Britain abandons the rights of children

Photograph: Sara Nathan, co-founder and director of Refugees At Home; Lord Dubs with Nicholas Winton

The EU Withdrawal bill is being discussed in the Lords this week, and Alf Dubs, who came to this country as a child refugee from the Nazis, courtesy of the Kinder Transport programme, will be trying to get an amendment passed which will allow unaccompanied children to be reunited with members of their surviving family in this country.

It’s something which happened as a right under EU law. When the Withdrawal bill was first debated, Lord Dubs managed to get all party backing for an amendment which kept the right for an unaccompanied Syrian child to be reunited with an uncle in Birmingham, who may be their only surviving relative of the war.

When the Withdrawal bill was reintroduced and passed by the Commons last week, that amendment had been quietly ditched. He’s now fighting to get it put back.

“The way we treat the most vulnerable people is a test of who we are, what kind of country we hope to live in and what humanity we have. The most vulnerable people imaginable are lone refugee children” he says.

The numbers of children seeking to join their families here amount to only a few hundred. Lord Dubs is calling once more on public support.

Sara Nathan, who runs Refugees At Home, a local charity which enables ordinary people to offer rooms to refugees while they are finding their feet, argues here that impact on the most vulnerable of humanity, if the amendment is not reinstated, will be to drive unaccompanied children into the waiting hands of traffickers ready to exploit them.

Photograph: Musicians from the Yehudi Menuhin School playing in the Good Chance theatre in the Calais Jungle camp in 2016

Guest blog by Sara Nathan

R, a refugee from Afghanistan, is obsessed with cricket, which he has learnt to play through the Refugee Council scheme. When I first met him, he couldn’t wait to get back to his game. But some food would be good too. Actually, lots of food. Such a slight, thin boy and it was obvious to someone who has a son, that he couldn’t be more than about 16: the lack of muscle; the half-fledged look, everything really. But the powers-that-be said he was 22, and he was therefore kicked out of his foster placement and banned from school. So, although my charity, Refugees At Home, doesn’t usually host unaccompanied children, given the option was an all-night bus, graveyard or park, we took him in. R was lucky. The Refugee Council fought his case, the judge agreed he was still a child and soon after he went back into care.

R is just one of the thousands of unaccompanied children facing a really uncertain future either because they can’t get to the UK safely and legally to join their family here or because, if they do get here safely, they are forbidden from reuniting with their birth parents.

This week the House of Lords may well decide to re-instate the Dubs amendment to the Brexit Withdrawal Bill and allow separated child refugees, now in Europe, to come to the UK to be reunited with family members here. But given the government majority, it’s unlikely to make any difference. Last week the new government dumped its previous commitment to take in child refugees

Alf Dubs – who is a patron of Refugees At Home, which is how I know him – has lobbied, fought, persuaded and cajoled us to treat children now as he was treated when he came to this country as a six-year-old kinder-transport child in 1939. When Sir Nicholas Winton saved Alf and 668 other children and enabled them to flee Nazi persecution and build their lives here, he created a whole generation of people who grew up to be British citizens, integrated into the communities which rescued them.

At the very same time my grandparents hosted another kinder-transport boy, a German lad called Richard, whom I vaguely remember, who grew up and went into business with my father. Maybe the kindertransport wasn’t altogether a good thing: what Great Britain was doing was choosing to rescue the children but condemn their families to oppression and death in the extermination camps. The policy was to separate the smallest and most vulnerable, almost all of whom never saw their parents or siblings again, and forget about the rest, who perished.

It should make us want to do better this time. Or at least as well.

But child refugees are having a harsh time of it. If they manage to get here on their own, we are the only country in Europe which doesn’t allow minors to apply for family reunification visas for their parents and siblings. Adults who get refugee status in the UK can be reunited with their children and spouses, but children are expected to grow up here on their own – whatever they have fled.

The authors of a report published just last week by Amnesty, the Refugee Council and Save the Children “Without My Family” say this is “at odds with national law and a flagrant breach of international law, causing irreversible harm to children in this country.”

The numbers aren’t huge: there were 3,060 unaccompanied child asylum-seekers claiming asylum here in 2018. About a third of that number attained refugee status. And then they are condemned to be alone.

About 10,000 separated children have arrived in the last decade: they get here informally, often by lorry, because there are no safe and legal routes to join siblings, aunts, other family members. The Home Office has only facilitated 700 to do so “legally” in that time. And that’s in spite of the work of Lord Dubs and the Safe Passage campaign.

Photograph: Musicians from the Yehudi Menuhin School playing in the Good Chance theatre in the Calais Jungle camp in 2016

When my husband and I took a group of young musicians from the Yehudi Menuhin School to play in the Good Chance theatre in the Calais Jungle camp in 2016, the rapt audience was full of young Afghani lads, travelling alone or with friends, aged maybe 12 – 16. I can’t forget the teenager who slunk out as our Canadian cellist played “The Dying Swan” – because the beautiful music was making him cry so much and he didn’t want to display weakness.

We knew that Yehudi Menuhin – who visited Belsen to play for the survivors there just after it was liberated – would have wanted his centenary year marked by ‘his’ children performing to separated children in a camp only a few hours travelling time from his famous school in Surrey. So that’s what we did.

Some of those children may have made it here to join their extended families. Others just disappeared when the Jungle was destroyed. They will have been trafficked, raped, exploited. They are children.

Now there are about 4,000 unaccompanied children in Greece alone. They can’t stay there safely. Even the Home Office doesn’t send asylum-seekers back to Greece: it’s grossly over-crowded and failing to cope.

Yet 348 MPS voted against an amendment that would have kept protection for child refugees in the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Maybe the Lords will mark a protest. Probably it will be ineffective.

So, if we want the UK to be the sort of civilised country which doesn’t approve of children, victims of war and persecution, being rejected and left to suffer, we have to take action ourselves.

We can support Safe Passage, which campaigns for those children who still have a right to come here, to be allowed to do so:

We can join the over 150,000 who have signed the petition:

There is a charity which supports separated children when they arrive in the UK by providing arrival packs (I help pack them a couple of times a month – its quite fun and you feel you have achieved something concrete).

Finally of course, I would encourage anyone with a spare room to apply to host with Refugees At Home. We don’t host many children and those we do are the age-disputed ones. But it’s really worthwhile and life-enhancing – and I have hosted 21 people, so I should know by now!

Sara Nathan is co-founder and director of the charity Refugees At Home 

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Volunteering in Chiswick 

See also: Eighty years since the Kindertransport brought refugees from Nazi Germany here