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This week has seen growing pressure on the Government to adopt what has become known as the Dubs Amendment – a proposal by Lord Dubs that Britain should take in 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees who are currently in Europe.
The rhetoric is extremely impassioned, and the comparison is routinely drawn with the Kindertransport, which saved almost 10,000 mostly Jewish children from the Nazis (including a young Alf Dubs). The latest advocate of the policy change is none other than the Daily Mail, which dedicated its leader column today to arguing for the Government to change tack.
That pressure will no doubt continue to grow, and one cannot rule out the possibility that the Government will make some concession as a result. But it would be a mistake to do so.
Britain has differed markedly from many of our European neighbours in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Angela Merkel pursued a ‘come one, come all’ policy, which encouraged huge numbers of refugees to place their lives in the hands of people smugglers and in the hulls of rickety boats to cross the Aegean. Merkel was motivated by compassion, but in practice her error cost many men, women and children their lives.
By contrast, the British Government has for the last year focused on taking refugees directly from camps in the region. That is clearly a preferable approach – it allows for deliberate choice to help those most in need, rather than outsourcing refugee selection to people smuggling gangs, it ensures those being helped are actually Syrian refugees and not economic migrants from elsewhere, and most importantly it does not require people who have lost everything to risk drowning in order to find safety. Britain is in fact operating a close equivalent of the Kindertransport already, taking refugees directly from the war zone in which they are in danger. Oddly, the Mail’s leader acknowledges this point itself, although it then advocates the opposite policy straight afterwards.
It is worth cutting through the rhetoric to seek the facts about the Dubs Amendment. If this was a proposal to take more children from the camps around Syria, then I would support it (though the opinion polls suggest I would not necessarily be in a majority). Instead, it is a proposal to take children who are already in EU countries.
It is undoubtedly true that many of them are not safe simply by virtue of having reached Europe – sex traffickers and other criminals are reportedly preying upon them, and many are homeless – but that is a result of abject failure on the part of our EU neighbours to live up to their responsibilities. Imagine there were ramshackle camps in the UK with hundreds or thousands of children left fending for themselves, and they were known to the authorities. Social services and the police would be there in minutes, and rightly so. Instead, France and others are allowing this miserable situation to continue, seemingly in the hope that the children involved will move on to another country, or disappear and cease to pose an issue for the authorities. That is outrageous – we should be calling these governments out on their deliberate or incompetent failings, rather than facilitating them by doing as they seem to wish.
There are other questions about the details of the campaign. As David Burrowes – not an anti-refugee voice by any means – points out, the 3,000 figure seems to be entirely arbitrary, particularly when the Europol estimate of unaccompanied children missing in Europe is 10,000. Britain is taking the right approach to avoid further children ending up in that situation, and should be pressing for a proper plan of action for all European nations to find and help those already in this plight in their current location. Just saying “we’ll take 3,000” doesn’t fix that, and could at worst be interpreted by some European countries as a message that if they carry on neglecting their responsibilities then Britain will take the “problem” off their hands.
Then there is the political aspect, which I hinted at with my earlier reference to opinion polling. I, like the Government, Burrowes and many others, want Britain to take in refugees from the Syrian conflict. I believe we have a humanitarian obligation to help them, a self-interest in seeking to end a chaos which offers ISIS a chance to sneak into the EU and also a debt, given that thanks to Ed Miliband we opted to leave Assad and others to carry on the slaughter of Syrian civilians.
But it remains the case that a lot of British voters feel differently – many want either a very small effort or no effort at all on this front. To help more refugees means convincing people – and while a refugee is legally very different to an economic migrant, it is a fact that in the popular imagination the two go together onto a combined total of “immigration”. As Paul Goodman has previously argued, many voters will demand that taking more refugees should mean taking fewer migrants of other types from elsewhere – having an open border policy to EU economic migrants makes it harder for any Government to choose to increase the number of refugees it welcomes to these shores.