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Punitive and flawed policies will not solve the refugee crisis

3 min read

Today, as we mark the 25th occasion of Refugee Week, policy makers have a chance to pause and reflect on whether our current asylum system is serving those who are most vulnerable in the world.

The country’s frustration with the small boat crossings is real, but we should be careful about reinterpreting this sentiment as a licence to act inhumanely. As an approach, it does not work. Even if we abandon our values as a country, there is little that we can do to discourage people fleeing from some of the most unimaginable atrocities. It is also crucial that we are mindful of the potential unintended consequences of ruthless asylum policies on vulnerable people, in particular unaccompanied children, who require our protection.

The number of children and young people seeking asylum in this country is on the rise. Last year, asylum seekers under the age 18 accounted for over 15,000 applications (almost a fifth of the total number). But what happens to young people when they arrive in the UK? Unfortunately, we are starting to see children being treated with hostility and put at risk of trafficking when placed in hotels rather than secure accommodation appropriate for their needs. The Illegal Migration Bill is proposing to give new powers to the Home Secretary to detain children crossing the Channel indefinitely and on a discretionary basis. We seem to have forgotten that minors crossing the Channel are first and foremost children, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Recent research by British Future looking into attitudes towards immigration found that 44% of the public would support a government ‘welcoming programme’ to help people to integrate into UK society, with just 17% opposed. The sentiment in Paddington Bear that “if you ever make it to London, you can be sure of a very warm welcome” remains present among politicians and policy experts, as well as the general public, who want to do more for the vulnerable children who need sanctuary in the refugee crisis.

One such example is a new report by Barnardo’s and other children’s organisations, creating a blueprint for all children seeking asylum in the UK. ‘A Warm Welcome’, published today, explores the fundamental principles that should apply for refugee children arriving into the UK. As this work outlines, it is essential that we ensure that traumatised children do not reach a crisis point upon arrival or in subsequent months and years. Every child has a right to a safe and loving home, free from violence and abuse, and it is our duty to provide that safety once they are in our care. But this, in itself, is not enough. Our systems must be up to the task of enabling these vulnerable children to grow up, free from discrimination, in order that they may thrive and realise their potential. This all starts with a fairer immigration system that puts the child at the heart of decision-making, as the report makes clear.

This Refugee Week, we must reflect on the wisdom of our policy positions and not allow ourselves to be tempted by punitive – and ultimately flawed – solutions to the current refugee crisis. Many children seeking protection in the UK arrive alone, without parents or family members. They are often scared, lonely and have faced significant trauma. It is our duty to welcome them into safety and protection, and provide them with the foundations to rebuild their lives. Every child deserves the chance to thrive and, most importantly, to be a child.

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