How one council is battling to be a home for child refugees

Hammersmith and Fulham Council leader Stephen Cowan explains how a pint with Lord Dubs spearheaded a battle to bring children to the UK. But they face resistance at every turn – from those at the very top

June 23 2016 was an historic day for our country. But for me it was also the beginning of a journey I’ve been privileged to take with one of our local heroes, Alf Dubs. That journey would ultimately take Alf and me to the camps in Calais and Greece together to see for ourselves the terrible conditions children survive in. It would also lead to 26 so-called “Dubs children” – those with no family at all – completing their own journeys to safely settle in this borough. 

Alf lives in Hammersmith, where I am the leader of the council. After he and I had spent a long referendum day knocking on doors, we shared our fears over a beer. It was then that Alf explained to me his worries about the plight of child refugees. 

This week Alf’s worst fears were realised when the government voted down his amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. 

My first priority is always our residents, which is why Hammersmith and Fulham has the third-lowest council tax in Britain, taken all children out of homeless B&B accommodation, offers free homecare to our elderly and disabled residents and provides free breakfasts for all primary school children. But during the worst global refugee crisis in the post-war period, I also believe we have a duty to some of the most desperate, traumatised people of all – unaccompanied refugee children. I also have a duty to do all I can to keep our residents safe. Scrapping children’s legal right to family reunion not only betrays our great British humanitarian traditions but it also fuels organised crime which contaminates our communities, because when legal routes to safety for refugee children are closed, illegal smuggling and even trafficking flourish. Westminster may be where policy affecting refugee children is decided, but it is local authorities that are at the coalface of the refugee crisis. 

When children arrive in our borough, age assessments are undertaken. The overwhelming majority of the children assessed are indeed children. All of the Dubs children in our care suffer from trauma, but they’re all doing well. All but two are in full-time education and 16 of them are studying for university degrees. Given the dangerous journeys they have taken without family to protect them, their achievements are extraordinary. One of our Dubs children lived for two years in the Calais Jungle before being granted a legal right to asylum here. Three years on, and despite arriving here speaking no English, he is a model student with an excellent attendance and behaviour record at school. His passion and talent for cricket won him a fully funded place on a local team, and he has passed his trials for a national training programme that starts
this month. 

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Another of our Dubs children crossed continents to arrive here. He also came speaking no English but is already predicted high grades in English and Maths GCSE and Maths A level. He is in the top stream at his school and won a prestigious award for outstanding academic achievement. He is also a very promising footballer and last year he was offered a place on a prestigious football apprenticeship programme. 

Despite our willingness to play our part in the global refugee crisis, the government has not made it easy for us and other councils willing to step up. Although the government publicly stated that it supported their return to the UK, our offer to take the British orphans found in the camps in Syria
was stonewalled.  

We have even had to sue the government in order to win the right to bring a deeply traumatised child to safety here. The Syrian boy, who was being cared for by charities in Greece, had such acute psychiatric needs that he was moved around a number of institutions before being placed in a locked detention centre, and was highly medicated. We became involved after a charity told us about the boy’s history of suicide attempts, but despite his precarious mental state and lack of appropriate support, the government refused our offer to bring him safely into the care of our children’s department. We took legal action against the government and were unsuccessful. Some months later after the boy made further attempts to end his life, by stuffing his mouth with rags to try and choke himself, we took further legal action against the government, this time successfully, and we finally won the right to care for him. 

Our council is far from unique in terms of the efforts we’ve made to rise to this refugee crisis. Local authorities across the country have offered to take over 1,400 unaccompanied refugee children. So far, however, according to the Home Office, only 450 unaccompanied children have been reunited with their family in the UK, and just 220 children have been transferred under the Dubs scheme. Refugee charities in France and Greece say they have been told not to make any more referrals as the places are full. We know that is not the case.  

Alf arrived as an unaccompanied refugee child, aged just six. He went on to be part of the team that negotiated peace in Northern Ireland and was the driving force behind the government’s decision to ban cluster bombs. This borough and this country is the richer for people like Alf Dubs and indeed the Dubs children of today. 

Image: Getty