Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
Last week, Yvette Cooper accused the Prime Minister of “putting this country to shame” for refusing to support a Labour proposal for Britain to take 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from other European states. And it is fair to say that the Government’s position has perplexed several Conservative MPs, and even the Daily Mail, who have argued that these children should be allowed to come to Britain. But while nobody should doubt the humanity of Lord Dubs, the proposal’s proponent, it is the wrong policy and it deserves to be defeated.
Lord Dubs’ proposal comes in the form of an amendment to the Government’s Immigration Bill. In its original form, the amendment would have required the Government to “relocate to the United Kingdom and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”, over and above those already supported through existing schemes. The amendment was passed by the House of Lords, rejected by the House of Commons, and has now been passed, in revised form, by the Lords a second time. The revised amendment – which would now require the Government to admit a number that would be determined later following consultation with local authorities – will return to the Commons next week.
The issue at hand is highly emotive. Lord Dubs himself was a child refugee who escaped the Nazis and came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the Kindertransport organised by Sir Nicholas Winton. This has led many advocates for the policy to invoke the spirit of the Kindertransport, and compare the decision Parliament now faces with the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s.
Of course their lives are uncomfortable, some are indeed at risk of exploitation, and many have experienced things we cannot imagine, but the people the Dubs amendment seeks to help are not, like the Jewish children of the 1930s, at risk of genocide. They include not just Syrians, but Afghans, Eritreans and others, and they have already reached the relative safety of Europe. Many find themselves not in countries struggling with the migration crisis, like Greece, but wealthy countries like France.
So why – when the Syrian conflict means 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian support, 6.6 million people are displaced within Syria, and millions of others have fled to neighbouring countries – has the political debate in Britain narrowed to a question of helping an unspecified number of children who are already in Europe, many miles away from the countries they have fled?
The answer is that it is because there is very little for opposition parties to criticise about Government policy. They cannot criticise the UK’s support for the victims of the Syrian conflict in the region. The Government has recently doubled its aid for the affected countries to £2.3 billion, Britain’s biggest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis and by far the most generous contribution made by any European country. As Rob Williams from War Child argues, “the British aid effort has,” in fact, “been severely let down by our European partners.”
Likewise, nobody can criticise Britain’s commitment to helping the most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict through its refugee policies. The Government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme will bring 20,000 Syrian refugees to Britain by 2020. In the last quarter of 2015, Britain resettled 1,085 Syrian refugees through the VPR scheme, more than half of whom were children. By contrast, the traditional asylum system – which processes claims made by people who have already arrived in Britain – has always favoured the richest, the strongest, and the most fortunate claimants. Three quarters of those who seek asylum in Britain using the traditional system are men, the vast majority are in their twenties, and they either entered the country legally with a valid visa, or illegally, usually by paying human trafficking gangs.
Nor can anybody claim that Britain is not doing enough to help children affected by the Syria conflict. In addition to the minors helped through the VPR scheme, the Government announced recently that it will, by 2020, resettle up to 3,000 extra children from the Middle East and North Africa who are defined as ‘Children at Risk’ by the UNHCR. This additional commitment was made by the Government on 21 April, after the Dubs amendment was proposed but before the Commons vote, so the complaint of Yvette Cooper and her supporters is clear: it does not matter how many vulnerable children from Syria and its neighbouring countries the Government helps, it is that Britain must take refugees from other European countries.
This is where the case for the Dubs amendment begins to falter. Some argue that unaccompanied children in other European countries should be able to come to Britain to join up with relatives here. But this is not only already possible but actively encouraged by the Government: UK officials based in France, Greece and Italy are working right now to reunite unaccompanied children with their families in Britain. According to official figures, 24 such cases have been accepted in the last six weeks.
Others argue that we should, in an act of solidarity, support European states struggling to cope with the migration crisis. But a close look at the EU’s Emergency Relocation Mechanism shows that there is little solidarity between those countries that signed up to the resettlement programme last year. France, for example, pledged to make available 1700 places, but only 137 have been relocated from Italy and 362 from Greece. Overall, 565 people have been relocated from Italy, out of 39,600 places offered, and 876 have been relocated from Greece, out of 66,400.
More serious is the argument that child refugees in Europe find themselves at risk of abuse and exploitation. But is transferring to Britain 3,000 children – out of an estimated 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe – the right solution to this problem? Britain is spending hundreds of millions of pounds in aid to help Turkey, Greece, the Balkan states and other European countries to look after the child refugees in their care, and British anti-trafficking experts have been sent to help where there is evidence that exploitation is taking place. Without proper planning and sufficient capacity among the relevant state agencies in Britain, the trafficking and abuse that is happening on the continent could easily occur here. Kent County Council is already struggling to cope with 830 unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and – thanks to the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner – we know that this kind of exploitation is already common in Britain. Moreover, advocates of the Dubs amendment have failed to explain why they believe that child refugees in Europe are more vulnerable to exploitation than child refugees in and around Syria, whom it is the Government’s policy to prioritise.
Despite these arguments, one might still conclude that Britain should help anyway, and that MPs should support the amendment. But there are serious risks in doing so. If Britain announced tomorrow that we would start to accept unaccompanied child refugees from Calais – as Yvette Cooper proposes – we would risk triggering a great movement of people from across Europe to the British border at Calais. If there are nearly 100,000 child refugees in Europe, there are many more young adults willing to pretend to be minors to gain access to Britain. We risk making the same mistake as the German Government, which accidentally sparked Europe’s migration crisis last year when it announced that it would welcome 800,000 refugees over the course of 2015. Of course, if the Government had listened to Yvette Cooper at that time, who wanted Britain to take in refugees from other European countries, we would have suffered the problems that Germany faces now. It is to the credit of David Cameron, Theresa May and James Brokenshire that we do not.
But if the Dubs amendment passes, we also risk sending a signal to the world that if you want to come to a country like Britain, as a refugee in need or otherwise, your best chance of getting here is by putting yourself into the hands of a criminal gang of people smugglers. These people are cruel and ruthless and are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of people who have tried to make dangerous journeys from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Former colleagues of mine in the Home Office have witnessed them throwing migrants out of their boats and into the Mediterranean Sea in order to force the Royal Navy, Border Force and others to bring their human cargoes to shore. By telling people they need to first get to Europe before they will be let into Britain, we would be putting more innocent lives into the hands of these barbarians. We risk increasing the incidence of human trafficking rather than reducing it.
It would be much better, then, to help as many people as possible in and around Syria, and other conflict zones. Estimates from NGOs suggest that for every refugee Germany houses, for example, it could afford to help ten refugees in Jordan for the same cost. But if European countries want to help the unfortunate souls who have been displaced by conflict through their refugee policies, it would be more humane to do so by identifying the most vulnerable in the affected regions, and bringing them to safety. That, incidentally, is what Britain did with the Kindertransport in the 1930s, and it is what we did for the Ugandan Asians who fled Idi Amin in the 1970s. The Government’s policy is therefore the right one: however difficult, we must ensure reason overcomes emotion in this debate.