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 issue not as a series of worsening statistics and facts, nor as a messy array of socio-political and legal issues, but as a 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 each case what is fundamentally being discussed are these individuals’ lives and deaths. That fact cannot be escaped. It is important not to merely read and think about it, not to just understand and care about it: we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that being informed and empathetic to the plights of these children is a demonstration of our solidarity with them. Without action it means nothing. Public passivity, apathy and silence is what has permitted these political chess moves 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 and oblige to argue against the central government line, emphasising their constituency’s commitment to being a refuge for more children. We must write to our MPs 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.
We are all individually answerable to the suffering of these children. The responsibility lies with us.