William Eichler 14 February 2017

Whitehall’s war on unaccompanied minors

The home secretary’s decision to cancel the Dubs scheme and tell 2,650 children they are not welcome in the UK should come as no surprise. It’s simply a continuation of a tendency to fold in the face of the reigning anti-immigrant zeitgeist that defines English politics and culture today.

Amber Rudd announced last week the Government would end its commitment to take in thousands of unaccompanied child refugees from Europe after only 350 had been brought to Britain from camps in France, Greece and Italy.

Former prime minister David Cameron reluctantly agreed the UK would take in an unspecified number of asylum-seeking children last May. While no precise figures were offered, it was understood what came to be known as the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill - named after its author Lord Dubs - would see 3,000 lone children rescued.

This is a paltry number - as is the 4,000 we have taken in under other programmes - when compared to the scale of the crisis. According to EU figures, there are an estimated 90,000 minors currently on their own at risk of starvation, disease, sexual exploitation and a whole raft of other abuses.

Defending the decision, Ms Rudd insisted Downing Street was doing the refugees a favour. ‘The Government has always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe,’ she told Parliament, ‘particularly by the most vulnerable children.’

This explanation is unconvincing for many of the experts working in the field. The charity Help Refugees immediately announced its intention to challenge the decision in court. They argued the Government had failed to lawfully calculate the number of available places councils could offer unaccompanied children.

Rosa Curling, the human rights solicitor representing the charity said: ‘The consultation process by which the Home Office has calculated this low number was fundamentally flawed. There was no real consultation with many local authorities.’

The author of the original amendment Alf Dubs - himself a child refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia - was also not convinced by Ms Rudd’s excuses. ‘Today Theresa May put Britain on the wrong side of history,’ he said. ‘To our country's shame, she has decided to shut down the Dubs Scheme, which promised child refugees a safe future in the UK.’

Regardless of the court’s final decision, one thing is clear: Downing Street’s U-turn follows a longer-running campaign to close Britain’s borders, which has been promoted by a rightwing populist movement bent on blaming immigrants for all the country’s problems.

So, as I said, the decision that we cannot possibly find room for 2,650 children is hardly a surprise. The intolerant currents swirling around at the moment militate against any act of kindness to strangers.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Ms Rudd’s announcement was simply a pragmatic decision based on sound economic calculations. After all local authorities, who will have to shoulder the very real burden of caring for the unaccompanied minors, are strapped for cash and can barely afford to care for their own residents.

However, councils have repeatedly called on Whitehall to put in place long-term funding arrangements to help care for refugees. Kent County Council, an authority that has taken in many unaccompanied children, has also called on the Government to make it mandatory for all authorities to take their fair share of asylum-seekers.

But all this has fallen on deaf ears. Downing Street would rather abandon the few thousand children they had promised to care for than go against the grain of our current reactionary zeitgeist.

Photo: dinosmichail / Shutterstock.com

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