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How the U.K. Government Ignored Offers to Take in More Lone Children

British charity Help Refugees is taking the U.K. government to court over its failure to take in more unaccompanied children. Finbar Anderson, who previously worked on the case, explains evidence that local authorities’ offers to take in more children were suppressed.

Written by Finbar Anderson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Protest in london
A protest in support of the Dubs Amendment in London on October 15, 2016. Kate Green/Anadolu Agency

The 6-year-old boy arrived in London alone and scared. He hadn’t eaten for two days. Like all of the children who had made the journey with him, he was a refugee. Offers of shelter for them had come from around the United Kingdom, and the British home secretary said that they would “without hesitation” provide the children with visas.

Speaking to Parliament, the home secretary reflected what a “terrible dilemma” it was for parents to choose between “sending their children to a foreign country… and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced.”

The year was 1939; the boy’s name was Alfred Dubs. He had fled Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort masterminded by British stockbroker Nicholas Winton that helped 10,000 predominantly Jewish children escape persecution from the Nazis.

In March 2016, Lord Dubs tabled an amendment to the Immigration bill obliging the U.K. to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from around Europe. The bill was eventually passed after the wording of the amendment was changed from 3,000 refugees to a “specified number.”

Last October, the U.K.-based charity Help Refugees commenced legal action against the government over its implementation of the Dubs amendment. At the time, not one child had been relocated under the Dubs scheme.

This February, the government announced that it would be closing the scheme. It had determined that a maximum of 350 children could come to the U.K. under the Dubs scheme after a consultation with local councils around the country, asking each their capacity to take unaccompanied refugee minors.

The decision was met with dismay from parliamentarians, civil society and members of the public. Many were unconvinced by how the government conducted their consultation with local councils and its conclusion that only 350 places were available.

For example, there appeared to be not one offer from the entire region of southwest England. The Home Office then admitted that, through an administrative error, it had missed offers of 130 places from various local authorities in the southwest, and in April the limit was increased to 480.

Yet these 130 places are far from the only oversight, according to evidence gathered by Help Refugees for their case calling for a judicial review of the government’s consultation process. The case was heard by the U.K.’s High Court last month, and a verdict is expected in September.

Based on documents disclosed in the course of the litigation and comments by local councilors, the charity argues that the government’s consultation was so seriously flawed as to be unlawful.

For example, while the government began a consultation in Northern Ireland, it was subsequently abandoned, with no clear reason given. The children’s commissioner for Northern Ireland was nonplussed, noting that, “Nothing… indicated that there was a lack of any capacity or willingness” to accept unaccompanied child refugees there.

In Scotland, councils were advised that they should not respond to the government’s initial letter regarding the consultation, as a Scotland-specific letter would soon follow. It never did, and 91 percent of places offered by Scottish authorities were not counted as a result.

In Wales, 86 percent of places offered were not counted toward the final tally as they arrived after the cutoff period, according to evidence collected by Help Refugees. The Welsh cabinet secretary complained of the “lack of adequate and timely consultations from the U.K. government around the various children’s schemes.”

The Home Office reportedly attempted to suppress public dissent from local councils. A council leader for Hammersmith and Fulham in west London told the Observer newspaper that if the Home Office got wind of any criticism from councils on the issue of the Dubs Scheme there would be “payback … The Home Office have gone out of their way to thwart every single attempt to act not just on the spirit of the Dubs amendment but on its specific terms.”

Nevertheless, senior councilors have spoken out about flaws in the consultation process. The Leader of London Borough of Lambeth Council stated that if it had been more thorough, a more accurate and potentially higher number of places could have been indicated and subsequently been made available.” The leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham “cast some doubt on how thorough” the consultation had been in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The Home Office says it is “committed to supporting vulnerable children who are caught up in conflict and danger.” A spokesperson told The Guardian: “It’s vital that we get the balance right between enabling eligible children to come to the U.K. as quickly as possible and ensuring local authorities have capacity to host them and provide them with the support they will need.”

Only around 200 children have come to the U.K. so far under the Dubs scheme, all from the northern French port of Calais. I went to the now-demolished “Jungle” camp in Calais in 2015 as a volunteer, handing out clothes to hundreds of migrants and refugees sheltering in the makeshift settlement.

Unlike the Kindertransport refugees, who came directly to the U.K. from their home countries, the children in Calais had come through Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia, crossed the Mediterranean, and then Europe. The vast majority were teenagers.

The Jungle was dismantled last October, but many of those children are still scattered around northern France in reception centers or living underground in Calais, as authorities try to prevent the formation of another informal camp. Thousands more are waiting to be relocated from camps in Italy and Greece.

Lord Dubs says the mood in the U.K. is very different to the one into which he was welcomed in the 1930s. Asked shortly after he proposed his amendment whether the government would have supported a similar project to the Kindertransport, he said: “This lot would’ve probably said no.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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