On 8 February, Robert Goodwill, the Minister for Immigration, announced that the government had abandoned the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act.
Lord [Alf] Dubs – himself a child refugee in 1939 – had introduced the amendment, which was passed in May 2016, and under which the government agreed to accept 3,000 of “the most vulnerable” of the estimated 90,000 unaccompanied and vulnerable refugee children in mainland Europe.
After the 8 February abandonment of the amendment, that miserly number was reduced to an even more miserly 300, including the 200 who had already come from the “Jungle” camp in Calais. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has claimed that local councils can fund only 350 children in this financial year, but many councils dispute that, and many of the children have family members in the UK who are eager to look after them. The “Jungle” was destroyed by fire in October, a few days after the French government had begun to demolish it, and the children were dispersed to accommodation centres elsewhere in France, purportedly to be interviewed by Home Office officials. The interviews, however, seem not to be taking place and instead of assessing the “best interests” of the children, as had been promised, a decision has been made only to consider those
children under the age of 12 or, in the case of Syrian and Sudanese refugees, under the age of 15.
As Benny Hunter, an activist and volunteer field researcher for HelpRefugees, wrote in The Guardian on 9 February, “we are disregarding the needs of Afghan teenagers fleeing the Taliban, Eritrean boys fleeing conscription, and 16- and 17-year-old refugees too young to legally drink alcohol or vote, but apparently old enough to be considered not especially vulnerable”.
As a result of the public outcry over the abandonment of the Dubs amendment, it was announced on 20 February that the Home Office had agreed to review the asylum applications of the children who had returned to Calais and renewed their attempts to cross to the UK.
Those children who did make it here had their right to do so questioned by the tabloid press. The Sun exceeded even its own low standards when it questioned the ages of the first arrivals: headlines read, “Tell us the tooth” (a demand to prove children’s ages with a dental test), and “Migrant ‘children’ look 40”. Since many of these teenagers had spent two or more years risking their lives trying to reach the safety of the UK, it is hardly surprising that they were, indeed, older than when they set out or that they no longer looked like fresh-faced children.
As a third-generation refugee (my great-grandparents fled from Russia in the 1860s), I believe that this government’s refusal to help these desperate children is not only a disgrace, but is also extremely short-sighted: refugees and/or immigrants and their descendants have made huge contributions to the arts, business, education, medicine, politics and science in this country. While there are far too many to name, some you may recognise are, academic Mona Siddiqui; architect Richard Rogers; artists Anish Kapoor, Jacob Epstein and Lucian Freud; businessman Gulam Noon; journalists Rageh Omaar and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; politicians David and Ed Miliband, Margaret Hodge, Lord Moser, Lord Dubs, and Sadiq Khan; entertainers Omid Djalili, Ben Elton, Anthony Sher, Rachel Weisz; and so on.
The Home Secretary has suggested that the Dubs amendment could “incentivise” children to travel to Europe. These children, and indeed the adults who are also refugees, are fleeing from war, persecution, and other horrors that we are lucky never to experience. It is ludicrous to suggest that they would abandon their families, homes, livelihoods, and countries, spend all their resources on people smugglers, possibly have to walk thousands of miles, and risk dying crossing the Mediterranean, in the hope that they might gain entry into the UK.
As Benny Hunter wrote, “We, the British people, have the willpower and the public support to tackle this issue, yet Theresa May has chosen not to. Our government has utterly failed these children.”
Adrianne LeMan, Barnsbury ward