Last night, MPs in the House of Commons voted against taking in 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees currently in Europe. Stylist contributer Moya Crockett says we should be ashamed of turning away from the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.
Last Saturday, on St George’s Day, the hashtag #ProudToBeEnglish started trending on Twitter. After a few minutes scrolling through tweets, I felt a bit deflated. Beyond the predictable piss-taking, most tweets seemed to fall into one of two camps: raging nationalism, or scathing self-flagellation. Either, it seemed, you thought that England was the best place in the world, and that those who disagree should go back to where they came from – or you bore the weight of all the country’s past and current ills like an albatross. “Colonialism. Monarchy. Austerity. Islamaphobia [sic]. Xenophobia. Tories,” read one typical tweet. “#ProudToBeEnglish?”
Well, I thought, I’m not proud of those things. But I am proud to be English. I’m proud to be British, in a quiet, central sort of way. I wondered if that was OK, and decided that it was.
But that was Saturday. Today, it’s Tuesday, and I don’t feel proud to be English. I don’t feel proud to be British. Last night, MPs voted to refuse asylum to 3,000 child refugees. Today, I’m not proud. I feel a sort of sick, crawling shame at the country where I was born, and at the people we’ve chosen to represent us.
The government last week reiterated its pledge to take in a maximum of 3,000 refugees from Syria over the next four years. But a proposed amendment to the immigration bill would have seen us grant sanctuary to 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees already in Europe. In a vote by MPs in the House of Commons, that amendment was defeated by 294 to 276.
Two reasons were given, loudly, by the MPs who rejected the amendment. The first was that if those 3,000 children were granted asylum, other parents in war-torn countries would be encouraged to send their children to Europe alone. Tory minister James Brokenshire, speaking in the House of Commons, said that the government could not support a policy that would “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone, ahead and in the hands of traffickers, putting their lives at risk by attempting treacherous sea crossings to Europe”.
But those “treacherous sea crossings” are already happening. All the time. Every day. This year alone, some 800 people have drowned in the Mediterranean as they attempted to reach Europe. As many as 500 more were feared to have died just last week.
Reading Brokenshire’s words, I thought of three lines from the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s devastating poem about the refugee crisis, ‘Home’: “You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”. Desperate parents are not deterred by our refusal to accept their children. Some 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees applied for asylum in Europe last year, while Save the Children estimates that there are currently just under 4,000 children in Italy, Greece and Calais alone. And then there are the huge numbers of children across Europe who have simply slipped through the cracks. According to the European Police Office, around 10,000 child refugees went missing in Europe last year.
Conservative Sir Edward Leigh trotted out the second, oft-cited argument against helping refugees in Europe when he said that the government should focus its attentions on helping children in Syria. But it’s not only Syrian children that need help; there are thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Eritrean children adrift on the continent. Neither does the desperate situation in Syria negate the dangers faced by the lone children already in Europe.
“These children are sleeping on the streets, or in adult camps that turn violent after dark,” Caroline Anning, humanitarian media manager at Save the Children, told Stylist. “If there’s no room in the shelters, they are sometimes held overnight in police cells. They are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, to being trafficked into a criminal underworld of prostitution and drug-dealing.” She said that some of the children travelling on their own are as young as eight years old.
The final kicker, if this story wasn’t poisonous and heartbreaking enough, is that the rejected amendment was proposed by the Labour politician Lord Alf Dubs. Now 83, Lord Dubs is himself a former child refugee, one of hundreds of Czech Jewish children transported safely to Britain via Kindertransport, shortly before the outbreak of WW2.
Kindertransport saw nearly 10,000 child refugees given sanctuary in Britain, and is rightly considered one of the proudest moments in our history. Sir Nicholas Winton, the British stockbroker who coordinated the rescue effort that saved Lord Dubs, is lionised: upon his death last summer, the Home Secretary Theresa May described him as “a hero of the 20th century”. She yesterday voted against the UK accepting any more child refugees. The irony is savage and biting.
David Cameron has long attempted to characterise his government as one of “compassionate conservatism”. But when it comes to the refugee crisis, the argument we hear again and again is that we cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by emotion. We can be sympathetic, but we must be sensible. First and foremost, we have to look after our own.
But why is emotion seen as weakness? When it comes to the plight of thousands upon thousands of traumatised, brutalised children on our doorstep, why is it considered a sign of our country's strength to turn away? We should feel emotional – and translate emotion into action. The alternative is too shameful for words.