Opinion

I came to the UK after fleeing Nazis. Government hostility towards today's refugees is inexcusable

Refugees deserve compassion and hope in their time of need, not hostility, writes Lord Dubs

Refugee children on a train

Children aboard a Kindertransport train. IMAGE: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

one-time refugee Lord Dubs in a blue shirt and tie and navy jacket
Alf Dubs, Baron Dubs. Image: Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the last train of the Kindertransport rescue effort that brought 10,000 children, mostly Jewish refugees, to safety in the UK. I was one of them. At six years old, I was one of the youngest and, if I’m honest, I didn’t really understand how perilous my situation was. 

However, as she waved me off at Prague station, I’m sure my mother understood only too well. 

Although many of us never saw our parents again, we were the lucky ones. Britain saved our lives. And I was luckier than most because somehow my mother also managed to escape and we were reunited in the UK, our new home, where we could rebuild our lives. Many of our relatives perished in the Nazi camps.     

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Tragically, the unaccompanied refugee children of today who are fleeing war, persecution or death have no similar routes to safety that could bring them to the UK. The best a child in my situation today could hope for would be to cross the Channel in a small boat after a long, terrifying journey from whichever warzone they had fled, possibly across other seas, deserts and refugee camps, facing violence and exploitation on the way.  

Ending safe routes for refugee children was a decision made by the UK government, the most hostile
government towards refugees in my memory. In reply to my question of what safe routes to the UK are available to child refugees and asylum seekers the under-secretary of state said: “There are no provisions in our Immigration Rules to enable someone to travel to the UK to seek asylum or temporary refuge.”  

The lack of humanity of this statement was brought home to me last week when I visited the refugee camps in Calais and met Wissam, a six-year-old refugee child, the same age I was, who, like me, is hoping to reach safety in the UK. Wissam has a rare genetic condition called Bloom Syndrome and the world’s leading expert in the condition works at a hospital in Manchester. Wissam’s parents have already lost a daughter to the condition and are determined to get Wissam the treatment he needs. But, for Wissam, and all the other desperate refugees surviving in Calais, there are no legal routes. Friends of Wissam’s are crowdfunding for him in the hope that if he can pay for treatment he’ll be allowed into the UK. 

I have been to Calais several times, but this last visit was more shocking than previous ones. Refugees are only just surviving in tents or under tarpaulins between pools of stagnant water without sanitation, running water or adequate clothing, surrounded by mud and rubbish. Food is scarce. Suicides are not uncommon. The French police, part-funded by the UK government, frequently slash the tents the refugees live in and destroy their means of survival – stoves, beds, clothes.  

Some of the refugees we met have family in the UK who could take care of them, were they allowed to reach them.  

The government’s hostility towards refugees is indicative of its hostility towards vulnerable people more broadly. Refugees in Calais are not living in those filthy tents out of a lifestyle choice any more than the street homeless in the UK are. Refugees are not, as our former home secretary would have it, “invaders”. They deserve compassion. Even more importantly, like all of us, they deserve hope. 

People can put up with shocking and difficult physical conditions if they have hope for something better. It is our job, as politicians, to give those fleeing war and persecution a little hope.  

Through my work with refugees, I see that hope all the time in the dedication of charity workers and volunteers who help refugees on the ground, and in the generosity and support of communities towards the refugees who live among them.

A man sits in an auditorium
Anthony Hopkins stars as Sir Nicholas Winton in One Life, out on 1 January. Image: © See-Saw Films

Ken Loach’s new film, The Old Oak, is about precisely that – the welcome extended to a group of Syrian refugees who settled in a former mining community in the north-east. So too is a new film out in the new year called One Life, about Nicky Winton, the man who arranged the Kindertransport that saved my life, and the community that stepped up to house and care for the 10,000 of us who arrived.  

The winter is upon us. Conditions for refugees in Calais will only worsen. In the true spirit of Christmas, let us all do our best to give the gift of hope.   

One Life is in cinemas from 1 January.

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