Safety and permanence for refugee children

The UK must offer not just physical safety to refugee children, but also stability and permanence

Kamena Dorling, 9 February 2016

Today the House of Lords will debate an amendment to the Immigration Bill calling for the resettlement of 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to the UK. 

When calling for support for his amendment, Lord Dubs has compared the situation now to that in 1938 and 1939, when the UK was the only European country to permit Kinderstransport children to enter. Certainly it is right that we celebrate the public generosity that allowed the Kindertransport to take place but it is also important to note the worrying parallels between the official response to refugee children then, and the response nearly 80 years later.

Just as pictures of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach last September prompted a wave of empathy and call to action, the news of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 transformed British public opinion. After government resistance, it was finally agreed that unaccompanied refugee children could come to the UK, without their families, on temporary travel visas, and only if they had private sponsors to work since no public money was to be used to fund their resettlement. Private citizens or organisations guaranteed payment for each child’s care, education and eventual departure from Britain. A total of 9,354 children came to the UK under this scheme. 

Now calls to take in 3,000 unaccompanied children who have already arrived in Greece and Italy have been rejected with the focus for Britain being on Syria and other conflict zones. It is not clear how many children will actually be resettled from refugee camps to the UK on their own, but what is clear is that the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum who make it here by other means is increasing and that a broad response is needed. 

Each year around 1,500 unaccompanied children seek asylum in the UK. In 2015 that figure rose significantly, with over 2,564 arrivals in the year ending September 2015. Once in the UK these children become the responsibility of local authority children’s services. All too often they are not provided with the accommodation or support (both emotional and practical) that they desperately need after months or years of conflict, violence and trauma. 

While the Kinder arriving in 1938 were expected to leave ‘once they had completed their education or training’, over 50% of unaccompanied children entering Britain since 2012 have been granted ‘limited leave’, a temporary status that lasts only until they turn 17 ½ . They can then be returned to their country of origin with little assessment of the consequences. Last year, over 600 young Afghans were returned to a war-torn country when they turned 18. It is difficult to see how it can be in any child’s best interests to live in the UK for years not knowing whether they will be allowed to stay after they turn 18. How does any child plan for and build their future under those conditions?  

On 19th June 1939, a Daily Express editorial declared that ‘there is no room for any more refugees in this country’. We hear similar arguments made today, citing a lack a resources and capacity as reasons not to accept any more children.  Yet the public has responded with the compassion necessary, and in the numbers required to do more to support children facing uncertainty and suffering. Thousands have considered becoming foster carers and since September 2015, the Migrant Children’s Project at Coram Children’s Legal Centre has provided training and information to hundreds of individuals keen to do more to help children seeking asylum. As happened in the 1930s, it is essential that the good will of the public is harnessed and that social workers and others are supported to provide appropriate long-term care. Where authorities such as Kent are dealing with unmanageable numbers,  other local authorities are being called on to take more unaccompanied children to ensure that there is a more even distribution across the country, with the Home Office providing funding for this group. 

Last week over 120 notable economists, including leading former Government, UN and World Bank officials, joined the lengthening list of prominent experts challenging the UK government’s refugee policy and its ‘misguided premise that refugees will be deterred from travelling to the EU by refusing to take in those who have arrived and by refusing to offer safe or legal routes by which to come’. They reminded government that in the longer-term taking in refugees is sound economic policy as many will prove ‘energetic, innovative and resourceful’, just like many of those arriving as children on the Kindertransport, of whom four became Nobel prize winners. 

Surely we should move beyond the view that refugee children are simply a short-term ‘burden’?  Research has found that schools with high numbers of migrants and ethnic minorities perform significantly better than those without, and many children who seek asylum in the UK are desperately keen to further their education, get jobs and give back to the society which welcomes them.

The UK has a moral and a legal duty to provide protection and offer sanctuary to children fleeing conflict and persecution; it has a moral duty to take its ‘fair share’ of refugees and to offer more than physical safety alone. It is only with stability, security and permanence that children can recover from the trauma they have experienced, integrate successfully to participate in British life, and build a better future for themselves and this country. 

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