Alf Dubs: Radical hero

Posted On: 
9th December 2016

In the week he becomes the People's History Museum's newest 'radical hero', Alf Dubs talks to Josh May about his political journey from Prague to Westminster – and his ongoing fight to secure a future for child refugees

Earlier this year, Alf Dubs spotted Theresa May behind the Speaker’s chair just after the Commons had rejected his amendment calling for the UK to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees living in Europe. 

It had been a high-profile and contentious dispute, as the government refused to back down in the face of growing pressure. When he saw the then-Home Secretary looking cheerful after the vote, Dubs said to her: “You’re smiling now. You won tonight. But we’re going to keep at it.”

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And he did. Labour won another vote in the Lords (on an amendment which dropped the specific 3,000 figure) and the government agreed to the terms. Dubs recalls being informed of the news by May: “The first time I saw her she asked me to withdraw the amendment; I said I couldn’t. The second time the government proposed to accept the amendment.”

Since then, several hundred unaccompanied minors have been admitted to the UK following the closure of the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais – either under the Dubs Amendment or, for those with family already in Britain, the Dublin III regulation. Is Dubs satisfied, then, that the government is living up to its promises? “Satisfied is a very big word,” he replies. “…I’m not satisfied with what the government are doing. I’m pleased something has happened; I would like more to be happening.”

The refugee crisis has propelled Dubs’ own life story into the spotlight. Born in Prague, he came to the UK on the kindertransport at the age of six to flee the Nazis. He has frequently recounted the details of that journey – the cheers of the older children when the train crossed the Dutch border and left German control, reuniting with his father in the UK – but it is still striking. 

“In my mind’s eye, I can see the station, the view at Prague station, my mother was standing there, German soldiers with swastikas in the background,” he remembers. His mother was granted permission to join Dubs and his father on 31 August 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland and triggered World War II.

Settling in a new country with “not much” English (he jokes: “When I make a bad speech I say to people ‘it is in my third language’”) sounds like a daunting challenge, but Dubs is unsentimental about it: “The school playground is a tough place and you learn pretty quickly.” 

He says his mother (his father died shortly after the start of the war) made sure they spoke English in public but a two-and-a-half year stint at a boarding school run by the Czech government-in-exile “turned the wheel back again”. “It was a bit confusing because then I had to go back to learning Czech again,” he says.

Dubs freely accepts that his own experiences have coloured his commitment to the campaign on refugee children, and that he has used his backstory to put “emotional pressure” on the government. “The argument on behalf of unaccompanied child refugees is clear, whoever is putting it… On the other hand, it would be naïve of me not to say I have some emotions invested in the subject – even more naïve if I said it wasn’t politically helpful to have been able to have used the argument.”

But the role of unlikely poster boy of the campaign is not one to which he has adjusted too easily. “It’s got a bit out of hand, so I feel a bit uncomfortable with it, yes,” he says. “Nobody minds a bit of publicity because it helps the argument along. Yvette Cooper, who’s been very helpful on all this stuff, she said ‘go for the publicity because it will help to put more pressure on the government’. So I put my modesty into second gear to the helpfulness of the argument for putting political pressure [on]. But it’s a bit embarrassing, actually.”

That wave of publicity has not yet subsided. The week of  the interview, an event is held in Parliament to celebrate Dubs’ 84th birthday, where he is announced as one of the People History Museum’s “radical heroes” and a new fund is launched, in partnership with Citizens UK, in his name.

It will raise money to aid child refugees in Europe who are eligible to come to the UK, “support the basic needs of refugee children while their cases are progressed”, and “provide the support needed for them to rebuild their lives, access treatment for the trauma they’ve experienced and integrate into communities here in Britain”.

Dubs is also presented with an elaborate cake that features the wording of the Immigration Bill amendment. Among the attendees are others who arrived in the UK on the kindertransport entrants to the UK like Sir Erich Reich, and fellow campaigners including MPs Yvette Cooper and Stella Creasy and actress Vanessa Redgrave. 

