Betrayed: How Britain Turned Away 3,000 Children

While David Cameron has made concessions in recent days, over the vote against taking in young refugees, commentator Rory O’Keeffe argues British parliamentary ploys to obstruct asylum seekers are undemocratic and calls for a long-term open-door policy for minors.

Written by Rory O’Keeffe Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Refugee children walk along railway tracks in a makeshift camp at Idomeni border station on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia.AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski

On 25 April 2016, 294 members of the UK government successfully stopped 3,000 desperate children, separated from their families, from being allowed to experience the relative comfort and safety to be found here in the UK.

Of course, this may appear an overly emotive way of putting it. But it is not. It is literally the simplest way to describe what took place.

In the aftermath of the UK government’s vote to prevent its Immigration Bill from including a provision to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from European states, a great deal has been said on social media, which would suggest the government is once again at odds with mainstream public opinion.

The vote is a prime example of the British government’s propensity for using “financial privilege” to prevent contentious issues from being discussed at the House of Lords, where the proposal to alter the government’s Immigration Bill to enable 3,000 unaccompanied children to enter the U.K. was introduced.

The U.K. parliament defines financial privilege as ” the special right of the House of Commons to decide public taxes and public spending.” This clause may be used by the Commons as grounds for overruling proposals by the House of Lords that have cost implications.

Lord (Alf) Dubs, a Czech-born man of mixed Jewish heritage who was one of 669 children rescued from the Nazis through the “Kindertransport” – the government-backed effort to accept child refugees from Germany in the run-up to the second world war –- led the efforts to accommodate 3,000 refugee children.

By expressing ‘financial privilege’ on Lord Dubs’ proposal, the government has ensured it cannot be debated again in the Lords, and thus will not appear before the Commons, essentially effectively killing off the amendment and forcing the peer to think of an alternative proposal.

It is no coincidence that before the debate took place, Commons Speaker John Bercow asked for the Parliamentary Procedure Committee to investigate and review the way in which financial privilege is used by the Commons, following a number of similar moves to shut down suggestions from the Lords by the government.

Dubs’ proposal specified that 3,000 children should be given asylum in the UK following a government pledge made by the government last September in the wake of public outrage inspired by the drowning of three-year-old Aylan Al-Kurdi off the coast of Turkey. Minors would be allowed to enter the UK from refugee camps on the Syrian border by 2020.

On April 21, Home Office minister James Brokenshire announced the proposal again, leading to criticism from humanitarian organizations that not only was the government not doing enough to help children and adolescents who had already reached Europe, but also that it was pretending to undertake new initiatives to aid refugees, while doing very little in practice.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 95,000 unaccompanied children – that is, people aged 18 or under, without families – applied for asylum in Europe in 2015. This number does not include Spain, which refused to share its figures, or France, which stated that its data would be published later in the year.

Europol, the European Union’s joint police and investigative body, reported in January that since 2014, 10,000 refugee children had gone missing, possibly forced into illegal labor or into the sex trade.

In that period, the UK government has allowed a little over 1,000 Syrians into the country and argued that allowing anyone who had already reached Europe to enter the member states would encourage more people to attempt the lethal Mediterranean crossing. Prime Minister David Cameron voiced this concern in January.

The logic of that statement stumbles on two major points. First, the proposal to take unaccompanied minors from other parts of Europe would apply only to those who are already in Europe. The number proposed is only a little more than 3 per cent of the unaccompanied minors estimated to have entered the E.U. in the last 12 months alone. It is in no way an “invitation” to people outside of the E.U. to enter.

Secondly, people will continue to arrive regardless of the changing laws and closing routes. Almost 1.3 million refugees – men, women and children, desperate to escape war, terror, torture, oppressive regimes and shortages of food and medicine – have arrived in Europe since January 2015. More than 5,000 have drowned in the attempt. The latest E.U. -Turkey deal, while reducing arrivals to Greece has led to a re-opening of other clandestine routes to Europe. The Libya-Italy route is one of them.

The U.K. government’s general anti-refugees stance, bolstered by a growing consensus among Conservative MPs, implies that we must be willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of the children who have already arrived to prevent something that is already happening and will continue.

During the debate on the proposal, Brokenshire argued that the U.K. was already providing aid money to other European states to “support our other European partners to stand by their responsibilities.”

Taking 3.15 percent of the children left desperate, alone and defenseless in Europe is in fact slightly below what we might expect the U.K. to do as one of 28 E.U. member states, and far below what we might hope Britain, as one of the richest nations in the world per capita, would contribute. In population terms, the 3,000 would increase the total number of people in the UK by just 0.004 per cent.

These are not just numbers. They are desperate young people. They are boys and girls in urgent need of care and safety, and they pose no threat to the U.K. If provided with the right support systems, they would have an easier time assimilating into the local communities and economies than adults in the same position.

In June last year, Nicholas Winterton, who rescued hundreds of young people trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe, died aged 106. David Cameron tweeted: “The world has lost a great man. We must never forget Sir Nicholas Winton’s humanity in saving so many children.”

In light of the financial privilege invocation, Lord Dubs – one of the children that Winterton rescued – has worked on another amendment to the UK’s Immigration Bill that deliberately avoids mentioning the intake of a specific number of children without families. By doing so, it appears that he has managed to avoid the government’s attempt to block it and enabled the matter to be debated again. Prime Minister Cameron’s latest statement that he will not “stand in the way of the amendment” is the most positive endorsement to date. But the implementation and logistics of placing these children around the country remains to be seen.

One can only hope that Lord Dubs succeeds in keeping the dream of his own rescuer alive. The alternative scenario would be that 25 April 2016 will be remembered as the day the U.K. turned its back on vulnerable children, and shut down the idea of an open-door policy that Winterton wanted to make an integral part of the country’s attitude towards the most desperate of the displaced.

The views expressed in this article belong to its authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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