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Breaking policy, breaking children (part two)

25 Feb , 2017  


This ditching of the Dubs amendment comes just as the UK government announced it is also suspending the resettlement of disabled child refugees – a retreat from involvement in refugee protection at a time when it is desperately needed. A separate accelerated scheme to bring unaccompanied refugee children with direct family links to Britain under the Dublin convention is also to come to an end. Theresa May ordered the Home Office on Monday to look into reports that children dispersed from the Calais camp before Christmas were now returning to the French port.

The charity Help Refugees will be legally challenging the government in May, claiming that it has violated the 2016 Immigration Act’s clause 67 on Unaccompanied Refugee Children: relocation and support which states that “The number of children to be resettled […] shall be determined by the government in consultation with local authorities.” There has been minimal if any communication from central government with its constituencies: Hammersmith and Fulham councils’ repeated offers to take in more child refugees have been ignored by the Home Office.

The far right ideology driving this rejection of child (and other) refugees is not only inhumane, it’s self-deluded. In this year’s January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Richard Hass argues for a new model of world order – “World Order 2.0” – around the notion of sovereignty as global responsibility, or “sovereign obligation”. He argues that the system of independent nations conducting their behind-border affairs as they please is now defunct.

In an increasingly globalised world problems such as climate change, cyberspace, health (epidemics and spread of disease), nuclear armament and migration have come to affect all countries, regardless of their perceived responsibility in the problems themselves. These are border-defying problems, and nations should collectively accept responsibility for the resolution of new global challenges. If every country behaved like England is now, serious modern day problems would be totally neglected and escalate freely.

Hass sets out his clearer vision for this new kind of world order that needs to come, saying that “globalisation is here to stay, and the inadequacies of traditional approach to order […] will only become more obvious over time”. If the UK government thinks it can hide from the wind of globalisation by burying its head in the sand, it is more frighteningly blind than many of use believe.

Engaging in the resolution of issues such as the migrant crisis is part of being a nation in today’s world, whether the Conservatives like it or not. To prioritise weak points of national self-interest in the face of this humanitarian calamity is not only irrevocably damaging to those experiencing it, but also politically out-dated, regressive and foolish, as well as damaging to the global community – the UK included.

Parallels with 1930s and 1980s ring truer than ever, but little is being done to counteract these developments. In the book Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948 by Louise London (quoted in the Guardian):

The process […] was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps 10 times as many as it let in. Around 70,000 had been admitted by the outbreak of the war, but British Jewish associations had some half a million more case files of those who had not. The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945. This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable, and is still adduced to support claims that Britain has always admitted genuine refugees, and that the latest harsh measures against asylum seekers are merely designed to exclude bogus applicants […] We remember the touching photographs and newsreel footage of unaccompanied Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransports. There are no such photographs of the Jewish parents left behind in Nazi Europe […] The Jews excluded from entry to the United Kingdom are not part of the British experience, because Britain never saw them […] Memories of the unsuccessful public campaign to persuade the government to rescue Jews from mass murder faded quickly.

We must do our utmost to avoid, again, withholding the power to intervene and letting catastrophe unfold on our doorstep.

In Calais over one thousand unaccompanied refugee children were left to fend for themselves after the Jungle’s destruction, with an estimated 850 made homeless. Almost 400 of those had been identified as having a legal right to come to Britain, and there are now at least 200 sleeping rough in the surrounding area. Hundreds who had been in the camps have been identified by charities such as Care4Calais as officially missing. These are children set on coming to England either to join their waiting families across the channel, because they already speak good English, or because their parents have told them to go to the UK. Student volunteers offering food, hot drinks and sleeping bags to these homeless children had their names and addresses taken by police, and were told that what they were doing was illegal.

There are increasing reports of abuse against child and adult asylum seekers by French police (and ordinary citizens), and since November’s destruction of the Jungle authorities are taking a very hard line in crushing the beginnings of new camps which may try to form around the area. Police run regular patrols at night so the children sleep without tents, or even standing against trees, to stay hidden. They do not risk staying two nights in the same place or lighting fires to keep warm.

If conditions in the vast camp were highly inappropriate for children, they are now far worse. Many get hypothermia from living outside unprotected. Many have no food, water, toilets, bed, access to shelter, physical or mental health facilities, legal advice, or any kind of support for neither their asylum applications nor their general wellbeing. There have been reports of children beginning to bury food so that they can find it even if they are chased by the police. These children are not only horrifically neglected, but made to live in a state of fear due to active persecution by French authorities, and the active rejection by British ones.

Many children are suffering from PTSD. Many children cried in their assessment interviews. Many children described having bottles thrown at them, being racially abused or otherwise harassed by the public.

It is important to condemn, petition and pressure the English (and French) government in their despicable handling of this crisis. It is also important to recognise their shunned responsibility as our own – not just because we are human beings, but because we are privileged citizens with whom the power to change this situation lies. It is important to read and think about this issue not as a series of worsening statistics and facts, nor as a messy array of socio-political and legal issues, but as a group of real individual children living real nightmares.

As much as the discourse on this topic balloons into political fencing and the hypothetical practicalities of housing and space and foster care and benefits, in each case what is fundamentally being discussed are these individuals’ lives and deaths. That fact cannot be escaped. It is important not to merely read and think about it, not to just understand and care about it: we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that being informed and empathetic to the plights of these children is a demonstration of our solidarity with them. Without action it means nothing.

Public passivity, apathy and silence is what has permitted these political chess moves which create the children’s personal realities. And “public” does not mean the wider national disengagement – it means the summation of every single individual’s (in)action. Empathising and caring about these children is the same as hating and rejecting them if it isn’t translated into action. We must talk about this with the people around us.

We must contact the council and offer up our homes for refuges. Crucially, we must write to our MPs demanding they not only fulfil their original Dub’s quota, but go beyond that to accept a higher number of unaccompanied children and we must encourage others to do the same.

We are all individually answerable to the suffering of these children. The responsibility lies with us.

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