“A sinking ship with not enough lifeboats”: London citizens call for urgent action on child refugees in Calais

First published on Medium, 25 October 2016

Around 150 people gathered outside the Home Office yesterday to celebrate the arrival of the first so-called “Dubs children” and to urge leaders of government and local councils to take more action to bring vulnerable refugee children in Europe to safety.

Children dress as Paddington to call on UK Home Office to welcome more child refugees to UK
Adults and children with Paddington Bear masks and toys call on the Home Office to welcome refugee children to the UK. Judith Vonberg

Organised by Citizens UK, the action had a playful theme but a serious message. In Michael Bond’s famous book, ‘A Bear Called Paddington’, recently made into a major blockbuster, the young bear travels to London alone after his home in Peru is destroyed. He remembers his Aunt Lucy describing the kindness of the British people. “They will not have forgotten how to treat a stranger”, she told him.

Yet this unaccompanied child refugee is treated with hostility by many of the Londoners he encounters. One family chooses to welcome him, however, and all of their lives are changed for the better.

While children had their faces painted like their favourite Peruvian bear and held tight to their own cuddly Paddingtons, the adults who gathered at the Home Office yesterday, many sporting Paddington masks themselves, were reminded of the poignancy of this story.

Families with Paddington masks call on Amber Rudd and UK government to welcome more child refugees from Calais and Europe to the UK
Adults and children alike were out supporting Citizens UK. Judith Vonberg

Like Paddington, the unaccompanied minors living in Calais have been faced with hostility from large sections of the British public and media, both in the months preceding and since their arrival. Yet there have been welcoming voices and the arrival of 285 child refugees from Calais over the last few weeks testifies to their persistence. Without the dedication of countless citizens across London, these children would never have arrived, several speakers reminded us.

Some of the children who have arrived in the last few days are the first to arrive under the Dubs amendment. Proposed by Lord Alfred Dubs and passed in May this year, this amendment allowed unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to be resettled in the UK.

But the number of children was not specified and the government is reliant on local authorities to pledge to settle children in their borough. Amber Rudd told MPs yesterday that one in four authorities have refused to resettle any Dubs children.

Yet many councils across the UK have pledged to offer refuge to some of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees currently in Europe.

Ealing is one of those councils. Its leader, Julian Bell, spoke at the action about his recent trip to the camp at Calais. He described the experience as “heartbreaking” and spoke of his pride that Ealing was one of the first boroughs to welcome “Dubs children” this weekend.

Representatives from Redbridge, Lewisham and Lambeth councils, several of whom have also visited the camp in recent months, echoed Bell’s sentiments. They were clear in their message: we are ready to welcome refugee children into our boroughs.

Council leaders from Ealing, Redbridge, Lewisham and Lambeth talk about their pledges to welcome child refugees to their London boroughs
London council leaders and representatives address the crowd. Judith Vonberg

Local faith leaders Father Pat Browne and Rabbi Janet Darley spoke of the moral imperative to help. “Do not stand idly by while your neighbour’s blood is shed,” Darley said, quoting the Torah. “To save one child’s life means to save all of humanity.”

A speech by Bradley Hillier-Smith from Camden Refugees Welcome continued the sombre yet urgent tone. “I was in Calais last week,” he said. “There was chaos and confusion. It felt like a sinking ship with not enough lifeboats.” But he reminded us that we in Britain have the means to take positive action. “Together we can take action and be on the right side of history,” he said.

Lord Dubs issued a similarly urgent call for action. Even once the children from Calais have been resettled, he reminded us, there are thousands more vulnerable children trapped in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. “Our job is not yet done,” he said.

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