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Britain Has Sullied Its Proud History of Helping Child Refugees

UK Government Ends Program to Protect Lone Children

A statue of five young children, gathered around their suitcases and looking a little lost, sits outside London’s Liverpool Street Station. It’s a gift to the people of Britain on behalf of the children of Kindertransport, the rescue effort that brought 10,000 refugee children, mostly Jewish, to the United Kingdom during World War II.

A statue in front of London’s Liverpool Street Station commemorates the Kindertransport. A plaque at the base expresses “gratitude to the people of Britain for saving the lives of 10,000 unaccompanied mainly Jewish children who fled from Nazi persecution in 1938 and 1939.” © 2017 Michael Bochenek/Human Rights Watch

In the same spirit, and at the urging of Lord Alf Dubs, himself a Kindertransport beneficiary, Parliament voted last year to take in unaccompanied children who had fled war in Syria and elsewhere. While the “Dubs amendment”, as the measure is known, didn’t specify a precise number, lawmakers spoke of accepting thousands from across Europe. But this week the government said it would admit just 350 children under the provision, and no more.

The government’s initial explanation was that the local authorities responsible for the children’s care have limited capacity. After a Conservative MP pointed out that the new cap represents fewer than two children per local authority, Home Secretary Amber Rudd offered an alternative reason, claiming that the provision is encouraging human trafficking.

But Rudd’s remarks in the House of Commons suggest that the real reason is reducing refugee numbers. “We do not want to incentivise journeys to Europe,” she said.

This week’s ditching of the Dubs amendment comes just as the UK government announced it is also suspending the resettlement of refugees with disabilities, and suggests a retreat from UK leadership on refugee protection at a time when it is sorely needed.

In truth, this UK government has been a reluctant champion of unaccompanied children. It fought to ensure that the Dubs amendment would not commit to any particular number. Then it adopted overly strict criteria, for example limiting most transfers from the Calais migrant camp to children under 12. And as Human Rights Watch found, those criteria weren’t always followed, meaning some children may have been arbitrarily denied the chance of a transfer to the UK.

I walked by the Kindertransport statue on my way to work this morning. As commuters streamed past, I looked at it from every angle, humbled by the generosity that led strangers to offer sanctuary to other people’s children.

This week, Britain has turned its back not just on some of this generation’s most vulnerable child refugees, but on one of its proudest moments in history as well.

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