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Boris Johnson Is Shutting the Door on Child Refugees
In the name of strengthening its negotiating position after Brexit, the British government is removing internationally recognized protections for unaccompanied children who were once welcomed in the U.K.
It was May 2014 when 16-year-old Tedros fled Eritrea after becoming a military target for suspicion of smuggling. Giving his parents no notice of his departure, he slipped over the border into Ethiopia, and from there traversed Sudan, Libya, Italy, and France by himself until finally settling in Britain. Of the family of six he left behind, his youngest brother, Danni—both names are pseudonyms to protect their identities—would follow the same route four years later.
Now, after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government removed child refugee protections from the European Union withdrawal bill last month prior to Britain’s Jan. 31 departure from the EU, the brothers hope other young people like them will continue to have the same chance they did.
In the final stretch of his journey, Tedros recalled living on a river’s edge in Calais, France, among strangers, dependent on a charity that provided food each day. “There’s no protection there,” Tedros said of the camp, formerly referred to as the Jungle, where children and young adults were at risk of exploitation and trafficking. Both Tedros and Danni had stayed in the camp, though years apart, prior to forging a new home in Britain. “They are young … they are desperate to join family, they will take whatever chance they get,” Tedros said.
Danni, he said, was desperate. Tedros contacted the British Red Cross to help him reunite with his brother, who was nearly 13 when he left for the same arduous journey. From there, Safe Passage, an international organization that provides aid to unaccompanied children, reunited the brothers under the Dublin III Regulation, established by the EU in 2013 to transfer asylum claims to Britain and other member states, guaranteeing unaccompanied child refugees the right to reunification with family members.
The brothers’ story is not unique. Since 2010, Britain has granted protection to over 12,000 unaccompanied minors. There are currently an estimated 4,000 unaccompanied minors in Lesbos, Greece, and a few hundred in northern France, many living on the outskirts of formal camps. In both 2015 and 2016, over 1 million people applied for asylum in Europe—the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
After three years of political instability during which Britain sought to withdraw from the European Union, calls for sweeping immigration reform to wrest control over Britain’s borders dominated the national narrative. In the week leading up to Brexit, Johnson’s government introduced plans for a new points-based system, a new global talent visa, and the removal of protective measures for refugee children as part of the EU withdrawal bill—even as the House of Lords voted to restore the refugee protections after Brexit.
Despite being enshrined in British and international law, and former Prime Minister Theresa May including the Dublin Regulation in her former Brexit bill, last week members of Parliament gave a final stamp of approval, voting 348 to 252 against the Lords’ amendment, ceasing to allow unaccompanied child refugees such as Danni to be reunited with family members in Britain after Brexit.
“It is bitterly disappointing,” said Alf Dubs, a Labour Party member of the House of Lords and an ardent defender of unaccompanied child refugees given his own experience being evacuated from Czechoslovakia as part of the Kindertransport—a British effort that welcomed 10,000 children over the course of nine months beginning in 1938. “What could be more humane than arguing for child refugees to be able to join relatives in this country?” Dubs wrote in an emailed statement.
As members of Parliament declared that including the amendment in the EU withdrawal bill “weakened their negotiating flexibility,” making political pawns of young people who take life-risking measures to flee to safety, a Home Office minister assured the House of Lords that the amendment would be included in the immigration bill set to be introduced later this year during the 11-month transition period.
But the compassion extended to child refugees 80 years ago has all but faded. Even as the government says it “intends to seek a family reunion agreement with the EU for separated children,” it simultaneously withdrew all legal obligations to do so and refrained from making similar commitments for adults. In 2018, Britain transferred 209 migrants out of the country under the Dublin Regulation, while accepting 1,215—a paltry figure when compared to Germany’s acceptance of 7,580 migrants that year.
Britain’s Conservative Party has long been hostile toward migrants. But at a moment when Britain claims to be reclaiming its sovereignty and hails Brexit as a “moment of real national renewal,” the government is backtracking rather than making progress when it comes to protecting basic human rights and international obligations upheld by national and international humanitarian and refugee laws under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The debate over how Britain handles immigration is being led by a prime minister who once referred to black people as “picaninnies” and compared Muslim women wearing burqas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”—a testament to how the government’s xenophobic rhetoric has aroused anti-immigration sentiment and fueled outmoded policies.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, a daughter of Ugandan Asians who moved to Britain in the 1960s prior to then-Ugandan President Idi Amin’s decision to expel the country’s Asian minority in 1972, has argued for the government’s commitment to restructure an immigration policy that has “failed for too long.” But she, among others, has failed to prove precisely how 1,200 unaccompanied child refugees per year pose a threat to the U.K.’s 66 million citizens.
The persistence of the government’s hostility toward migrants, particularly low-skilled workers, from an economic perspective, makes little sense. Critics contend that although changes could reduce pressures on the National Health Service, schools, and social housing, it will increase pressure on social care, including health care for elders and foster care for the young, by failing to fill a shortage of low-wage positions largely occupied by foreign workers.
Johnson’s plans for immigration reform led to some embarrassment recently when a report last month from the Migration Advisory Committee, a government-appointed panel, rejected Johnson’s proposed Australian-style points-based system, essentially deeming it futile, and said Johnson’s global talent visa parameters for scientists and mathematicians were too narrow.
More broadly, the government’s new policies will do little to thwart unaccompanied children attempting to reach Britain, who will now seek to come without legal support, giving them a further incentive to rely on illegal routes to Britain. Just last November, 39 Vietnamese citizens were found dead in a refrigerated truck outside London, the latest example of the perilous journey migrants are willing to take.
“Many of the children we support have lost their parents but they have grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles living in the UK and ready to care for them,” said Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of Safe Passage, whose latest reports reveal that of the 12,000 or so unaccompanied minors who have gained protection in Britain since 2010, only 700 arrived through government support schemes.
“It is illogical that these children be denied safe passage to the UK, left with no other choice but to consider smuggling just to reach their loved ones, or to grow up alone without the care of their family many surviving in camps and car parks across Europe,” Gardiner-Smith said in a statement.
For decades, the story of Britain has largely been one of immigration. Figures in recent years show migrants from the European Economic Area contribute £78,000 (around $100,000) to government funding in their lifetime, more than the average British adult.
But as the country now forges a new future by tightening its immigration policy and exacerbating fault lines between older and younger generations and only allowing wealthier migrants to reap the economic rewards, the withdrawal of child refugee protections and family reunion policies is not merely a nativist promise fulfilled—it’s a stark reminder of the government’s inhumane policy toward migrants who have historically led periods of national renewal.
“If the government says they still support child refugees,” said the former child refugee Dubs, “the big question is not whether they support them—everyone does that in theoretical terms—but what are they going to do about it?”