Why doesn’t Britain want to take refugee children?

When you view refugee children purely as a problem to solve, something has gone wrong with your thinking.

A refugee boy passes by cardboard boxes set on fire by other children, at the transit center for refugees near northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce on the border with Serbia [AP]
A refugee boy at the transit centre for refugees on the Macedonian border with Serbia [AP]

So this one’s partly about a welcome flash of humanity, but mostly it’s about hitting a new low.

The humanity bit came from the British House of Lords, which last week amended an Immigration Bill, so that the UK has to take in 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees currently in Europe. The amendment was proposed by Lord Alfred Dubs, the Labour peer who was himself rescued as a child from the Nazis.

He urged the government to remember the spirit of Kindertransport, the scheme that saved thousands of Jewish children in the months just before World War II, bringing them from Nazi Germany to Great Britain.

So far, so heartening right? Here is the Lords acting as the best kind of check on parliament, compelling the UK government to do the right thing. Save the Children estimates that there are some 24,000 unaccompanied child refugees currently in Europe, and that 3,000 would be a fair share for the UK to absorb.

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Earlier this year, Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, warned that some 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children had disappeared after arriving in Europe.

There are all sorts of reasons why children (under 18) might be travelling across Europe alone: most are 14 to 15-year-old boys; some have been sent by parents who have assessed that even the perilous journey into Europe might result in better life chances than staying in countries where bombs fall daily.

Easy prey for trafficking gangs

Many children are separated along the way, or are grieving for adult relatives killed in wars or in transit. One thing we know for certain, though, is that unaccompanied children are terrifyingly vulnerable to the kinds of abuse that we don’t want to think about, easy prey for trafficking gangs and far worse.

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When Europol issued its dire estimation of the numbers of missing refugee children in January, its chief of staff Brian Donald noted: “An entire [criminal] infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow.”

The British government wants the mostly Syrian and Iraqi and Afghani refugees ... to proceed, in orderly fashion, to recognised refugee camps nearer their countries of origin, in Jordan or Turkey.


It’s this reality of the refugee crisis that makes what comes next quite impossible to explain. The British government is planning to contest Lord Dubs’ amendment when the Immigration Bill gets back to parliament in a few weeks’ time. It doesn’t want to take 3,000 children from Europe because, apparently, the worry is that this would only encourage them.

Tess Berry-Hart, at the volunteer group Calais Action, notes that the UK government seems “ideologically opposed to accepting any sort of ‘pull’ factor, which is anything from making things a tiny bit nice in Calais, or taking refugee children from Europe”.

Britain’s approach is that refugees shouldn’t be in makeshift European camps such as Calais in the first place. The government wants the mostly Syrian and Iraqi and Afghani refugees – you know, the ones escaping war and persecution, the ones making nightmarishly dangerous journeys that no human should ever have to make – to proceed, in orderly fashion, to recognised refugee camps nearer their countries of origin, in Jordan or Turkey.

The UK has committed to taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees, from those camps, by 2020. But this policy, first of all, is a wilful refusal to consider the refugees already in Europe, as though projecting this preference on to the situation will somehow make those thousands just disappear.

Words won’t stop the journeys

And it also avoids the obvious point that nobody in their right mind would travel so far from home and get all the way to the horrible, freezing camp at Calais unless they had a strong reason to cross the Channel into the UK: because of family connections, say, or language skills.

Migrants and refugees stand by a fence at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece [Reuters]
Migrants and refugees stand by a fence at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece [Reuters]

British ministers can go on as long as they like about needing to discourage young children from taking dangerous journeys, but those words won’t stop the journeys: in fact, the words – with their attendant refusal to offer safe routes – make the journeys more dangerous.

Meanwhile, the family connection part of the picture is where things grow pettier still. Under the Dublin Regulation, a bit of EU law, asylum seekers in Europe are entitled to join a relative in the UK – but an avalanche of grinding back-and-forth bureaucracy means that this doesn’t really happen in practice.

Of 423 identified unaccompanied minors at the Calais jungle, 150 have proven family ties to the UK. The British government could just let those children be in Britain while their claims are being checked – but what sort of example would that set?

Instead, a court had to compel the government to do just that, in a ground-breaking case in January involving three unaccompanied children in Calais with close relatives in the UK.

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Campaigners such as Calais Action and Citizens UK are currently working on more cases; so at what point will the courts suggest to the British government that it might make a policy change, rather than continue to waste time and resources over 150 children?


Nobody is pretending that this issue, with all its attendant concerns around child protection and all the challenges of absorbing horribly traumatised lone minors, is a simple one.

But the official reluctance to help also misses the part of the picture in which migrants bring value, rather than just headaches.

British Prime Minister David Cameron thinks that the Kindertransport analogy made by Lord Dubs and others is unfair – because the unaccompanied young refugees are in safe countries such as France, from where they can claim asylum, on family grounds, to the UK.

But if you look at a young refugee, with all that shiny potential and years to live and give, and all you see is a problem to solve, or an argument to counter, or a historical point to refute, then that isn’t just a moral failure; it’s an epic failure of the imagination, too.

If you can’t see how that new energy, the flourish, the life-blood creativity of exposure to different cultures, the innovating drive of diversity, might benefit you or your country, that’s a devastating societal problem – one that perhaps only an influx of hopeful young migrants could help you to fix.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.