Several times a week for the past decade, as I have left Liverpool Street Station from the Ipswich train, I walk past a bronze statue of an anxious-looking boy and girl with their suitcases. The statues, part of a series in the station commemorating the Kindertransport and its leader, Sir Nicholas Winton, are a reminder of the heroes who faced down fascism. Ipswich itself was a common point of entry for the children evacuated from a Europe under the shadow of Nazism in 1938 and 1939. Even if it were not for having children myself, this connection of our town with this great humanitarian exodus has made me particularly sensitive to the horrific plight of so many children from Syria.
The British people have been uniquely generous in helping those displaced. We are the second biggest donor by value to looking after the war’s refugees, behind only the United States, which has a far larger population and economy. We are by far the largest contributor in the EU. Your country is also on track to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable people in the refugee camps, half of whom have been children. In addition, 3,000 children and their families will be resettled here. Meanwhile, 8,000 children – 3,000 of whom were unaccompanied – were granted leave to remain in the UK last year through the usual channels. Taken together, this is one of the most comprehensive and generous aid and resettlement programmes anywhere in the world and the biggest programme of any European country.
What these proactive measures deliberately do not address is those unaccompanied children who have already arrived in Europe but have not yet been adequately accommodated. Here is why: many of these children have arrived in Europe not at the behest of a latter-day Nicholas Winton but under the duress of traffickers – smugglers of people engaged in the worst variety of human exploitation and depravity. Anything you do to reward and stimulate their trade makes them richer and their appalling market in young people more populated.
Herein lies a classic political quandary. The right thing to do is also politically difficult. It is the decision that faces us now as the so-called ‘Dubs amendment’ comes to an end. Last year Lord Dubs lobbied the government to accept those unaccompanied children who had made it to the Calais ‘jungle’. This week the Government announced that we will transfer 250 children to meet the intention and spirit behind the amendment. This number includes over 200 children already transferred under the amendment from France, and will include a further 150 over the coming months. This is in addition to the 3,000 we are pledged to resettle from the region and the many thousands more we are taking from the Syrian refugee camps.
I have heard how French officials have said directly that the promise of resettlement was driving traffickers to exploit the opening we had made for them. So when we closed the ‘Jungle’ with the French, resettling all the children there, and done as we had promised to do to help with the numbers in Italy and in Greece, it was right to return to concentrating on taking vulnerable children from the Syrian refugee camps, not off the people smugglers who put their little lives at further risk.
It is a hard thing to do and a few people will seek to use the decision for political advantage. There will always be some. What would really be wrong is to take the easy way out for political gain, in so doing condemn more children to the abusive extortion that is all the people traffickers have to offer. It may make some feel good about themselves to claim otherwise but to do so would be anything but good for those who really matter. It is also the way that we can be sure of bringing those most at risk – just like the children commemorated outside Liverpool Street Station – to safety in these shores.