Britain is failing child refugees – and Theresa May is partly to blame

Will the new Prime Minister bow to public outcry?


Imagine yourself as a child of 13. You’ve ended up on your own in a strange country, living in a camp where you are in danger from cold, hunger, insanitary conditions, sexual assault and violence every day.

You have to make your own case for being given a home to officials who you find difficult to understand. They don’t believe your story for how you got there or even believe you are giving them the correct name.

A film that featured these shocking dangers would most likely be restricted to over 15s, but it’s the grim reality for more than 10,000 children in Europe, separated from their families and alone after fleeing their homes in Syria.

The House of Lords today published its report into the crisis for migrant children.

It reveals the grim details of how they are being ‘failed across the board’ by European countries, especially the UK, treated with suspicion by officials and left to fall prey to traffickers, sexual exploitation and worse.

The calls for action from the Lords follow similar calls from the London Assembly, where a motion I proposed to ask the government to do more to help was passed with only UKIP’s dissent last month.

Councils across the country are also backing these calls and need two things: the Home Office to do more to help children apply to enter the country, and for the government to more widely support local authorities in providing safe and caring foster homes for these children.

When tiny three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was photographed washed up and drowned on a beach in Turkey, the fate of children in the terrifying exodus of people from Syria grew into a huge, irresistible clamour for action last September.

The desperate situation of children who have reached the EU is also heartbreaking, and even more frustrating in its needlessness, because it is made worse by officialdom putting up extra barriers.

Children’s accounts of their names, countries of origin, situation and even their ages are routinely not believed.

They are left excluded from help or treated as adults when they are simply scared children in need of care and shelter, whose stories are best discussed in a safe home not a squalid campsite.

The Lords fought a long and honourable battle earlier this year to force a pledge from then Prime Minister David Cameron for the UK to take up to 3,000 child refugees ‘as soon as possible’.

However, little has since happened, with Theresa May’s Home Office the main block to action so far.

Now that May has taken over from Cameron, the signs are not good. Abolishing the ministerial post for Syrian refugees this week has been accompanied by the closure of Cedars, a specialist centre for housing families facing deportation.

This move will essentially see the reintroduction of child detention inside general facilities after it was abolished as inhumane by the coalition government.

I do have some hope, however. It’s arguably the role of the Home Secretary to err on the side of hardness in enforcing rules, while the Prime Minister must balance their judgements against bigger, human issues.

And surely no PM can endure a massive public outcry on behalf of stricken children for long?

There are many petitions and actions online. Unicef’s to Theresa May here is one of the biggest and clearest, set up by Bilal who at 14 spent seven months in Calais trying to be reunited with his family in UK.

On the parliamentary petitions site, this is the largest so far. It has received the initial government response and isn’t far off securing a debate.

Along with our MPs, Lords, AMs, councillors, faith groups and campaigners, we can all help most by sharing the horror stories in today’s report and speaking out personally to create the biggest possible wave of empathy for these children and their plight.

Sian Berry is the Green candidate for Mayor of London and the party’s lead candidate for the London Assembly

See: Children to return to immigration detention as government shuts specialised centre

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