Britain rejecting child refugees is no surprise

Given the toxic environment post-Brexit, and the historical record, rejecting child refugees is no wonder.

Labour peer Alf Dubs poses with protestors in London as they oppose the closure of a government scheme to bring unaccompanied child refugees to Britain from Europe
Labour peer Alfred Dubs, second row fourth left, poses with protesters before delivering a petition to Number 10 Downing Street in London, on February 11 [Neil Hall/Reuters]

Two months before Theresa May became the prime minister of the United Kingdom, she spoke at the memorial service being held for one of her constituents, Sir Nicholas Winton.

Winton had been known as “the British Oscar Schindler”, because he rescued hundreds of Czech children, all Jews, from the Holocaust in the months before World War II.

At the funeral, May described Winton’s actions as an “inspiration”. But, apparently, these actions were not inspirational enough. The Conservative prime minister has just scrapped a similar child rescue scheme, proposed by one of the very children Winton saved, only months after his death.

The so-called “Dubs Amendment”, in which the government begrudgingly promised to admit 3,000 child refugees from Syria in 2016, was named after a man who owes his life to Winton.

Alfred Dubs, who grew up in Britain and became a Labour member of the House of Lords, was saved from the hands of Adolf Hitler by Winton.

Last week, with the news media concentrating itself largely on Brexit, the government quietly announced the “Dubs Amendment” child rescue scheme would be stopped after only 350 children had been admitted.

Stacking odds against refugees

Where has this turnaround come from?

There are four factors: a refusal to acknowledge our historic indifference to refugee suffering, the moral rot of the British conservative press, an austerity programme which has legitimised public selfishness, and an even more marked exodus of compassion in post-Brexit Britain.

These four factors have created a perfect storm that has stacked the odds against refugees, even if they are desperately vulnerable children.

In Britain, there is a romanticised view of how the country acted towards the refugees that were being targeted by Hitler.

In reality, the attitude towards these refugees was the exception to a proud military record: it condemned hundreds of thousands more Jews to their deaths when they might readily have been saved. None of this is taught in our school history books.

OPINION: Why doesn’t Britain want to take refugee children?

On the eve of the war, just 70,000 Jews had been accepted for asylum in the UK, with an estimated half a million having applied and been turned back – many to their deaths.

Certainly, if you look across Europe, Germany – the most honest country about its actions in that dark era – has taken its previous conduct towards refugees firmly into account, when it comes to responding to Syria.

Given we have written out our real actions from the annals of history, we feel no need to make up for how we really acted in the World War II.

The ‘soft touch’ myth

The right-wing titles of the British press tilted the odds further away from Syrians.

The most-read print titles of Britain – namely the Daily Mail and the Sun – are conservative, anti-immigration, and anti-refugee, with polling showing them as the most right-wing in Europe.

Unsurprisingly, many of these papers also opposed accepting Jewish refugees into the country before the World War II.

The nail in the coffin for the 90 percent of child refugees who will now be turned away from Britain's borders is the toxic anti-immigration atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain.


These papers have also championed austerity.

They used the same journalistic techniques to promote the government’s punitive austerity agenda – which targets the poor, disabled and women, in particular – as the methods used to oppose immigration: misinformation, selective reporting and fearmongering opinion pieces.

Similarly, the idea that Britain is a “soft touch” when it comes to asylum applications forms the backdrop to the current Syrian refugee crisis. Long before the Syrian conflict began, this “soft touch” myth has been pushed by journalists and accepted as fact by senior politicians.

OPINION – Jo Cox’s message to the world: We have #MoreInCommon

To illustrate their point, newspapers have, since the 1990s, gathered anecdote after anecdote about “bogus asylum seekers”, again seeking to present anecdotal evidence as systemic.

Recent reporting has veered into extreme callousness, including a reporter from Breitbart London photographing child refugees into Britain and ruthlessly speculating about their age, while the Conservative MP, David Davies was accused of “vilifying” child refugees by asking them to undergo dental checks.

In reality, we now know that refugees view Britain as having one of the strictest admission systems in the world.

Appeasing once again?

The nail in the coffin for the 90 percent of child refugees who will now be turned away from Britain’s borders is the toxic anti-immigration atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain.

In the run-up to the vote, Jo Cox, a Labour MP was assassinated partly for wanting Britain to accept more refugees.

In response to Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban, a former adviser to David Cameron, Alex Deane has leaped to Trump’s defence, while Prime Minister May has been nicknamed #TheresaTheAppeaser for standing meekly by.

The immigration spokesperson for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has just told his Twitter followers; “If you want a jihadi for a neighbour, vote Labour.” The picture was accompanied by refugees hanging off the back of a truck.

Britain has changed after the Brexit, but the changes are, perhaps, not as severe as being made out. From our Britain’s approach to Jewish refugees in the World War II, to the decades of anti-refugee propaganda pushed by the press, to the selfishness promoted through six long years of austerity; there is a steady pattern of behaviour that means rejecting child refugees who were promised a place here, should have been no surprise.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.

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