In April, last year, in response to the national outpouring which followed that dreadful and unforgettable image of poor little Alan Kurdi, washed up so limply on the beach, this government made a commitment in legislation to help some of the thousands of unaccompanied children who had escaped persecution and war and made it to European shores. The Dubs legislation was a complementary, but critically unique part of our response to the humanitarian crisis sweeping across Europe.
As a continent, we must acknowledge that we did not respond swiftly enough to this mass migration, so millions of desperate men, women and children put their lives into the hands of traffickers and made those perilous journeys.
I remember visiting the Greek island of Lesvos in January last year and weeping with disbelief at the hundreds and hundreds of abandoned life jackets – yours for 20 Euros, courtesy of your friendly local trafficker. Fake of course. I remember naively commenting that some were branded Kawasaki, Yamaha – at least they were real. “Oh no”, I was told, “they’re still fake, but they sell for a premium because they look more authentic.” What parallel universe had I stumbled into?
At that time, anywhere between 3000 and 9000 refugees were arriving on the Greek islands daily. Greece, already financially on its knees, was in chaos. Yet despite the overwhelming challenge, the Greek people could not have been more hospitable, with local restauranteurs delivering food to the queues of cold but patient refugees. I’ll never forget the sight of a young mother using her hand to sweep the dirt off the blanket her family were sitting on. A few carrier bags and this blanket was all they had in the world – but it was her home and she was keeping it clean. The woman and her baby – a slick of faint pink lipstick on the mother’s lips. A dirty face and dirty clothes, but a proud woman nonetheless.
And although I saw similar images in Calais in the Spring and Summer, I am ashamed to say that because of the euphoria of refugees finally being transferred to safe centres across France, those images started to fade. The media has since been quick to replace them with all things Brexit and Trump.
When I look back, as the day of camp demolition approached, our Government rose admirably to the challenge, working hand in hand with French authorities to identify and process at speed, children with family reunification rights under Dublin or those eligible under Dubs. Mistakes were made and it is undeniable that some of the age assessments were wrong, but that was symptomatic of the rush and urgency of the situation. It is not a reason to change our policy on helping lone children.
We took 250 Dublin and 200 Dubs children from France – a great start. So why oh why, are we here today, debating the Government’s decision to close the Dubs scheme when only a further 150 have come?
I am so proud of our £2.3bn commitment to aid in the Syrian region and the 23,000 refugees we will welcome from there, but Dubs is about something different. The glow of pride in our other commitments should not dazzle us so brightly that it disguises the separate but very real commitment we made in Dubs. Dubs was the final jigsaw piece in our refugee response, offering sanctuary to children who had lost everything and were already in Europe. We wisely set a cut-off date so that the offer would only extend to those who had arrived before the Turkey/EU deal in March – and we all agreed this was critical in ensuring a swell of new arrivals was not encouraged. Crude though it was, the Turkey deal worked and the flow to the Greek islands reduced significantly. But Greece could not cope with those who had already arrived. Dubs recognised this and enshrined in law a promise to help ease the burden on Greece and offer sanctuary to children, vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution.
These children are no less vulnerable now, so why are we turning our back on them?
Ministers will say we are worried about the pull factor. Firstly, we had this debate when we debated Dubs and we accepted the evidence and expertise of NGOs that this legislation would not exacerbate a “pull.” Secondly and so clearly, the very opposite in fact is true. Having finally encouraged children to trust volunteers and the authorities, they were coaxed from the camps in Calais into safe centres – and we now propose to whip the system away from them!
When you cannot trust Western governments, whose welcoming arms you have sought, is it any surprise that the smiling face of a trafficker is the only option left!? I believe opening the Dubs scheme and then shutting it so rapidly will actually cause more harm and a greater “pull” through southern Europe towards Calais. In Dunkirk on Monday this week, the member for Pontefract and Castleford and I heard first hand from youngsters who had absconded from the regional centres because they had heard about the imminent closure of the scheme. Desperation clouds judgement and makes for poor choices. Choices that lead straight into the hands of traffickers and prostitution rings. Closing Dubs so abruptly will give the traffickers the greatest promotional opportunity they could ask for.
We have never invested fully in a structured approach to Dublin processing in Europe with scant Home office personnel available in French centres and only a single person in Greece and another in Italy. Refugees showed us their paperwork on Monday – nothing at all in writing from the Home Office and basic asylum rights information provided in French (despite documentation showing that the individuals couldn’t speak French!)
We can and must do better than this. Putting Dubs to one side, Dublin legislation is a proactive duty already incumbent on us to assist with family reunification. I am pleased the Government has recently agreed to review the casework of children in France who were turned down at the first attempt. But if we are to do this meaningfully, we need to hear about an improved process with dedicated Home Office staff, translators and the commissioning of organisations like Safe Passage and the Red Cross. So far it has taken on average 10 months to transfer just 9 children from Greece and 2 from Italy under Dublin. I am ashamed to say none under Dubs.
My visit to Dunkirk on Monday so depressed me – it was a horrid repetition of everything Calais had been. I do not want us to feed that vicious cycle so feel it sensible to restrict our activities in France to establishing a high performing Dublin system. But 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy last year. Around a 1000 unaccompanied children wait in shelters in Greece with a similar number on the streets, plus thousands more in Italy. So it is in Greece and Italy where we should focus our Dubs attention.
As I draw my comments to a close, I want to focus on the capacity of local authorities as this is the main basis for the Government’s decision to close the scheme. They say they have consulted with local authorities who can only take another 150.
Even as I was writing this speech last night, a colleague from St Albans where I was a councillor, Anthony Rowlands, texted me to say the council had just backed a motion to uphold the Dubs Amendment. And all across the country, councils are stepping forward to say they can do more. Cllr David Simmonds of the Local Government Association told the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday that only 20 councils across the UK have met their 0.07% target. Lewisham has offered 23 places but has thus far only been sent 1 child. Birmingham could take 79 more. Bristol could take 10 more. Cambridgeshire, currently at 61 still hopes to reach its full quote of 93. Hammersmith and Fulham, after visiting the Calais camp, upped their offer to the Home Office and asked for an additional 15 children on top of their 0.07% commitment. They have 13 spaces filled and have been asking the Home Office for 2 more children to fill up their additional places since October but have, I quote, experienced ‘resistance’ from the Home Office officials.
This evidence, I am sorry to say, suggests a lack of capacity has not been proven and as we know, will be challenged in the courts.
Our world is in turmoil and moral leadership is needed like never before. What kind of country are we? What kind of Government are we? The country I know and love is outward looking, proud, welcoming and above all sharing. We have talked a lot recently about still being a friend to Europe post Brexit. Well, actions speak louder than words, so let’s step up and be that partner our European neighbours need.
We must go back to our local authorities and ask again, and again. This humanitarian crisis will not end neatly at the end of this financial year, so neither must our compassion. If we are unsuccessful today, I have already tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Welfare Bill due to return soon to the House.
There is substantial cross party support behind this debate. This includes further Members for example Twickenham, Bath and Stafford who could not be here today but wanted their support noted. The UK’s 4 childrens’ commissioners, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Dubs himself have spoken out to name but a few.
So long as Europe is under pressure to find homes for the most vulnerable casualties of war and persecution, we must keep asking, “what more can we do”?