Saving child refugees
A British Lord who was part of the ‘kindertransport’ rescue mission in World War II which saw thousands of predominately Jewish children saved from Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe is leading a campaign to help the current wave of unaccompanied minors in Europe.
Labour peer Alf Dubs was six years old when his mother put him on a train in Prague knowing she might never see him again.
This was 1939, and Czechoslovakia had already been annexed by Nazi Germany. And, as the outbreak of World War II approached many parents saw the Kindertransport as the only hope for their children.
Lord Dubs remembers being confused and frightened as the train pulled out.
“I knew something significant was going on but did not know what it was. All I know is 24 hours later, when we crossed into Holland, the older ones cheered because they knew they were out of reach from the Germans,” he told reporters this week.
Almost eighty years later Lord Dubs is trying to create a new Kindertransport for a new generation.
His vision is a program to find homes for 90,000 unaccompanied minors stranded in Eastern Europe after the largest migration crisis since WWII.
This week, he took a step towards that vision when British Prime Minister David Cameron signalled he would not oppose an amendment by Dubs to the UK’s contentious Immigration Bill, requiring the country to take in a certain number of unaccompanied minors from Europe.
Lord Dubs’ first amendment to the bill – which comes as Europe continues to grapple with a huge influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa – calls for 3,000 unaccompanied youngsters from camps within Europe to be brought to England.
It was narrowly rejected by Members of Parliament on April 25, only to be held up in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of the UK’s Parliament.
Lord Dubs revised his amendment to cut specific numbers and, after a surge in public support and a growing rebellion by MPs in the ruling Conservative Party, Cameron conceded that he would “see what more we can do.”
Dubs, now 83, says he was driven to amend the bill out of concern that the UK was doing so little for Europe’s migrants, compared to countries like Sweden, which has more refugees per capita than any country in Europe, and Germany, which took in over a million migrants in 2015.
“It comes to something, and here I say as a refugee from the Nazis, when Germany becomes the conscience of Europe,” Lord Dubs said.
The Kindertransport of WWII was a UK government-backed initiative and the only program at the time to save vulnerable children from war – even the US Government refused to do anything to help.
After thousands of Jews were killed in Germany and Austria in the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, aid agencies in Britain decided to act.
From December that year till war broke out in September 1939, as many as 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland were transported by train, ship or plane to the UK, where they were housed in foster homes, hostels and camps.
Unlike many of his fellow Kindertransport passengers, Dubs was quickly reunited with his parents after arriving in London.
His father had fled Prague when the Nazis occupied the city in March 1939, and while his mother was initially refused permission to leave she soon joined them.
“Some of the Kindertransport passengers managed to find their parents years later, but I was certainly luckier than most,” Lord Dubs said.
He became interested in politics as a schoolboy, before going on to serve as a Labour Party member in southwest London and being made a life peer in 1992.
“I suppose what came to mind is evil men can do what they did in politics and maybe politics can also be used to reverse the process and do things for the better,” he said.
Lord Dubs has long been a campaigner for migrants and asylum seekers, serving for a time as director of the UK’s non-profit Refugee Council.
He says his experience of life as a child refugee has influenced his work for refugees but says vulnerable unaccompanied children should be an issue of concern to all no matter their background.
“It is pretty alarming that young people are sleeping rough in a modern sophisticated continent, and some have disappeared with no one to protect them or look after them” he said.
According to the intelligence agency Europol, 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children who entered Europe in the last two years have all but vanished.
“They are liable to be trafficked by people, they are liable to be forced into some form of slavery or prostitution,” Lord Dubs said.
After Mr Cameron’s positive statement, Lord Dubs said the next step is for authorities to seek foster families willing to provide children with stable homes.
“The government has accepted the principle of the amendment and we have to push them on how they implement it,” he said.
For now, at least, it looks like there will be a new Kindertransport.
AMES Australia Senior Staff Writer