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No one wants to see boats of desperate refugees trying to cross the English Channel. It is dangerous and life-threatening for those who attempt it and puts others at risk as they attempt to save them. It is illegal, undermines a sense of law and order and it further incites anti-refugee sentiment. But this is what happens when the state fails and you don’t put in place a fair and humane refugee system or work in constructive partnership with our neighbours to help desperate people escape the threat to their lives.
It is believed there have been more than 1,000 landings on the Kent coast since the COVID-19 lockdown began. The impact of pandemic has had a startling effect – deteriorating conditions in the camps, increased police clearances and fewer crosses by boats and lorries have increased desperation and meant that more are willing to risk their lives in a dinghy.
Lord Alf Dubs, who has campaigned so powerfully on these issues, talking to LME, said ‘understandably, over recent months all our attention has been focused on dealing with COVID-19. But the fact remains that many refugees in Calais and the Greek Islands especially, are in a desperate situation. Surely, we have a responsibility not to turn our backs and walk away from them but to take our fair share, especially now with the risk of corona and the dangers it poses to overcrowded camps?”
And things are likely to get worse. If some of the Brexit vote was driven by a desire to reduce the numbers of people coming to the UK shores, especially illegally, those that voted for these reasons are going to get a nasty shock.
Legal routes for refugees will diminish as a result of Brexit, leading to more pressure on illegal routes. Already people are desperately trying to get over here before - as they believe - routes are closed for good, leading to an upsurge in those using these boats.
A no deal Brexit would mean an end to the Dublin Treaty, which allows children and adults to register a claim in the UK while in another EU country. Unless renegotiated, it also means an end to family reunion in the UK for child refugees – a key principle of the agreement being that children should be reunited with relatives as quickly as possible.
The UK government is proposing to negotiate a new agreement that would make family reunion discretionary - putting the UK under no legal obligation to support the child and leaving the decision entirely in the hands of the Home Office as to whether to find in that child’s favour.
We will see hundreds of children across Europe lose the right to join their families safely. The government is about to make life a whole lot worse for child refugees who will remain separate from their families and at greater risk of people traffickers. And for those who voted for these reasons, they will be disappointed to learn an end to Dublin will also mean the UK has no right to return refugees to the first EU country they claimed asylum in.
On top of this, last month, in the midst of the pandemic, the government quietly and arbitrarily bought an end to the Dubs Scheme – designed for the most vulnerable unaccompanied children in need of relocation out of camps in Europe.
Help Refugees estimates that there are 6,000 children living alone in the dangerous camps at risk of abuse or trafficking. By providing them with a safe, legal route to the UK, Lord Dubs and campaigners wanted to help the most vulnerable, isolated children – many of whom are orphans - to be given a home here. 1,400 places have been offered by local authorities around the country but the government closed it at just 480. The government has just pulled this lifeline.
Unless safe and legal means to tackle the global refugee challenge are negotiated with our EU partners, with humanity and safety at their heart, we are going to see more and more people risk their lives to make this dangerous crossing. Like so much about Brexit, the hard work of negotiation, partnership and constructive co-operation are tossed aside for the destructive urge to look tough and pander to an insular, ‘build a wall’ mindset. This time, the lives of vulnerable children and Britain’s moral conscience are in the balance.
By Anna Turley - LME chair & former Labour MP for Redcar
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