History will judge UK on failure to accept 3,000 refugee children stranded in Europe – Labour MP

A Syrian refugee boy sits on a beach after disembarking from a luxury yacht used by about 250 other Syrian refugees and to travel across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast in the Greek island of Lesbos © Yannis Behrakis
Britain must not turn its back on vulnerable child refugees stranded in Europe because history will judge such willful abandonment scornfully, the UK’s shadow immigration minister has warned.

Labour MP Keir Starmer made the remarks after it was revealed the UK’s majority Conservative government had shot down a proposed amendment to the Immigration Bill, which would have opened Britain’s doors to 3,000 child refugees.

Lord Alf Dubs, who put forward the amendment, had himself once benefitted from the government-backed Kindertransport program that welcomed child refugees to Britain as the Second World War spread across Europe.

MPs rejected the proposed changes by 294 to 276 votes. The narrow defeat came after the Home Office reportedly convinced Conservative Party MPs concerned about the government’s lackluster response to the refugee crisis that Westminster is doing enough to help child refugees gripped by crises in Syria and elsewhere.

A Coast Guard officer hands over a child to a fellow colleague as refugees and migrants disembark a Greek Coast Guard vessel at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos © Giorgos Moutafis

Starmer, however, has rejected this claim and remains defiant.

“It’s not over: the fight will go on,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program early on Tuesday morning.

The shadow immigration minister was angered by the suggestion that more child refugees scattered across the continent would create a “pull factor” for other kids who have fled the ravages of civil unrest and economic turmoil.

“We are witnessing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of people are making treacherous journeys,” he said.

“Some of those are children on their own and between something like 26,000 as a minimum and possibly something up to 95,000 of those children are in Europe and they are stranded.”

Citing a “chilling statistic” from Europol figures, he warned 10,000 vulnerable child refugees are unaccounted for and have effectively vanished.

“The great fear is that these children are slipping into sexual exploitation and into trafficking. They are trapped in Europe and we have to do something about it now,” he said.

“I applaud what the Government is doing in the regions; I think the resettlement program they have put in place is very good. But it’s not an either-or situation; we cannot turn our backs on these vulnerable children in Europe. And history will judge us on this one.”

A migrant girl covers herself with a thermal blanket after arriving on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos © Alkis Konstantinidis

Casting his lens across the continent, Starmer warned other European countries are struggling to cope with the crisis and protect child refugees.

“Taking 3,000 into this country is a small but significant contribution; it’s a contribution we should make,” he said. 

During a heated debate on the Immigration Bill on Monday night, Home Office minister and Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup James Brokenshire said the government could not back the proposal.

He said implementing the legal changes would entice families in crisis-zones to send their children alone “in the hands of traffickers,” putting their lives in jeopardy.

Brokenshire concluded child refugees who are sent on “treacherous sea crossings to Europe” in the absence of a guardian “would be the worst of all outcomes.”

Starmer rubbished this argument, however, telling BBC Radio 4 it effectively proposes the UK abandon defenseless child refugees to their cruel fate because helping them might encourage others to “follow in their footsteps.”

“I have to say I find that a deeply unattractive argument and all of us need to stand back and assess it honestly,” he said.

“I am not prepared to take that position. I think most people listening to this program would look at themselves in the mirror and say that is not the sort of person I would want to be.”

Children collect items from among the debris of a school for the deaf and mute, destroyed in what activists said were overnight U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State, in Raqqa © Nour Fourat

Something like 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees are thought to have applied for asylum in Europe in 2015.

The EU’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol, confirmed in early 2016 that 10,000 children had vanished after landing on European soil. The agency said it fears that many had been snatched by criminal syndicates.

Yvette Cooper, chair of Labour’s specially designated taskforce on refugees, who previously served as shadow home secretary, had pleaded with Conservative MPs to back Lord Dubs’ proposal.

“It is deeply disappointing that the government has rejected the Dubs amendment – albeit with a reduced majority,” she said in the wake of Monday’s Commons vote.

“Thousands of children are sleeping rough in Europe tonight, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and Britain should not be turning its back. Alf Dubs will keep pressing this issue in the Lords as we must do our bit to help.”

MPs voted down Lord Alf Dubs’ amendment because ministers claimed it would erode financial resources and should not be referred to the House of Lords, where it could have been rekindled.

Nevertheless, Labour remains steadfast in its agenda of opening Britain’s doors to vulnerable child refugees, and has put forward a new proposal expected to be discussed in the House of Lords on Tuesday.