Britain Cannot Turn Its Back on Lone Children Now

A statue dedicated to the ‘Children of the Kindertransport’ outside Liverpool Street Station in London. It expresses “gratitude to the people of Britain for saving the lives of 10,000 unaccompanied mainly Jewish children who fled from Nazi persecution.” © 2020 Alex Firth/Human Rights Watch

Eighty-one years ago last month, the first of the Kindertransport trains arrived in the United Kingdom, bearing children fleeing conflict and persecution ahead of the outbreak of World War II. In total, the Kindertransport rescue effort ferried 10,000 child refugees to safety in Britain. But now, the government is threatening to turn its back on vulnerable children.

This month, members of parliament from the ruling Conservative Party blocked a move to guarantee the right of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to be reunited with family members living in the UK after Brexit. Unless the amendment to a bill is blocked by the House of Lords or by the courts, countless vulnerable children across Europe will be left without a safe and legal way to rejoin their families.

This will be a devastating blow for human rights in post-Brexit Britain, and will reinforce previous governments’ ‘hostile environment’ culture around immigration.

At present, the UK is bound by the Dublin III Regulation, an Europe-wide system that requires most asylum seekers to claim protection in the first European Union country they reach. The Dublin Regulation makes an exception for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, allowing them to join family members who may be living in another EU country. This means that a child who is living alone in migrant camps in Greece, or sleeping rough on the streets of Paris, can be reunited with their parents living in the UK.

It is vital that these safe and legal routes to family unity exist. The UK government already takes a hard-line position on family reunion as it prevents children who have sought safety in the UK from being joined by their parents, making it an outlier in Europe. With these potential new restrictions, the UK risks becoming complicit in family separation, and unaccompanied children could be forced into the hands of people smugglers, risking their lives in refrigerated trucks and rubber dinghies, or fall prey to human traffickers who target vulnerable children, subjecting them at times to unspeakable exploitation.

Whether the UK remains in the Dublin system after Brexit or not, the government should guarantee the rights of asylum-seeking children. Britain should not dishonor its own history as a safe haven for children seeking safety.