THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams and more than 250 other faith leaders have signed an open letter calling on the Prime Minister to guarantee a safe route to asylum for more child refugees.
The letter, organised by the charity Safe Passage in preparation for World Refugee Day on Saturday, responds to a government announcement that the 480 places reserved for child refugees in Britain under the Dubs Scheme have been filled.
Its signatories include 21 Church of England bishops, Scottish Episcopalian and Church in Wales bishops, the Roman Catholic lead bishop for migrants and refugees, the Muslim Council of Britain’s general secretary, more than 30 rabbis, the former president of the Hindu Forum of Europe, and senior leaders from the Baptist, Methodist, and United Reformed Churches, as well as the Salvation Army and the Quakers.
The letter states that “more than 1,600 unaccompanied children remain stuck on the Greek islands — they have escaped war, persecution, and poverty only to find themselves now trapped in desperate conditions, with little or no access to the most basic necessities. Water, shelter, food, and toilets are in scarce supply and with many children already unwell, they are also at heightened risk of Covid-19 infection.
“These children are at a severe risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and violence, and are surviving in circumstances that no child should experience. An increasing number of these children are attempting suicide and self-harm. Inaction in the face of such deprivation and suffering is not an option. Now, more than ever, the UK must step in and offer sanctuary to children in urgent need.”
It continues: “Even in challenging times the UK has always remained a place of sanctuary for those seeking refuge, from the Kindertransport to the more recent Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme, and we urge you to build on this proud tradition by urgently resettling some of the world’s most vulnerable children.”
MPs voted in 2016 to establish a safe route to the UK for children fleeing from refugee camps in Greece and France. Numbers were capped at 500, however, despite estimates by the charity that more than 10,000 children had arrived in the UK by lorry since 2010. Campaigners and religious leaders have said that this leaves children exposed to being trafficked or smuggled.
Although Boris Johnson worked with the Greek government last month to ensure that 47 refugees were transferred from Athens to London to be reunited with family members, from the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January 2021, the EU’s rules on family reunions will cease to apply in the UK.
In a statement to the Church Times, a government spokesperson said: “The Dubs scheme was a one-off commitment agreed by Parliament. We are extremely grateful for the constructive way in which the French, Greek and Italian authorities have worked with us to make these transfers happen. The specified number of 480 is based on what local authorities told us they could offer. The consultation exercise which arrived at the number has been through the Courts and was found to be lawful.
“We have a proud record supporting vulnerable asylum seeking children, and in the year up to March 2020 we granted protection to over 7300 children, and more than 44,900 children since 2010. In fact, last year we received the highest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children since 2008 and more than any EU country last year. Protecting vulnerable children is a key priority for this Government and the progress we have made — with generous support from local authorities — underlines our commitment to that.”
In a press release from Safe Passage, however, Lord Williams said: “There are still thousands of unaccompanied children isolated in refugee camps and holding centres, especially in the Greek islands, who are more at risk than ever at this time of pandemic disease, and who urgently need safe and legal means of settling in secure environments.
“We are simply pleading with the Prime Minister to honour the best traditions of this country and the commitments made by previous governments, and to respond to the Europe-wide challenge to guarantee safety and welcome for them. They need the same security and love that our own children need. And we need to show what we all hope is true — that our moral compass as a country has been strengthened and not weakened by the trials we have been going through.”
The Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain, Paul Parker, said: “Unaccompanied child refugees are among the most vulnerable people in our world. If anyone deserves our compassion, they do. We are called to welcome the stranger, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is time those words meant offering safety to this desperate group. Let us try what love can do.”
The chief executive of Safe Passage, Beth Gardiner-Smith, said in a statement: “We are inspired and grateful that so many faith leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with child refugees. Last winter, the government gave repeated assurances in Parliament that it was committed to helping child refugees join their relatives in the UK but it has now published a Brexit negotiating position that would replace concrete family reunion rights with a watered-down, discretionary system. There is a clear moral case for the UK to take leadership of this issue and provide safe and legal routes for child refugees.”