The Guardian view on child refugees: who is a brother’s keeper?

2019-09-15 05:01:03


Fourteen children and adolescents arrived in south London today from the camp in Calais which is to be demolished, possibly as soon as next week. As a fraction of the eligible children in the “Jungle” camp . There may be as many as a thousand children there who deserve to come to Britain and who are legally entitled to do so. As a fraction of the 88,000 child refugees adrift in Europe, 14 is infinitesimal. Yet by the standards of the British government, these 14 children represent a heroic humanitarian effort. There may ultimately be as many as 300 admitted, a figure that the home secretary, Amber Rudd, described as “a good result”.

It is a “good result” only from a perspective of remarkable smugness or meanness. The smugness would marvel at the fact that we have taken any refugees in at all when we have so successfully defied our moral and indeed legal obligations for so long. The meanness is both stingy and frightened. Britain is the sixth biggest economy in the world – at least for the moment – and it is absurd to suggest that we could not absorb more than 300 children. Even David Cameron promised last autumn that we could welcome as many as 20,000 over five years from Syria. And Syria is only one of the ravaged countries from which children now try to escape, carrying with them little but the hopes and prayers of the families they leave behind.

Obviously, Britain cannot on its own solve the global refugee crisis. Nor has the government been stingy in supporting refugees who are prepared to stay away from here and languish in third countries. But this does not excuse the tactics of delay and obfuscation that have characterised the reactions of both the French and British governments right up until the moment when the destruction of the refugee camp is imminent. This imposing record of resolute inaction suggests that the authorities on both sides of the channel really just want the refugees to disappear, and don’t care too much about how this happens, so long as it is not embarrassing.

It is our duty, then, to shame these two governments, and to hold up the threatened humanity of these refugees.

Successive governments have been afraid of Ukip, and of the tabloid press, to the degree that they have attempted to define suffering out of existence through bureaucratic procedures. Months can be spent in registration and pointless inquiries. It is all deliberately and literally dehumanising. Against this, the direct actions of thousands of ordinary citizens (and some celebrities) express unmediated solidarity.

Much of the reaction has been driven by , who deserve credit for it. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, while he has expressed sympathy for the anxiety that some people feel about immigration, has also housed a refugee family in the grounds of his own palace. One of the most effective encouragements to the government came from Citizens UK, a collection of largely faith-based community groups, which managed to sue the government. About 12,000 evangelical Christian families have offered to foster refugee children.

All of the children so far rescued have come in under the provisions of the agreement, which represents the absolute bare minimum that any government can do to recognise the humanity and human rights of refugees: children who have close family in this country may enter to be looked after by their relatives. But the plight of the orphans, the children who have no family at all, must surely be worse. They are or ought to be covered by the Dubs amendment, sponsored by a survivor of the Kindertransport. The next step must be to pressure the government to live up to its obligations under Dubs as well as Dublin. That might rescue as many as 3,000 children: a few grains of sand from , but then, as the Jewish saying has it, to rescue one life is to rescue a whole world.