More than 250 faith leaders have written an open letter to Boris Johnson, asking him to commit to offering child refugees a safe route to asylum in the UK.
The signatories to the letter include the former Archbishop of Canterbury and over 20 Church of England bishops, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, over 30 rabbis representing Reform, Liberal and other Jewish denominations, the former president of the Hindu Forum of Europe, the lead Catholic Bishop for Migrants and Refugees plus numerous senior leaders from the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed, Salvation Army and Quaker traditions across the UK.
“Even in challenging times,” the signatories write, “the UK has always remained a place of sanctuary for those seeking refuge, from the Kindertransport to the more recent Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme, and we urge you to build on this proud tradition by urgently resettling some of the world’s most vulnerable children.”
The letter was organised by the charity Safe Passage in the wake of an announcement by the UK government that the 480 places available to child refugees under the ‘Dubs Scheme’ had been filled. MPs voted to establish the route to sanctuary in 2016, to help bring children safely to the UK from horrendous conditions in the Calais Jungle and Greek camps but the government insisted on capping the scheme at 480 places.
The decision by the Government to give safe passage to fewer than 500 unaccompanied child refugees has dismayed faith leaders and campaigners who argue that without a safe and legal route, children will be more likely to fall into the hands of smugglers or traffickers. The charity Safe Passage estimates that over 10,000 children have arrived in the UK in lorries since 2010.
Highlighting the plight of unaccompanied children on the Greek islands, the letter asks the Prime Minister to meet with faith representatives to discuss the urgent need to continue the relocation of vulnerable children from Greece. These children, “have escaped war, persecution, and poverty only to find themselves now trapped in desperate conditions, with little or no access to the most basic necessities,” they write.
The letter goes on “Inaction in the face of such deprivation and suffering is not an option. Now, more than ever, the UK must step in and offer sanctuary to children in urgent need.”
The signatories also congratulate the Prime Minister on the UK’s recent bilateral work with the Greek government, which resulted in 47 refugees being transferred from Athens in London to join family in the UK, describing the rescue operation as a “true example of the UK’s humanitarian leadership.”
IPSOS Mori polling recently found that 79% of the British public support child refugees being able to join parents in the UK, and over half support them being able to join siblings, aunts, uncles or parents. However, after the Brexit transition period ends, from 1st January 2021 EU rules on family reunion will no longer apply in the UK.
The signatories to the letter call on the Prime Minister “to ensure child refugees can continue to reunite with their family members in the UK after the end of the transition agreement.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage said
“We are inspired and grateful that so many faith leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with child refugees. Last winter, the government gave repeated assurances in Parliament that it was committed to helping child refugees join their relatives in the UK but it has now published a Brexit negotiating position that would replace concrete family reunion rights with a watered-down, discretionary system. There is a clear moral case for the UK to take leadership of this issue and provide safe and legal routes for child refugees.”
Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, added
“We’ve all been more conscious than ever in these last few months of the cost of isolation, and how much more painful this is at a time of sickness and vulnerability. There are still thousands of unaccompanied children isolated in refugee camps and holding centres, especially in the Greek islands, who are more at risk than ever at this time of pandemic disease, and who urgently need safe and legal means of settling in secure environments. We are simply pleading with the Prime Minister to honour the best traditions of this country and the commitments made by previous governments, and to respond to the Europe-wide challenge to guarantee safety and welcome for them. They need the same security and love that our own children need. And we need to show what we all hope is true – that our moral compass as a country has been strengthened and not weakened by the trials we have been going through.”
The letter has been sent to the Prime Minister in the same week in which MPs in Parliament debated an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which seeks to protect family reunion and relocation for unaccompanied children in Europe. The amendment has so far been opposed by government.