We’ve seen the pictures and the footage so many times that we’ve almost become desensitised: of children being pulled from boats on the shores of Greece and Italy, of crying mothers and fathers weak from exhaustion. Everybody agrees that action needs to be taken to ease the crisis, but what?
One suggestion was that the UK should take in 3,000 refugee children. These unaccompanied minors, stranded in camps across Europe, would be brought to Britain and rehomed. Lord Alf Dubs, who himself came to Britain fleeing the Nazis, tabled the amendment, but it was defeated by 294 votes to 276 in a House of Commons vote this week.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP backed the amendment, but it was overruled by Tory MPs – only a small number of the party’s elected representatives believed that Britain should take in the children. Because the amendment has cost implications, the amendment will not be returned to the Lords, and is effectively dead in the water. Labour MPs shouted “Shame!” as the result was announced, and charity Save The Children called the vote “deeply disappointing”.
Prime minister David Cameron has pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the course of several years. More than one million refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea entered Europe in 2015 alone, and there have been just under 185,000 in 2016 so far. Children make up around four in 10 refugees.
Keir Starmer, the Labour MP in charge of the party’s immigration policy, told Radio 4’s Today programme that the vote amounted to abandoning children in time of great need. He said: “We can’t turn our backs on these vulnerable children in Europe, and history will judge us for that… It’s not over – the fight will go on.”
The argument against accepting the refugee children was outlined by Home Office minister James Brokenshire, who said that taking in the 3,000 children could “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone ahead and in the hands of traffickers, putting their lives at risk by attempting treacherous sea crossings to Europe which would be the worst of all outcomes”.
The journey to Europe is, naturally, especially dangerous if you’re a child. Some 10,000 refugee children went missing after arriving in Europe, according to Europol – 5,000 in Italy alone
Many argue that children are already being sent ahead by their families, who often can’t afford to send anyone else. They are already at risk of trafficking. They might already have been trafficked. Not taking them in won’t change that.
The journey to Europe is, naturally, especially dangerous if you’re a child. Some 10,000 refugee children went missing after arriving in Europe, according to Europol – 5,000 in Italy alone. They had travelled unaccompanied and it’s feared that many have fallen prey to Europe’s highly organised trafficking gangs.
I met several children travelling alone in Lesbos, the Greek island that has become synonymous with the migration crisis, while reporting there. The cocky teenagers I spoke to might not have looked much like children, but they were. They spoke of missing their parents, and not being sure which country they’d end up in – largely because they didn’t really know much about the geography of Europe or the countries’ respective migration policies. For many, they just couldn’t be at home anymore. It wasn’t an option.
If the children are identified as younger than 18 by NGO workers or government workers who monitored the shores or took down their registration details, the unaccompanied minors are not allowed to continue their journey, as it would be too hazardous. So, for that reason, many attempt to keep a low profile, or attach themselves to families, pretending they’re travelling en masse. Shaya, a 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan, says he saw dead bodies on his route to Europe, and that he swam from a sinking ship to reach the beaches of Lesbos.
Even if they are travelling with their family, the refugee trail is still very dangerous for children. In recent days, there have been reports of surging violence in Greek camps. A 29-year-old Afghan man has appeared in court after being charged with raping a 13-year-old boy in a detention centre in Chios. The boy was staying with his parents. Families living in an abandoned airport at Hellenikon say they have seen young children raped in the toilets.
Before the Commons vote, Lord Dubs said: “My message to Conservative MPs is that, in 1938-39, Britain took 10,000 child refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. We were in the lead then and we could take an important step now. The least we can do is say this is a small number and they should be welcome here.”
Brits are often quick to boast that this country has a “proud tradition” of supporting the underdog and of welcoming refugees. But Monday’s vote shows that may have changed. Look at pictures of those children arriving on these shores in World War II, or the bronze statues at Liverpool Street Station of the Jewish children who had fled the Nazis and ended up in the East End, and wonder if Britain will ever be capable of similar hospitality.