LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — A British lawmaker who fled Nazi Germany as a young boy warned on Monday that a change in government policy after Brexit could put other child refugees in danger.
Alf Dubs, an opposition member of the House of Lords, has accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of watering down his government’s future commitments to unaccompanied children.
“I don’t know whether it’s total incompetence or whether it’s malice but the signal they’re sending is that they don’t like child refugees,” the 87-year-old told AFP.
“It’s a very nasty signal,” he said.
Members of the unelected upper chamber of parliament are currently debating a bill that ratifies the divorce terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union on January 31.
It has already been passed in the elected lower House of Commons but Dubs is leading an effort in the Lords to block changes it makes to the law on family reunions. Currently, EU law allows unaccompanied child refugees to join relatives elsewhere in the union.
British lawmakers passed a law in 2018 to require that the government seek a similar deal with Brussels after Brexit, to continue the system. But the new Brexit bill seeks to remove that requirement, inserting vague language about keeping parliament informed.
Dubs expressed his fears for young people from Syria or Afghanistan, “who are sleeping rough in Calais under tarpaulins, or on the Greek islands.”
They are “vulnerable to trafficking, vulnerable to criminality, vulnerable to prostitution” and “if they have family here they should be able to join them,” he said. “If they are not allowed to come legally, they will come with traffickers, which is dangerous and totally undesirable.”
Journey from Prague
Addressing a protest outside parliament on Monday, Dubs described the government’s actions as a “scandal,” adding: “I’m ashamed this country is doing what it’s doing.”
Dubs, a member of the Labour party, has successfully changed the law on this issue before, thanks in part to his own extraordinary personal history.
He moved to Britain from Prague when he was six on the Kindertransport program, a government effort which between 1938 and 1940 saved around 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis.
Still speaking with a hint of a Czech accent, Dubs insisted: “I’m not fighting the fight because I came as an unaccompanied child refugee, I’m fighting the fight because I think it’s humanitarian and it’s important.”
He added: “I think the majority of people in this country when the argument is put about the plight of these children, people would say yes, we can take some more.”
Johnson’s government denied it was watering down its commitments to child refugees.
“Protecting vulnerable children will remain our priority after Brexit,” a spokeswoman said. “We have a proud record of helping vulnerable children, granting protection to 41,000 since 2010 and doing more than the vast majority of EU countries to help unaccompanied minors.”
However, the government appears wary enough of the challenge from Dubs that it arranged for him to meet ministers twice to discuss the issue.
The Lords will vote on his amendment to the bill on Tuesday. If they win, it will go back to the Commons, where MPs are likely to overturn it.
However, Dubs holds out hope the government will change its mind and give in.
“All we want is to find a safe way for children to join family — what’s more reasonable and humanitarian than that?” he asked.