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Churches condemn child-refugee limit

17 February 2017


“Untenable”: a Syrian refugee, Nourshan Mohammed, aged four, and other children play at the camp of Ritsona, about 50 miles north of Athens, in January. The European Commission has criticised the conditions of the camps in which refugees are housed

“Untenable”: a Syrian refugee, Nourshan Mohammed, aged four, and other children play at the camp of Ritsona, about 50 miles north of Athen...

OTHER church leaders have joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in condemning the Government’s announcement last week that only 350 unaccompanied refugee children will be transferred to the UK from Europe.

In a joint letter to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, last Friday, leaders of the Methodist Church, Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Quakers in Britain, and United Reformed Church wrote that they were “dismayed” by the decision, and urged the Government to recognise the “potential harm” that refusing children from Europe might cause.

“As a nation, we have a rigorous approach to safeguarding, reflecting a strong commitment to the wellbeing of children and vulnerable citizens. We do not believe that this commitment should be limited by political borders.”

The Immigration Act (2016), as amended by Lord Dubs, compels the Secretary of State to relocate to the UK a “specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”. It states that the Government is “under no obligation to transfer unaccompanied refugee children from Europe beyond the specified number to be determined following consultation with local authorities”.

The Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, told the House of Commons on Wednesday of last week that, after consultation with local authorities, the Government had settled on a total of 350 children. This included more than 200 children already transferred from France.

Archbishop Welby responded that he was “shocked and saddened” by the decision, which he said did not “meet the spirit” of the commitment made last year under the Dubs amendment (News, 10 February).

“We must resist and turn back the worrying trends we are seeing around the world, towards seeing the movement of desperate people as more of a threat to identity and security than an opportunity to do our duty,” he said. “We cannot withdraw from our long and proud history of helping the most vulnerable.”

The Archbishop later told BBC Radio 4, World at One, that the vulnerability of child refugees in Europe was “so overwhelming” that the policy must be reversed.

“To leave the whole weight of this on Italy and Greece is deeply unjust,” he said. “These children have not chosen their way, they are not adults. . . At some point their vulnerability must be recognised because they will be trafficked; they will end up in brothels; in places where they are exploited, ill-treated, manipulated, and very often finally killed.”

In a statement to the House, last Thursday, Ms Rudd defended the decision, described by Lord Dubs as “shabby”. It was a response to local authorities, she argued, who would receive increases in funding to meet the costs of caring for children. She drew attention to the £2.3 billion the UK has pledged in aid in response to the Syria conflict.

The Labour MP Yvette Cooper described the move as “shameful”. She spoke of thousands of children still in need of help, including children returning to Calais, “back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings — back into the modern slavery that this Parliament and this Government have pledged to end”.

Mrs Rudd repeated the Government’s argument that the scheme acted “as a pull” and encouraged trafficking. It stopped children operating with the French authorities, she said. The most vulnerable children were those in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, she argued, “and they are the ones we are determined to bring over here.”

The Archbishop told BBC Radio 4 that while he recognised the Government’s contribution in Syria, and accepted that the UK did not want to provide a bailout for people-smugglers, “sometimes you have to balance the difficulties” and understand that all child migrants were “absolutely helpless”.

MPs have challenged the Government’s assertion that local authorities are unable to take more children, and have suggested that other organisations could help.

Jonathan Reynolds, the Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, said that he was aware of one Christian charity in London which was housing more than 30 children. “Many faith communities are willing to step up to do what we would like the Government to do themselves. If they want to do more, will the Home Secretary let them?”

In an article in The Observer, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams urged the Government to “re-consult” with councils. The UK must “do everything in our power to help town halls across the country welcome children”.

The Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent, Helen Whateley, said that Kent was looking after more than 1000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children: “We must make sure that we can give them a genuine welcome, with councils having the resources and capacity to look after them as well as British children in need of care.”

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, said that he was “acutely aware of the challenges” in Kent, “but also of the life-changing impact that our country’s offer of safety, stability and compassion brings to the children and families who have been resettled here in our communities”.

Several other bishops have criticised the Government’s decision. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that the survey of local authorities had been done “months ago”, and should be redone. The Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, said that the Government was “in effect helping the trafficking industry”.

The Government has pledged that, by the end of this Parliament, 20,000 Syrian nationals will have been settled in the UK through its Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, and a further 3000 of “the most vulnerable children and their families” under another scheme.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said in a statement on Sunday that the Government had risked “abandoning its statutory and moral duty” in limiting the numbers from Europe, and must “work with renewed vigour, internationally and at home, to support and enable programmes to assist these vulnerable children”.

On Tuesday, more than 200 public figures, including actors, musicians, and the human-rights lawyer Dame Helena Kennedy QC, wrote to the Prime Minister in protest at what they called a “truly shameful” decision.

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