Monday, 16 May 2016

Refugee Children Welcome by Tess Berry-Hart

As Miriam Halahmy writes so movingly in yesterday's article, the Kindertransport of 1939 brought around 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, to the UK to escape persecution. Five days after the Kristallnacht of 1938, a bill was presented to Parliament by a coalition of Jewish and other religious groups, asking for unaccompanied children from babies up until age 17 to be admitted as a matter of urgency. A few days later there was a debate in Parliament about accepting refugees, and a number of grassroots organisations - notably the Refugee Children's Movement - offered assistance in finding homes for them. An appeal put out on the BBC brought in 500 fostering offers in one day.

Meeting Lord Dubs at Parliament, April 2016
This year, we have seen history play out once again as Lord Alfred Dubs - himself a child of the Kindertransport - tabled an amendment to the 2015 Immigration Bill by to allow 3,000 unaccompanied children into the country from camps across Europe. Unbelievably in this day and age, children as young as 12 can travel without an adult from their home countries in search of safety. Despite scepticism from the UK Government, many volunteers such as myself have met groups of children in the camps, and a monthly census carried out by L'Auberge des Migrantes/ Help Refugees shows over 400 unaccompanied children still in the camp.

With UK political will at an all-time low in late 2015 to address the crisis in Calais and other refugee camps, this "Dubs Amendment" was seen as a way to enshrine in primary legislation the UK's responsibilities to take a portion of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. I volunteer with Calais Action (a front-line refugee aid and advocacy group) which campaigned for the Dubs Amendment by attending meetings and focus groups in the Lords and the Commons, raising awareness of dangerous conditions faced by child refugees in Europe and encouraging petitions and letter-writing to MPs
Photo taken by and (c) of Ahmed, unaccompanied child,
 12 years old, Calais Jungle

I met Lord Dubs along with Rabbi Harry Jacobi also of the Kindertransport, at Parliament during a cross-party panel on refugees shortly before the Dubs vote. Two Syrian boys and one Afghan boy had just arrived in the UK (via the Citizens UK legal official reunification strategy) and told their stories in front of a panel including Yvette Cooper, Heidi Allen, Dubs and Jacobi. They had all escaped from conflict in their countries and faced danger during the journey. One had seen a fellow refugee die at the hands of the police, others had the smuggler boat from Turkey sink beneath them during the passage. When asked to be in future when they grew up, they named doctor, politician and "good person" as their aspirations.

"Thank you for doing this," I said rather lamely to Dubs as we shook hands. (I couldn't think of anything cleverer to say.) Dubs looked nonplussed. "Well it was the very least I could do, for those poor children. You really don't have to thank me."

Plaque opposite the stairs to the Commons Public Gallery
A few days later, I watched from the public gallery with the Calais Action team, as the Dubs Amendment was debated upon in the Commons. Despite moving and emotional speeches, when the division bell sounded, the Amendment was defeated by just 18 votes. Our team were in tears, and as we left the gallery, at the foot of the stairs we saw a plaque commemorating the Kindertransport of 1939.

Drowning our sorrows in a pub opposite Parliament, we put up a post urgently asking everyone to tweet their MPs to express their dismay over the Dubs Amendment. The post racked up over 2,000 reactions and was shared 3,500 times. Over the next few days we shared a template letter and a list of the MPs who voted against the Amendment. Thousands of people signed our petition and hundreds of grassroots groups signed our open letter to the House of Commons. Many more groups started their own petitions and badgered their MPs and central government, while media commentary started to become more positive.

No, you're not seeing things, Honest
A couple of days later, Dubs came back with another amendment that omitted the reference to "3,000" children - thus putting the onus on local councils as to how many they could settle. Huge public and media pressure - even the Daily Mail astonishingly voiced its support for taking in child refugees in limited terms - forced the Government to concede, and after strongly protesting their opposition to the Amendment on the Monday, both David Cameron and Theresa May had capitulated days later. Accordingly, when it was re-voted on in the Commons, it passed with a majority and became UK law as the Immigration Act 2016.

This is indeed wonderful news, and the hope is that many child refugees will be saved from falling through the cracks in Europe - but the real danger is, as Tim Farron pointed out in the Commons debate, the clock is ticking. There is the fear that nothing will be done, that the project will be left to fail and children left in camps in Europe. This is why it's up to ALL of us to pressure both our MPs AND our local councils to accept five unaccompanied children (if every constituency did this we would have the original 3,000). The letter of the law is no good if it has no teeth, and the UK Government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to fulfil even an iota of its humanitarian obligations.

This is where YOU come into play! In the same way that in 1939, a huge amount of public support came from grassroots organisations, we have to do likewise. The people to people grassroots aid movement is perhaps the Internet's finest hour, and makes every cute kitten or selfie dinner pic worth while.


In camp

Unaccompanied minors in France, Italy and Greece can be potentially given a safe and legal route to asylum under the Dubs Amendment.

If you're a volunteer concerned about child refugees you have encountered, make sure they are on the radar of organisations on the ground - in Calais, make sure that the Women & Children's Centre, Baloo's Youth Centre or Help Refugees/ L'Auberge des migrantes are aware of them - provide their name, age, phone number shelter number.

