“I haven’t seen my dad for one year. I want to find safety and good living with my family. And peace. Just that.” They’re the words of Jehad, a young Syrian boy currently making his way across Europe. They could have been my own words 76 years ago, fleeing Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport in the hope of reuniting with my father, my entire future dependent on British generosity in a time of crisis.
Just as I was, Jehad is a child fleeing the danger of war, separated from family and the familiarity of home. As I was, he is frightened; “We had seven hours in the sea, it was so scary,” he tells Unicef workers in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, part way through a journey far more dangerous than mine. But unlike me, Jehad won’t have a chance at safety in the UK, because of the arbitrary fact that he’s already begun the desperate and perilous journey to Europe.
We are in the midst of a deeply human crisis. As debates on UK and EU policies proceed, Unicef is warning that we must not lose sight of one simple fact: all children have a right to be safe. No matter who they are, where they come from or what their immigration status is, these children are facing a plight that is neither their choice nor within their control. They need protection.
The Prime Minister has committed to resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK over the next five years, and the UK’s aid response to the Syria crisis is playing a critical role in addressing the dire humanitarian need in the region. But this vital support does not justify us turning our heads away from the thousands of desperate children, like Jehad, who are arriving on Europe’s shores in search of safety and a better life.
According to Unicef, a quarter of those seeking refuge in Europe so far this year are children. The largest group are fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria. Unaccompanied and separated children are at the greatest risk of all of the refugees and migrants who have arrived: living and travelling, where they are at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. Many children are sleeping out in the open air; as winter approaches, the health of young children is especially at risk, including from the threat of diseases like pneumonia.
We can and must do more to offer refuge to these children who have already reached Europe on their own. The extraordinary meeting today of the Justice and Home Affairs Council gives the UK the opportunity to work with other EU Member States to agree a concrete plan – with a fair share of responsibility – to help care for, accommodate and protect these vulnerable children.
Once children arrive in the UK – whether from Syria or anywhere else – care must be taken to protect their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Prime Minister has made welcome assurances that orphaned Syrian children will not be automatically returned when they turn 18 – but the outrage this issue received last week has shed light on a much wider and hidden problem. Under the current system, unaccompanied children can be returned to their country of origin when they turn 18 without proper consideration of whether this is in their best interests.
We saw this earlier this year, when around 600 young Afghans who had grown up here in the UK were returned to a war zone simply because they had reached their 18th birthday. For many children, alone in a foreign country, the uncertainty about what will happen when they turn 18 can condemn them to a childhood in limbo – they are unable to feel a sense of security and belonging, receive adequate and long-term support from their Local Authority, or plan for their future.
Every child has an equal right to be safe and plan for their future, whether fleeing wars and disasters, suffering at the hands of traffickers, or taking perilous journeys in a desperate search for safety and the chance of a better life. I hope that the refugees now reaching Britain will receive a similarly warm welcome and be given the same opportunities that I got when I arrived here.
For years to come, we will live with our response to children in this crisis. If constrained by fear, our response could shame us for a generation. But if guided by the generosity that welcomed the Kindertransport decades ago, this too could live on as a source of deep national pride for generations to come.