Learning from the Past

“Sadly the word ‘refugee’ has become a dirty word in many places today.”

So said Lord Alf Dubs at a breakfast briefing hosted by the Cardinal Hume Centre this week.

The briefing gathered together parliamentarians, donors, supporters and other organisations working on the front line with refugees, to discuss how best to support unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Against the backdrop of increasing hate crime and racist attacks, the debate shone a beacon of light given the heartwarmingly positive attitude within the room, with guests determined that more should and could be done.

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Lord Alf Dubs speaking at the briefing, with Cathy Corcoran (left) and Ruth Barnett (right)

All came to hear from two people in their 80s who were brought to the UK as children on the Kindertransporten at the outbreak of World War II – Alf Dubs himself and Ruth Barnett. Both speakers have worked tirelessly throughout their lives to combat prejudice and xenophobia, asking people to see refugees as human beings who would never have left their homes if they had a choice.

Earlier this year, Lord Dubs proposed an amendment to the Immigration Bill, calling on the government to relocate and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Europe. Eventually the amendment was accepted although for an unspecified number of children. At the briefing, both Lord Dubs and Lord Alton, who supported the amendment, spoke of their concern for the thousands and thousands of unaccompanied children across Europe whom Interpol says have ‘disappeared’ and about whom very little is being done internationally.

The Cardinal Hume Centre finds itself on centre stage of the immigration scenario, with almost three quarters of the people who come for support having been born overseas, representing some 80 nationalities. The Centre has a fully accredited immigration advice service which is free at the point of access and goes up to tribunal level. In addition, currently the Centre has nine unaccompanied asylum seeking children in its hostel for homeless young people, who come from Syria, Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan.

Cathy Corcoran, the Centre’s CEO, shared the reality of what the Centre is facing:

“We know it is difficult for everyone, and to a certain extent it’s new territory for us, but we are experiencing some very distressing situations in the hostel. We have scared, traumatised young people arriving with nothing – no papers and, crucially, no English – with the fear hanging over them that they may be deported at the age of eighteen. We will work with them to help them stabilise and begin to engage with us, but we also want to ensure that the systems are in place across the board to support them properly.”

The underlying purpose of the briefing was the Centre’s determination to contribute to influencing the public discourse around immigration, echoed by Ruth Barnett who commented, “We need to get more people respectfully thinking together”.

The need for a proper, coordinated approach is the key message that Lord Dubs has promised to take back to parliament with renewed vigour. As he left the briefing he pleaded with all present not to give up on the democratic process but to lobby their local councils, and their MP, telling them they care and asking how they can be practically involved in welcoming and supporting refugees.