'As we leave EU, we cannot abandon our compassion and humanity'

Child refugees in Greece are among those who would be affected if UK backtracks on Dubs amendment.

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    Children do what they can to make food at a refugee camp known as the 'jungle' in Samos [Image by Anita, a 14-year-old refugee]
    Children do what they can to make food at a refugee camp known as the 'jungle' in Samos [Image by Anita, a 14-year-old refugee]

    Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

    Samos, Greece - The youngest unaccompanied child on the Greek island of Samos, who hopes to join family in Europe, is not yet a teenager.

    The child lives in a refugee camp on a hillside next to the island's capital, Samos Town, alongside 7,200 other refugees and asylum seekers, in a space designed for 640.

    Tents litter any available space on the already densely packed hill.

    Children chase each other along a muddy track winding above the main camp in the area known as the "jungle", which is acting as an overspill for the ever-growing camp.

    Nearly 2,000 are children, 400 of whom are unaccompanied.

    Of these 400, a handful hopes to join family in the United Kingdom

    But they now find their fate debated by politicians over 3,000 miles (4,800km) away.

    The removal of this opportunity by the UK would be a clear violation of these children's rights as it would prevent them from having a normal life outside of a refugee camp, supported by their families.

    Beatrice Chioccioli, project coordinator for Lawyers Without Borders France at the Samos Legal Centre

    On January 8, the House of Commons, where the ruling Conservatives hold a majority, voted to repeal an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which would have protected the rights of unaccompanied child refugees to join a relative who is a resident in the UK.

    After the vote, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's press secretary said the government would honour the provisions set out in the so-called "Dubs amendment" but there was no need to include it in the bill.

    "Protecting vulnerable children will remain our priority after Brexit," they said.

    On Tuesday, the House of Lords, in which the ruling Conservatives do not hold a majority, will vote on whether to uphold the government's removal of this amendment, which for many children, may be the only opportunity they have to join their family.

    Amir* is 17 and slim, but looks younger than he is.

    He looked confused when representatives from a legal charity on the island tried to explain his rights to him. Originally from Kuwait and a member of the Bidoon community, a stateless minority, Amir has been living in Samos alone for two months since arriving from Turkey across the Mediterranean.

    He is one of many unaccompanied minors who feel safer sleeping outside the official camp boundaries than in a designated "safe zone", which they say are overcrowded and prone to crime.

    Amir's father, whom he hopes to join, is in the UK.

    Beatrice Chioccioli, project coordinator for Lawyers Without Borders France at the Samos Legal Centre, told Al Jazeera: "We have been dealing with several cases of unaccompanied minors living in extremely bad conditions in the local hotspot. The camp is overcrowded, the sanitary conditions are very poor, access to food is difficult and therefore, it is an extremely unsafe place for unaccompanied children.

    "Our team has been working hard to make sure that their right to family reunification is guaranteed. The removal of this opportunity by the UK would be a clear violation of these children's rights as it would prevent them from having a normal life outside of a refugee camp, supported by their families."

    Children playing at the camp
    Children playing at a camp in Samos, a Greek island which hosts thousands of refugees including unaccompanied minors [Image by Sajad, a 14-year-old child refugee]

    Mahdi*, 15, is also a member of the stateless Bidoon community from Kuwait.

    He arrived in Samos in December and is also living outside the designated safe zone. He hopes to join his elder sister who is living in the UK.

    Some of the unaccompanied children Al Jazeera interviewed had chronic scabies as a result of overcrowding and poor sanitation.

    The resettlement scheme, which took the form of an amendment to immigration legislation, was introduced in 2016 by Lord Alf Dubs, a Labour peer.

    The architect of the amendment, he arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee just before the outbreak of World War II.

    I can see no moral justification for the removal of my amendment from the withdrawal agreement bill. As we leave the EU, we cannot abandon our compassion and humanity.

    Lord Alf Dubs

    He told Al Jazeera that unaccompanied child refugees should not become collateral damage of Brexit negotiations.

    "The stories of these children in Samos only underline the importance of family reunion. Many unaccompanied refugee children are living in terrible conditions on the Greek islands. A small proportion of these, hope to be reunited with their family in the UK because it is the only safe country where they have any family left.

    "I can see no moral justification for the removal of my amendment from the withdrawal agreement bill. As we leave the EU, we cannot abandon our compassion and humanity."

    In January, NGOs working on the island, including Still I Rise, which runs a youth centre for refugee children, won a case at the European Court of Human Rights.

    This ruled that because of the poor living conditions in the camp in Samos, five unaccompanied minors should be transferred to a centre where they could be better provided for. So far, only one of these children has been transferred.

    "We don't need to wonder what happens when lone refugee children are abandoned by governments. On Samos, we see it every day. Family reunion offers the chance for a small number of these children to escape hopelessness and destitution, and join family members in the UK.

    "What politician could possibly hold their head up after leaving these children out in the cold?" Alex Green, a spokesperson for Help Refugees, told Al Jazeera.

    Meanwhile, as politicians in Westminster discuss the merits of Lord Dubs' amendment, young children like Amir and Mahdi, are sleeping in thin summer tents in winter, waiting to hear whether they will be able to join their families or not.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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