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Alf Dubs: May’s legacy on child refugees will be one of resistance and inaction

3 min read

May Days: Despite a humanitarian crisis, three and a half years on, fewer than half of the children who could have arrived under the government’s tokenistic cap have been brought here to safety, writes Alf Dubs

Theresa May was Home Secretary when the Immigration Bill was going through Parliament and I moved an amendment to bring in unaccompanied child refugees from Europe. Her response was to ask for a meeting where she urged me to withdraw the amendment, citing what she believed would be the “pull factor” of any legislation that made it easier for unaccompanied child refugees to find safety in the UK. My view then, as now, was that we cannot abandon children to their fate in Calais, Greece, Italy and elsewhere in Europe when we know that for many of them this means trafficking, criminality and prostitution.

The amendment passed in the Lords, was narrowly defeated in the Commons, was amended and passed again in the Lords – this time with a bigger majority – before reaching the Commons for a second time. This prompted Theresa May to ask to see me again, this time to tell me that the government proposed to accept the amendment.

I believe a major reason why the government changed its position was a shift in public opinion. The image of the drowned three-year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, had been dominating newspaper headlines and increasingly the public was demanding the government take action to protect refugee children. 

Nicholas Winton – the man who organised the Kindertransport train from Prague that saved my life – was a constituent of Theresa May’s. Indeed, the first time I met Theresa May was at one of his birthday parties in Maidenhead. After Nicky died, his daughter, Barbara, asked me to find a government speaker for his memorial event at The Guildhall and I, of course, recommended Theresa May.

Despite the sympathetic speech she gave about Nicky and refugees, the government began pulling back on the amendment it had reluctantly agreed to support. I was assured by the immigration minister at the time, James Brokenshire, that the government would respect “the letter and the spirit” of the amendment and while I do not doubt that his assurance was sincerely meant, subsequent actions by the Government while Theresa May was still Home Secretary suggest otherwise.

The Government imposed a cap on the number of refugee children they would be willing to accept of just 480, citing a lack of local authority capacity to welcome more. This always was an arbitrary and unambitious target – recently the charity Safe Passage announced that local authorities across the UK had agreed to take over 1,200 children as part of their Our Turn campaign, if only the government was willing to support them.

It is a sad irony that, three and a half years on, fewer than half of the children who could have arrived under the Government’s tokenistic cap to my amendment have been brought here to safety. A further irony was that Theresa May should cite Nicky Winton is her resignation speech as an example of someone who was willing to compromise. Nicky showed single-minded determination and tenacity of purpose when he saved as many children as he could from Prague. He battled the bureaucracy of the UK government and the hostility of the Nazis. Unlike the UK government, he was resolute in meeting his commitments.

Like my amendment itself, which originally asked for 3,000 children to be welcomed but was blocked then watered down and circumvented, Theresa May’s legacy for child refugees is, I’m sorry to say, an example of fine, ambitious statements, but ultimately inadequate action to tackle the grave humanitarian crisis we find ourselves in today.

Lord Dubs is a Labour peer

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