A fortnight ago there were three days and nights of intense debate at Westminster over Brexit negotiations. Only a few hours before the final vote on Article 50, the Government quietly, and without fanfare, announced its plans to terminate the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied child refugees, dashing the hopes of thousands of vulnerable children.
In autumn 2015 there was a public outcry when three year old Kurdish refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body was washed up on a Turkish beach after his family drowned trying to reach Europe.
Yet the UK Tory Government has now abandoned its commitment to providing a safe haven for lone child refugees. So far, the UK has offered refuge to just 350 of an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied child refugees across Europe, having previously agreed to take 3,000.
Lord Dubs’ amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act forced then Prime Minister David Cameron to recognise UK responsibility to assist refugees. This resonates with him, as he was rescued from Nazi persecution in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War Two via the Kindertransport programme, which rescued 10,000 Jewish children.
Those children the UK Government is now turning its back on are fleeing war-torn cities and villages, many having witnessed family members and loved ones being killed and their homes destroyed. They are alone, traumatised and extremely vulnerable.
Growing up, many of us admired Anne Frank’s bravery as recorded in her diary, yet the parallels between the Frank and Kurdi families fleeing persecution are stark. Whilst Otto Frank, Anne’s father, tried keeping his family safe by fleeing to America, Aylan Kurdi’s father tried to do the same by escaping to Canada. Both fathers were refused entry to countries and each suffered the heartbreak of losing their wives and children as safety eluded them. Aylan Kurdi didn’t need to die any more than Anne Frank. Although their situations are separated by seventy years, both stories are characterised by the same depressingly bureaucratic response to people fleeing regimes which put children in danger.
The provision of a safe haven to child refugees, alone and frightened, at risk of exploitation and trafficking, must not be confused with the wider debate on immigration. The UK Government’s decision is a real blow, to displaced children with nowhere to go and in need of whatever protection we can offer as part of the international community.
Opposition to the UK Government’s decision has been growing, with charities and campaign groups comprehensively condemning it. The Tories even face a backlash from within, as some Conservative MPs support the Dubs route remaining open. The matter will be debated in Westminster later this month.
Scotland of course, has a proud tradition of sheltering refugees, from French Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries to Vietnamese Boat people, those fleeing the Balkan wars and Middle East conflicts in recent decades.
The UK Government would do well to remember the Kindertransport and the thousands of children who contributed so much to the UK after their lives were saved from a tyrannical foreign regime.