The idea that this country ought to prioritise admitting refugees gathered in Calais was always a flawed one. As I wrote on this site last April, the Government has opted for a far preferable approach by helping people in refugee camps in the Middle East, and bringing the most needy to the UK directly from those camps. Doing so ensures that those helped are those in the most dire circumstances, and removes any temptation for them to risk their lives by putting themselves into the callous hands and rickety boats of people smugglers. Had Angela Merkel taken that approach, many fewer people would have drowned in the Aegean and the Mediterranean – her decision not to was motivated by good intentions, but has proved disastrous nonetheless.
Under great pressure, the Government eventually agreed to another policy, under the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act 2016. That Amendment made it law that the UK should “make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”.
There were some riders added on to assure against various concerns that had been raised. First, the exact number would “be determined by the Government in consultation with local authorities”, lest local authorities became unable to handle the number of children who arrived. Second, to remove any perceived incentive for refugees currently in the Middle East to embark on a perilous journey, the Government decided that refugees would have to have been in Europe before 20th March 2016 in order to be eligible.
Yesterday, in a statement by Robert Goodwill, and today, in a further statement by the Home Secretary, we learned that the Government will take a total of 350 unaccompanied children this financial year under the scheme, in addition to hundreds admitted from France as part of the agreement to close the Jungle and others brought directly from the region under the existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
Goodwill’s statement has been met with uproar – in part because of the somewhat sneaky tactic of making it at a time when all eyes were on the Article 50 debate. Yvette Cooper said the Government had “cancelled the Dubs scheme after it had been running for less than six months”, and reneged on Lord Dubs’ goal of admitting 3,000 children.
Cooper is incorrect on the facts. Goodwill’s statement didn’t say that the scheme had been “cancelled” – the amendment remains law, after all. He made no reference at all to repealing the amendment, still less disobeying it. The Home Secretary reiterated today that the scheme is neither cancelled nor closed.
What it comes down to is a question of numbers. While it’s certainly the case that Lord Dubs and others wanted 3,000 children admitted, the amendment itself doesn’t specify that figure. For practical reasons, it requires a number to be set in consultation with local councils based on the available capacity to house and care for unaccompanied child refugees – a not inconsiderable job. Had the Government admitted 3,000 child refugees only for council services to break down due to being overloaded, Cooper would rightly be on her feet in the House accusing the Government of failing to follow the law and endangering vulnerable children.
It may be that councils are being too reticent about the help they can give, or that Government should do more to press and aid them in making space available. It wouldn’t be the first time that central Government has passed blame on to local government, after all, and Rudd, Goodwill and Javid should ensure this 350 genuinely is the absolute maximum.
But we also shouldn’t get carried away. Given Lord Dubs’ personal history, as one of the children rescued from the Nazis by the Kindertransport, it is inevitable that some are now drawing comparisons between that rescue effort and the Government’s capping of the numbers under this scheme. It’s emotive, and it sounds fitting, but it’s inappropriate. Those fleeing ISIS, Assad, Russian bombardment and the other horrors of the Syrian civil war deserve our help – but none of those threats are present in France, Italy or Greece, where the Dubs Amendment operates. This country is already operating a true Kindertransport for the modern age, bringing children and other refugees directly out of danger in Syria and the surrounding refugee camps.
Unaccompanied child refugees undoubtedly are in danger in some European countries – the danger of abuse, of homelessness, of kidnap and trafficking. That is horrific, and the answer to it lies morally and legally with those of our European neighbours who currently host them.
Ultimately, Britain has limited money and care spaces for unaccompanied child refugees. We must do the most and best that we can with those resources, and that means making hard choices about our priorities. We could choose to prioritise rescuing children from the incompetence or callousness of the French, Italian and Greek authorities – but that would mean less money and fewer spaces to rescue children directly from the slaughter in the Middle East. Taken together, that doesn’t look or feel like the right choice.
By all means we should be outraged at the betrayal of children whom Paris, Rome and Athens fail to care for. By all means we should help them if we can. But it would be wrong to assuage that outrage in a way that means offering less help to other children who are often in even greater need. Cooper should target her anger at our European neighbours and insist they do their bit, not at the Home Office for doing what it can.