Justin Forsyth is Chief Executive of Save the Children.
There’s a man in Greece staying in a fridge to keep warm.
You didn’t misread that. A few weeks ago my Save the Children colleague Kate O’Sullivan saw a man cowering in an abandoned fridge to shelter from the terrible cold and rain in the Moira refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. Save the Children staff are doing whatever it takes to feed, protect and help desperate families in these camps. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the British public we are there with blankets and as many as 8,000 cooked meals a day to help people survive as the weather turns.
For our children here in the UK, the coming of autumn means Halloween costumes and sparklers and preparing lists for Santa. But or refugee children across Europe, the changing season spells misery, disease and even the risk of freezing to death. These children are cold and afraid with Christmas coming.
ConservativeHome readers will be familiar with the extraordinary track record of the British Government in giving help to some of the countries and regions the refugees are coming from. Thanks to the leadership of David Cameron, George Osborne and Justine Greening, Britain is now the world’s second largest donor to the Syria region. Never doubt that your support is saving and changing lives – helping families reach safety and their children get to school. That is quite apart from the work DFID does in ‘normal’ times. We should never stop repeating that, thanks to support for immunisation, British aid saves a child’s life every two minutes. These are the kind of achievements that make politics and public life worthwhile.
Building on this impressive track record, Britain should now make a specific contribution to help unaccompanied children who are alone in Europe. The British public have been tremendous during this crisis, with 1.4 million actions already taken for the ‘refugees welcome’ campaign. We have been inundated with offers of practical support too: that’s why we helped the Home Office set up this one stop shop webpage for people who want to play their part. This is the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’ in action.
We should be clear, though, what has motivated these outpourings. People can empathise with what life is like in a warzone – we know that from how people have responded to our films such as If Surrey Were Syria. But this recent upturn in public support has been from people who realise that this crisis has landed on our continent, people who are shocked that children are dying on Austrian roads or Greek beaches just like the ones we visit on holiday. I believe people support the Government’s decision to take 20,000 refugees from the region, but would also support an increase in help to the children who have made it to Europe all alone.
Please just take a minute to imagine a child you love in a foreign country completely alone without you or anybody else to take care of them. I can’t stress enough how vulnerable these children are. It isn’t simply a case of not having a grown-up to ensure they get fed and receive any medical attention they require: travelling alone makes a child a target for exploitation and abuse. Specialists in Italy are already picking up cases of children with STDs, a sign that they have been sexually abused or prostituted. Of the 13,000 refugee children who reached Italy all alone last year, nearly 4,000 disappeared.
Earlier this month one of Europe’s top police officers warned that we are all underestimating the extent to which unaccompanied children are being preyed upon. There is a short BBC report about what can happen to these children here. It is an upsetting watch, but worth it if you want to understand why we are so determined to champion the needs of unaccompanied children.
Nobody is suggesting that children who have somebody to care for them should be separated from their families, but if a child is alone and afraid in Europe then they should be offered a safe and loving home. We don’t believe Britain should shoulder the burden on our own, but we do think we can offer these children a second chance at safety here in the UK. We have calculated that the UK’s fair share of the total number of unaccompanied children in Europe is about 3,000. That is less than a third of the children we took in during the kinderstransport and amounts to just five children per parliamentary constituency.
The idea of helping lone children in Europe has received some fantastic support. We’ve been backed by the Sun and 70 of Britain’s leading charities and non-profits. If ConHome readers would like to join our cause you can sign up here. We would, of course, be incredibly thankful for your support during this crisis, but we are even more grateful for the long-term commitment that ConHome and its readers have shown to the poorest in the world.
Long before aid was a mainstream Conservative cause, ConHome was casting a compassionate but critical eye over international development. You have helped champion internationalism in your party and rigour in our sector, ensuring that we all hold each other to the highest standards in the difference we make.
Last month, at a joint Save the Children/ConHome event at Conservative conference, the Chancellor talked about the increased public support and understanding of Britain’s international development work. He felt, and I agree, that this year has been a turning point. From the depth of their compassion for refugees to their determination to defeat Ebola, the British public has shown that in 2015 their first instinct is not ‘what’s it to me?’ but ‘how can I help?’. That is surely the best of Britain and a fitting message as we think of all the children who face danger or despair this Christmas.