Jayne Dowle: Britain must do the right thing over child refugees

IT didn't take the words of Lord Dubs '“ who arrived in Britain by Kinderstransport '“ to convince me. I was adamant even before this doughty Labour peer put forward his amendment to force the Government to take in more unaccompanied child refugees from Europe.

The Middle East crisis is placingpressure on Britain to accept more child refugees ahead of a Commons vote today.
The Middle East crisis is placingpressure on Britain to accept more child refugees ahead of a Commons vote today.

The measure he has secured will forever be known as the “Dubs amendment”. It will be a legacy to a man who probably owes his life to the kindness of a stranger; Alf Dubs was rescued from Prague at the age of six by Sir Nicholas Winton, the stockbroker who helped hundreds of children escape from the deadly hand of the Nazis.

Today’s political problems are more complex than those of 1930s Europe; there is not just one evil dictator, there are many conflicts in the Middle East forcing families to flee for their lives.

However, we cannot look back in years to come and think that we stood aside and let thousands of innocent children suffer in the maelstrom. Many have already disappeared into prostitution or crime, or are sleeping rough on European city streets.

In all the arguments about immigration and the bloodbath that is international politics, we cannot forget that caught up in the middle are at least 3,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Syria. It is not our place to judge how these children ended up in squalid refugee camps, with no parents to look after them.

However it is our moral and humanitarian responsibility as fellow members of the human race to do the best we can for them.

I’m a parent. I’m also a realist. That’s why I cannot look at any one of those children picking their way through mud and filth without thinking of my own two children. Imagine if in some awful version of the future, this was them – all alone in the world?

There is one photograph which sticks in my mind; it’s a young lad, maybe the same age as my own son, doggedly pushing his baby sister through the mud in a battered buggy. How can we leave these children to make their own way in a dangerous and uncertain world when we have the means to help them?

However, we must encourage our politicians to put in place the most effective arrangements possible. The vote in the Commons today will be crucial in taking this forward; the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already back-pedalled and urges his party to get behind him to plans to extend the sanctuary which Britain can offer and to speed up the process by which lone unaccompanied children can be admitted to the UK.

Although his U-turn might be perceived by some as weakness, it comes with important caveats. He stresses that he doesn’t want the next decisions taken by the British Government to encourage more people to make the dangerous journey from refugee camps in Turkey, the Lebanon and Jordan – as this could be counter-productive and put further lives in peril.

The plan he puts forward is for Britain to only take children who arrived in Europe before March 20. Without doubt, he is in a difficult position. We have to respect that some restrictions will apply.

I hope though that this measured approach will continue as further unaccompanied children arrive in the UK to be looked after. What we must avoid are knee-jerk reactions and panic.

As Yvette Cooper, MP for Pontefract and Normanton and chair of Labour’s refugee task force, says, what we need is detail from the Government. Promises are all very well, but where will the children go, who will look after them, what arrangements are in place for schooling, medical care and social services support?

It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say “we’re going to round the local authorities and see what we can do”. The children who will be admitted to the UK will already have seen things no child should ever witness. Do we really want them to come here and be shoved further from pillar to post? Muddled arrangements would demand time, effort and money from local authorities which are already overstretched.

Now the Prime Minister is eventually doing the right thing, he must not rush through the details without both ensuring that adequate provision is made, and future-proofing any arrangements which are put in place.

Ideally, as far as possible, all efforts should be made to place children with existing family members already residing in the UK – as long as it is safe. And where this is not possible, host families or care arrangements should be properly vetted.

We cannot offer these children sanctuary only to bring yet more pain and suffering into their young lives. Most of all though, as a nation we should swallow any prejudice that might linger and welcome them in the right spirit.

Today’s lost and frightened orphan could be a Lord Dubs of tomorrow, doing their best to help others. If we had more people in the world like that, it would surely be a better place for us all.