The speakers are former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, Labour Lords colleagues Steve Bassam and Jan Royall, and three children who arrived in the UK from the Jungle camp in Calais. Dubs’ speech combines pride and modesty. His attempt to brand the new scheme ‘The Children’s Fund’ is quickly shouted down by Royall, who corrects him: ‘The Alf Dubs Children’s Fund’. (Similar efforts to get people to use “Section 67 of the Immigration Act” rather than the “Dubs Amendment” have yet to bear fruit.)

Dubs is full of praise for the welcome extended to refugees once they arrive in the UK – and he insists that it was public opinion, rather than political calculations, which changed opinions in No 10 and the Home Office on his amendment: “Some government backbenchers came under far more pressure in their constituencies to support the amendment and I think the pressure was such that by the time it would have got to the Commons a second time the government would have lost. I’m pretty satisfied that’s the way it happened.”

He says, however, there is a need for greater “political leadership” to make clear the distinction between immigrants and refugees, particularly in light of a European Union referendum which “soured the atmosphere”.

“The waters have been muddied, it’s got very unclear: we’ve got people coming from other EU countries, we’ve got people coming from other parts of the world who are just coming for family reunion, and then we’ve got refugees so it’s a very, very complicated situation and I think what it wants is political leadership to make it clear what the position is – instead of people just saying ‘the numbers are too high, let’s keep the numbers down’, which seems to be the basis of policy.”

Asked whether Prime Minister May “gets it”, the importance of distinguishing between immigration and refugee claims, Dubs replies: “She’s a very intelligent women, I’m sure she understands the difference…On the other hand, the government is obsessed with getting the overall immigration and refugee figures down, and there is a conflict between the two.

“She certainly gets the distinction, but politically she wants to achieve something which is to get the numbers down. I’m not saying she’s hostile to child refugees; I would have thought she’s probably quite sympathetic to the idea, but it conflicts with the government’s other view which is keeping numbers down.”

He adds that the Home Office has been “very helpful” as far as putting up ministers for meetings is concerned. “I’m not sitting here shouting at the government, saying everything they do is terrible, terrible, terrible,” he stresses. 

“But I am a critic of the government and I think they’ve done some things that they shouldn’t have done and they’ve failed to do things they should have done.” 

At the same time, he reveals there was support from “at least one” Commons-based member of the Cabinet for his proposals when the government was resisting his plans. And the decidedly less partisan Lords were even more disorderly. “Several Lords ministers were coming up to me and saying ‘good luck’, and I said ‘you can’t say that, you’re a government minister’ and they said ‘oh yes I can’.”

Despite the acceptance of the amendment and the arrival of hundreds of unaccompanied children, Dubs is clear there is more work to do. One of the issues on which he is pressing the government at the moment is its eligibility criteria for the children coming under his amendment. The conditions restrict most access for 13 and 14-year-olds to those who have fled Syria and Sudan. Dubs describes the exclusion of those from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa and elsewhere as “totally out of order”.

He is reluctant to draw too many comparisons between those fleeing the dangers of the 1930s and today’s cohort. “However awful the circumstances are for refugees today wherever they are, it’s not quite comparable to the Holocaust,” he says. 

“And I don’t like easy comparisons to the Holocaust; people do do it rather glibly and I don’t like that for obvious reasons.” Whereas he had a 36-hour train journey to the UK, today it takes months of risky travelling over land and sea to make it to the UK, he adds.

But in one respect he does want to see his own experiences mirrored by today’s arrivals. He looks back to the 1970 parliamentary election for the Cities of London and Westminster, when he unsuccessfully stood against Christopher Tugendhat. “A refugee from Vienna competed for this constituency with a refugee from Prague,” he notes.

“This country has been fantastic to me. It’s given me an enormous opportunity, and I tend to say I just hope other unaccompanied child refugees coming here will be given the same welcome and opportunities that I’ve had.

“Who’d have thought somebody arriving in the way I did would ever get to a local authority? My main ambition in politics was to become a local councillor, which I did, but who’d have ever thought I would have got in the Commons or the Lords? It’s incredible what’s happened. So I think what an amazing country this is – even if there are things about it that I’m very critical of.”