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“We walked away”

UK shuts down refugee program that was set to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied kids

U.K. shuts down refugee program that was set to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied kids

Britons who arrived in the U.K. as unaccompanied child refugees fleeing conflict have accused the government of moral failing after it abandoned a landmark scheme to help children facing the same plight today.

Lord Alfred Dubs – a former child refugee who arrived in Britain in 1939 fleeing Nazi persecution in Czechoslovakia – told VICE News the government’s decision this week to quietly wrap up a scheme aimed at providing a safe haven for vulnerable child refugees stranded in camps across Europe was “appalling.”

“We had a very humanitarian position, and I think we walked away,” he said. “It’s a retrograde step ­– we can’t neglect the terrible plight of unaccompanied child refugees.”

Dubs, a former MP and a member of the House of Lords, was the architect of the plan, known as the “Dubs amendment,” which was announced last year amid a huge swell of public concern for vulnerable children caught up in the migrant crisis.

Under the scheme, Britain agreed to provide safe passage to the U.K. for some of the estimated 90,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps in Greece, Italy, and France.

While the numbers to be accepted under the scheme were never set in stone, a total of 3,000 had been discussed by campaigners and local authorities who were tasked with finding homes for the children.

But the U.K. government said this week that the program would be brought to a halt once an impending transfer of 150 children was complete, leaving just 350 children settled in the UK under the scheme.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the decision had been made after French officials complained the policy was acting as a “pull” factor encouraging the flow of migrant children to Europe, while Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill said that local authorities around the country only had capacity for 400 unaccompanied children.

But Dubs said the excuses didn’t wash with him, and he believed more space could be found to accept more children. “They’re using the excuse that it encourages traffickers – I think if we close down legal routes, the traffickers will have a field day.” He believed anti-migrant sentiment in the wake of the vote for Brexit was playing into the government’s decision. “But I still believe public opinion is on the side of child refugees,” he said.

Born in Prague in 1932, Dubs was one of 669 predominantly Jewish children who escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia thanks to the efforts of stockbroker Nicholas Winton, dubbed the “British Schindler.” Dubs arrived in London as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 6, and went on to have an illustrious political career.

His rescue was part of the Kindertransport, a remarkable scheme that saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis prior to the outbreak of World War II, placing them in homes and facilities in the U.K.

Brent Leslie, an eminent British immunologist who fled Nazi persecution in Germany as a 13-year-old on the first Kindertransport in 1938, told VICE News he was “utterly appalled” by the decision to scrap the scheme.

He said the British government at the time of the Kindertransport had to be pressured by civil society groups to accept the child refugees, whose arrival was opposed by the tabloid press.

“But they did cave in eventually,” he said. “They allowed as many children as were sent over to come in. It was an incredible act of generosity that was unparalleled anywhere in the world.”

He said the current British government, pressured by a growing anti-migrant public sentiment, was failing to live up to the legacy of the Kindertransport. “I feel we’re losing our moral values and sense of compassion, and I feel very distressed by it,” he said.

“I don’t know anyone who came over on the Kindertransport who didn’t make a very solid contribution to life in this country, many of them with great distinction,” he said, citing the example of celebrated painter Frank Auerbach. Brent, himself a professor emeritus at the University of London, is responsible for advances in the field of immunology. “I cannot imagine why unaccompanied children from Syria shouldn’t make a similar contribution.”

The decision to end the Dubs amendment drew a wave of condemnation from politicians and civic leaders. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church, said the U.K. had “a great history of welcoming those in need, particularly the most vulnerable” and called on the government to reconsider. Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron accused the government of “a betrayal of British values” in abandoning the scheme. Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted the government’s path on refugees is the right one.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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