29 June 2017
In February, the Home Office made a decision that shames us all. It chose to end the so-called ‘Dubs scheme’ – a piece of legislation that required the Government to bring a “specified number” of vulnerable child refugees to safety in the UK “as soon as possible”.
The amendment was designed to save lives. But when it came to the crunch, the Government failed catastrophically. From day one, its implementation of ‘Dubs’ was a shambles.
Things started to go wrong when the Home Office defied pleas by charities such as Save the Children to provide sanctuary for 3,000 children, eventually capping the scheme at just 480. Its consultation into local authority capacity to welcome refugee children was riddled with mistakes, missing as many as 1,600 spots due to miscalculations and “administrative errors”. And despite its requirement to bring children to the UK “as soon as possible”, only 200 had arrived when it decided to close the scheme 10 months later.
The poor implementation of the Dubs scheme suggests that the Home Office is suffering from one of two problems: grave incompetence, or utter disinterest in the plight of child refugees. Its record suggests the latter.
The government is failing child refugees
In 2015, the world turned to look at refugees. Images of families being rescued from dinghies flooded our television screens, and we signed petitions as children’s bodies washed up on European beaches.
Yet despite this ongoing humanitarian crisis, David Cameron chose to opt-out of the EU’s refugee relocation programme which requires Member States to resettle refugees to ease the burden on Italy and Greece. At the time, Home Secretary Theresa May declared she would not take part in a new common EU immigration and asylum policy “in a thousand years”.
Instead, the Government has chosen to focus its efforts on resettling refugees who have yet to make the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea to Europe. In September 2015 it extended the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, committing to bringing 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps in the region to the UK by 2020.
While this is a good start, such a narrow focus on refugees in the Middle East completely disregards the plight of those who have already arrived on our shores. There are currently thought to be 95,000 unaccompanied children inside Europe. An EU audit conducted in April found that at least 23,000 of these minors remain stranded in squalid camps in Greece and Italy. As I write, there are hundreds more children dotted across northern France — alone and frightened, with dreams of starting a new life in the UK. Many of them have family here and are legally entitled to join them — but they are being failed by the inaction of Governments.
Every night they sleep rough, unaccompanied minors face further risks including sexual abuse, trafficking or disappearing off the radar altogether. A report from Harvard University has shown that unaccompanied child refugees in Greece are being forced to sell their bodies in order to pay smugglers to fund their onward journeys. Meanwhile, charities working to provide aid and legal advice in Calais have reported numerous incidents of suspected sexual abuse to the French authorities.
It’s clear that we remain in the midst of an immense child protection failure. Its scale demands immediate action, and an effective policy response.
The EU is learning lessons
As much as the current Government would hate to hear it, the EU is learning lessons. Although its approach to dealing with the refugee crisis is far from perfect, concern about delivering for child refugees is growing.
I have been working hard with colleagues in the European Parliament to strengthen safeguards and protections for minors. In recent months, we have been updating the rules relating to guardianship, to ensure that every child who arrives in Europe receives adequate care. The EP is also seeking to ensure that all minors are provided with child-friendly accommodation that takes into account their security and the grave risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
Meanwhile, in April, the Commission set out a raft of actions to ensure that refugee children are protected inside the EU. This includes taking action to prevent them going missing and swiftly following-up on cases of disappearance, prioritising the relocation of children from Greece and Italy to other Member States, and ensuring that children are informed about their rights so they understand their options.
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans made it clear that, “We need to make sure that children who need protection actually receive it. And we need to do it now. This is our sense of moral duty as well as our legal responsibility”.
The concepts of moral duty and legal responsibility appear to be worryingly absent from the Home Office’s approach to child refugees. But now we have a chance to remind them that they cannot, and must not, be forgotten.
Last Tuesday, on World Refugee Day, the NGO Help Refugees launched a judicial review against Home Secretary Amber Rudd, challenging the legality of the way she implemented and closed the Dubs scheme. This is a last-ditch attempt to save this piece of legislation, and hundreds of children who remain alone — and at risk — in Europe. This time, let’s make sure that we are on the right side of history.
Click here to read Jean’s full article on Medium.com.