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Child refugees: We don’t need history to tell us how to respond to this crisis

The current batch of refugee children travelling across Europe desperate to escape unimaginable horrors at home prompt chilling echoes of Jewish youngsters arriving in the UK in the late 1930s

Theresa May’s Government, which has committed itself to advancing the ‘will of the people’, is once again defying public opinion

Having failed to block its passage in Parliament, the Government is now undermining Section 67 of the 2016 Immigration Act which calls upon the UK to relocate unaccompanied refugee children.

The Dubs scheme, named after Lord Alf Dubs who championed the legislation, is set to be cancelled once 350 unaccompanied refugee children are admitted into the UK.

The backstory to this relocation scheme is the Kindertransport, a series of rescue efforts where Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the free city of Danzig, were brought to the UK between 1938 and 1940.

One reason why the Kindertransport has been invoked is because the author of the legislation, Lord Dubs, who forced the Government to back down, was himself a kindertransportee.

The Kindertransport is now seen as a seminal event in British history – a gesture of hospitality during Europe’s darkest hour. It is also one point upon which both refugee advocates and this reluctant Government agree should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, having failed to make their case on the basis of facts and evidence, loud voices in the Conservatives are further exploiting the Kindertransport in order to deny asylum seeking minors the protection they need.

The Home Secretary Amber Rudd has offered two principal reasons for cancelling the Dubs scheme. First she claims it acts as a pull factor and incentivises people traffickers at the expense of child protection. Second, she claims children are better off in the region, closer to their families with who they hope to be reunited. These arguments are simplistic and without foundation.

The repeated emphasis on ‘pull factors’ has been solidly trashed by refugee support organisations and academic researchers who have found that not only are journeys often unplanned but motivations tend to change en route. We heard a similar rhetoric from May as Home Secretary when she argued that the Mediterranean search and rescue operation also acted as a ‘pull factor’.

In fact, after the cancellation of Mare Nostrum – Italy’s search and rescue policy – and subsequent efforts, the numbers of migrants arriving by sea increased, as did the number of deaths.

In more than 500 interviews, scholars Heaven Crawley, Nando Sigona and Franck Duvell documented that many migrants cannot account for their eventual destination.

Moreover, while refugees and migrants often pay agents, there is little evidence of trafficking at source. This was one of the conclusions of a study by Peter Hopkins and Malcolm Hill who found that while unaccompanied minors experience a range of traumatic situations before they set off, accounts of trafficking are minimal.

Rather, we know now that the absence of protection encourages criminality. That is why the Red Cross, Oxfam and other groups are running programmes in Greece and in Sicily to encourage asylum seekers to remain in the system in hostels and shelters, rather than take their chances on the street.

The idea that asylum seeking children are better off in ‘the region’ defies much first-hand knowledge of the appalling conditions facing refugees across the Middle East and South-eastern Europe where they linger in sub-standard camps and where opportunities for integration are non-existent. Yet this was precisely the reason why the Government claims it is more effective and indeed necessary to relocate people directly from the region – a point made by Rudd to Parliament earlier this month.

Moreover, the idea that the children are passive, waiting to be reunited with their parents, and that the family system is benevolent also warrants revision.

Testimonies from asylum seeking children present a much more complex picture. Many children actively initiate their departure as a result of intolerable conditions in their country of origin. Some young women oppressed by the family system and forced into early marriage also take flight. Many refugee children are also fleeing their families.

Yet, beyond the ignorant and contradictory statements – beyond the overwhelming evidence of bad faith – what is most disturbing about the Home Secretary’s position is the way in which her paternalism has been justified based on a revised history of the Kindertransport and competing claims of victimhood.

Last week the Tory MP, Michael Fabricant asked the Home Secretary to condemn those who compared the situation of unaccompanied refugee children today to the 1930s. He added that it was ‘distasteful’. To strengthen his moral claims he affirmed his own Jewish ancestry which he shared with Lord Dubs. But unlike Dubs, neither he, nor his parents were refugees.

According to Fabricant, in the 1930s ‘there was no opportunity to go into Germany or the Axis countries and assist those children who faced death in concentration camps’.

This last statement introduces multiple charges of revisionism – from the suggestion that the UK would assist refugee children, when in fact it was only after considerable pressure by Jewish organisations on both sides of the Channel and the heroic actions of a small number of individuals above all the likes of Nicholas Winton that ensured the Kindertransport took place at all.

Further, Winton was required to forge a substantial number of documents in order to get children into the UK. He later said: ‘Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, ‘Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe’. This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits.’

What is more, in 1938, while it was clear that Jewish children were subject to persecution and were unsafe in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, concentration camps were used for political prisoners and were largely unknown to the Jewish population until the mass deportations began in 1941. Fabricant is fabricating with his sugar coating of history.

In spite of this, Rudd chimed in with her own questionable assessment suggesting that the comparison one might make is with conditions in the camps. Bizarrely, in spite of her claim, Rudd advocates that children in excess of the 350 admitted to the UK should remain in camps in the region.

The argument for receiving unaccompanied refugee children does not rest on moral or historical claims of hospitality, however interpreted. Rather the argument for receiving these children is based on an extensive body of legal, political and moral commitments that the UK has made over the past nearly 80 years.

The main difference between the 1930s and the present day is that we have an abundance of information upon which to make informed moral and political judgments.

This includes evidence presented by social services and policing bodies like Europol, international institutions including the UN Security Council, as well as regional organisations such as the Council of Europe, European Union, African Union and the plethora of human rights monitors and rapporteurs which feed into international treaty bodies and specialist committees.

It also includes increasingly sophisticated mapping and forecasting tools produced by academics and NGOs, not to mention the UNHCR and International Organsation for Migration which are devoting significant resources to develop early warning systems.

Alongside this, of course we have extensive reporting on refugees’ conditions from trusted and robust media outlets and there is also a plethora of testimonies from refugees, many self-published and broadcast to a diverse, often global audience via social media.

Moreover, we now know all too well what happens to children who are separated from their families and left in transit without state protection. We know the individual and collective damage war and persecution creates. There is a massive body of literature on the harm caused by forced displacement as well important archives held by the Refugee Council, UNHCR, Red Cross in addition to a collection of award winning films on general release.

More than Fabricant, I too could rely on family history to make my voice heard. My stepfather, Kurt Wang, came on the Kindertransport. Leaving Vienna at 14, he arrived in Ramsgate only to be sent to Chiltern Emigrants’ Training Camp, in Oxfordshire where he and other Jewish refugees worked as farm hands for eight pence a week. And like Lord Dubs, I can point to his successful integration in the UK where he was offered a new life, learned the Queen’s English, changed his name to David Winsor, had a family, earned a law degree and became the second founding partner at what is now Mischon de Reya, the firm which won a landmark ruling against a Holocaust denier David Irving – and ironically also against May’s refusal to consult Parliament before the Brexit 

He was always grateful to the UK.

Yet, we do not need to hark back to the Kindertransport to make the case to admit and protect asylum seeking children. We know what the moral response should be – and why the Government is wrong.

Brad Blitz is a professor of international politics at Middlesex University and senior fellow at the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva

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