A small but beautiful thing
“This is a small but beautiful thing that we could do”
So said the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford last night, during the debate on the Immigration Bill. He was supporting an amendment tabled by Lord Alf Dubs, which would provide desperately needed sanctuary for children who have fled their homes and find themselves alone and uncared for across the refugee camps of Europe.
The Government’s Immigration Bill is dangerous and divisive. And yet there remain calls from across Parliament for compassion that extends beyond national borders.
Less than two weeks ago, Peers voted through an amendment which would provide desperately needed protection for vulnerable overseas domestic workers, allowing them to escape situations of slavery and exploitation. A second, successful amendment granted asylum seekers the basic dignity of permission to work if their asylum claims are not determined in the Home Office target time of six months. Last night, Lord Dubs’ amendment to allow 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children access to the protection of the UK passed through the House of Lords by a margin of 102 votes.
The children concerned have not only suffered the trauma of flight from conflict and forced separation from family – they face fresh horrors every day within Europe’s borders. As the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford emphasised, many of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have reached Europe are “living on the streets and very much vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution and other forms of modern slavery”.
The latest figures indicate that over the past 18 months, more than 10,000 unaccompanied children registered after arriving in Europe have disappeared. Many of these have likely fallen into the hands of traffickers.
Last night’s debate invoked memories of the Kindertransport – and the role this country played in ensuring safe passage to the UK for around 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Labour Peer, Lord Dubs, was one of those children. He arrived in the UK in 1939 as a lone child fleeing Nazi persecution. Last night he told the house: “I would like other children who are in a desperate situation at the moment to be offered safety in this country and be given the same welcome and opportunities that I had.”
His was not the only personal account. Liberal Democrat, Lord Carlile of Berriew, shared the story of his half-sister. Her mother died in Auschwitz, and as a child she moved from place to place without parental support. “If we can save one child from the sort of experience that my sister went through or save the children of one family from the feeling of being lost in an uncaring world”, Lord Carlile argued, “we should do it”.
The implications of the UK’s national conscience in our response to the refugee crisis were acknowledged by many Peers last night. Senior Rabbi Baroness Neuberger told the House that “the reason for supporting this amendment is not only a moral one – it is the least we can do – but something about what Britain is and what Britain should be…we could do it in the 1930s. Why cannot we do it now?”
A heartening victory for compassion
Whilst the Government has taken some steps to ease the situation for refugees in conflict regions, it simply cannot ignore the plight of children on its doorstep, uniquely vulnerable to abuse, and in desperate need of our help. Last night saw a heartening victory for compassion, but it is only the start.
Liberty will campaign to preserve the progress made by Peers when the Bill returns to the House of Commons in April. But we will also fight the bigger battle for an approach to refugee protection based on international responsibility and respect for human rights. That includes providing safe and legal routes to the UK for many more desperate people and playing a consistent part in easing Europe’s humanitarian crisis.