In Italy or Greece, bring the children to the attention of staff working for Save the Children in bases on the ground with full name and phone number. [Yes - many refugees have phones: they need them]


Within the UK, you'd like to help admit unaccompanied child refugees into your borough - or help foster, find school places, and other support systems - you need to start with your local MP and councillors. You will be asking them to perform different functions - your MP should be asked to champion the cause and lobby central government for a decent enough financial package to make the project viable. A lot of councils find the funding requirements daunting, so your MP will need to bat for decent funding and ask continuing questions in the House about the project. Your councillors will be doing the nitty gritty of housing refugee children on a limited budget, and  you can offer your help by making them aware of grassroots initiatives, foster care applicants, supportive schools etc in  your area.

The main thing to make clear is that many of these children will be extremely traumatised - they may have seen their family or friends killed, and travelled through great dangers, so they will need extensive psychological support, and cannot simply be plonked down into rural England and expected to get on with it. They will need to build relationships of trust that make them understand that they are safe - sadly around 500 children entering the UK as refugees last year simply disappeared from the foster care system. Asking local psychological support organisations if they can provide pro-bono support, as well as councils, is essential.

If you don't know where to start, you can connect with these groups: Home for Good, Citizens UK, or the numerous Refugees Welcome facebook groups, Rooms for Refugees and People Solidarity pages and groups on the Internet for suggestions and ideas.

None of this historic "Dubs U-Turn" would ever have happened without a massive amount of people power. Let's use it again.



Bear in mind that not all councils will be supportive, so research your council's likely approach as to their prior history. Kent, Hillingdon and Croydon have already taken a large number of unaccompanied children, so you may need to flatter them as to their humanitarian work, and ask them to share their experience with other boroughs. The funding system is also very labyrinthine and concerns many councils, so reassure them that you are pressing your MP for a generous financial package - previous financial allocations have not been sufficient.

Dear [name of councillors]

I am a [ -voting] constituent, and I am concerned about the refugee crisis [add your involvement here - whether collecting, fundraising, campaigning or concerned citizen etc].

I am delighted that the Dubs Amendment to allow unaccompanied child refugees from Greece, Italy and France has been passed in the Commons on Monday 9th May, and now the Immigration Act has become law the onus will shift to local councils to decide how many children they can accommodate.
[Thank you for your efforts in resettling [    ] children last year [if appropriate] and giving very traumatised children safety in the UK.

The Dubs Amendment provides an extraordinary opportunity for you to give child refugees in Europe a safe and legal route to asylum [you may need to add in some census facts here]. I would like to ask you to sign up to resettle at least 5 minors over the next year (which if every constituency did would mean 3,000 country wide).

This may seem like a huge task, but I could support you to make it viable by:

a) helping recruit potential foster carers,
b) helping identify potential language coaches and mentors,
c) helping identify schools, GP practices, and psychological support services willing to help, and
d) by demonstrating strong levels of public support

Please know that I am also contacting our MP [name] in order to ask [her/ him] to lobby central government for a generous enough aid package to make this project viable - previous financial offers to house child refugees arriving in the UK have often proved insufficient and set councils up to fail.

I know that the mechanism to identify and process minors from the camps is still being crunched in Parliament, but I would like to place myself on your radar to make you aware of the extraordinary grassroots support throughout London that exists for these child refugees from the camps.

If you would like, we can meet up to discuss - [availability times]

Yours sincerely ...


Dear [name]

I am a [ -voting] constituent, and I am concerned about the refugee crisis [add your involvement here - whether collecting, fundraising, campaigning or concerned citizen etc].

Thank you for voting for the Dubs Amendment/ or

I understand that you did not vote for the Dubs Amendment, but I would like to talk to you about this extraordinary opportunity to give refugee children from camps in Europe a safe and legal route to asylum [you may have to add in some facts and figures from census reports in Calais]

I am delighted that now the Dubs Amendment has become law in the form of the Immigration Act the onus will shift to local councils to decide how many children they can accommodate.

I have already contacted [name of councillors] to make them aware of the extraordinary level of public support on this issue and ask them to resettle at least 5 minors. I have offered to assist by helping recruit potential foster carers,potential language coaches and mentors, schools, GP practices, and support services willing to help.

Please would you be able to help too?

a) Please lobby central government to offer a generous financial
package (there were questions being asked in the House earlier this week) but it's important that the budget allocated does not set up the project to fail. The budget allocated to house unaccompanied children arriving during the last financial year
appeared to be insufficient for many boroughs, and it is important that the financial support being offered makes the project viable.
b) Ask the Government to confirm as soon as possible the mechanism through which children will be identified and processed [add in any knowledge of the camps here]. But the transfer process between countries itself is at present unclear.
c) The Government are saying it will take at least 6 months to get this project started, but if we could get even one child per constituency relocated by the beginning of the school year it would be a huge victory. Please lend your name in support of this.

I would like to come to your constituency office one day to discuss? Do let me know your availability.

Thank you so much for your support on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

[name and details]

**NB** A good background briefing document on how to approach your MP and councillors can be found here:


catdownunder said...

I am going to butt in here as well because I am sometimes asked to provide communication assistance for unaccompanied children. There are children who have lost everything, every thing they ever owned and every family member or friend they ever had. Some of the children are extremely traumatised and will require a great deal of patience and understanding if they are to lead anything like a "normal" life again.
And by children I mean those twelve and under. Many people are not even aware that children of this age can be unaccompanied.
There was far less "red tape" around in 1938. Things got done. It is much more difficult now and that is often used as an excuse not to do something. We need to give far more attention to the very young, the very old, and the women who are fleeing violence but they are often the last to get help.

JO said...

What a great post - reminding those of us who feel strongly about this that we can do so much more than just grumbling about the government's lack of action.