Alone in the Sand: Syrian Refugee Children Abandoned by European Governments

"Syrian Refugee Children" Photo by Mehmet Bilgin

“Syrian Refugee Children” Photo by Mehmet Bilgin

In 1938, a young British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton travelled to Prague. On the eve of the Second World War, he evacuated 669 mostly Jewish children from occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain. In the UK he is celebrated as a hero. Just over a year ago, Sir Nicholas Winton died peacefully aged 106.

Thanks to him many of the children he rescued on the Kindertransport did not die in the holocaust and are still alive today. One of those rescued, Lord Alf Dubs, sits in Parliament today. In May, Lord Dubs successfully included an amendment to the Immigration Act.

The Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act calls on the UK government to provide sanctuary and asylum for unaccompanied refugee children currently at risk and alone. It does not give a figure as to how many children will receive refugee and merely states “as soon as possible”. Last month, the Guardian found that only 20 children had been relocated under the Immigration Act. This apparent inaction, a lack of capacity, and political will is putting the lives of thousands of children at risk.

At the beginning of the year, Europol estimated that 10,000 refugee children have gone missing in Europe. Officials and charities fear that many of these children end up abused by human-traffickers and sold into forced labour or sex slavery. Even the children who are not missing are in danger, as the Observer reported earlier this month that children in official camps in Greece are being sexually assaulted.

Refugee children, especially unaccompanied ones, are at risk across Europe. On Britain’s doorstep, 600 are estimated to be alone in the sand of the Calais “Jungle”. At least 129 children have gone missing from the camp since last summer. A local NGO recently warned that of a severe lack of safe accommodation puts children at risk. Conditions in Calais are worsening and activists estimate the Jungle population has now reached 9,000. Food is running out and charitable donations are dwindling. NGOs on the ground in Calais complain that children are not being relocated, as the UK Home Office has no system in place to register or rehouse child refugees.

There are 7.5 million Syrian children affected by the war. But what choices do they have, to stay and end up dying from being crushed by the rubble of their bombed-out homes like the brother of Omran Daqneesh? To wash up on a Mediterranean beach like Aylan Kurdi? Or to disappear into Europe’s dark underworld? It’s time The UK and Europe ended this.

The EU and its member states have failed to relocate even a fraction of the promised amount of refugees from Greece and Italy to other parts of the Union and there are 3,800 refugee children stranded on Greek islands.

Time and time again throughout this crisis, where Brussels and national governments have failed, NGOs and volunteers have stepped in. It’s NGOs like MOAS and MSF who have search and rescue as their primary missions in the Mediterranean, as national coastguards focus on countering smuggling and illegal activities. This needs to change. Governments cannot stand by and rely on volunteers, charity and NGOs to look after hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite the instability of the Brexit era, the Dubs Amendment had the potential to prove to the world that the country could still reach out and help those most vulnerable. But the spiralling and violent hostility towards immigration following the Brexit vote, the regime change in Westminster, and inaction by the Home Office resulted in only a handful of children being brought to safety in Britain.

The UK needs to make a concerted effort to bring unaccompanied children to safety. On Friday, the one year anniversary of Aylan Kurdi’s death, Citizens UK called for 380 children who qualify for asylum but are still stuck in Calais to be brought to Britain. The Home Office and the government ought to listen to Citizens UK and heed the words of the former refugee, Alf Dubs when he says: “if we can do something to help a few people, then we should do that.” We can do something, and we must.

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