The plight of Syrian children fleeing war has dominated the global news agenda in recent months. In September last year David Cameron committed to receive 20,000 refugees into the UK with particular attention to be given to unaccompanied children and orphans. In response the charity I founded, Home for Good, launched a campaign to recruit foster carers who would be able to look after these children. In just one week 10,000 people put themselves and their homes forward to welcome these children. It was clear people in the UK wanted to reach out in this crisis.
The Home for Good team has been working tirelessly. We have organised over 50 events with local authorities to help those who have come forward to take the next step in the assessment process. I made a trip to Beirut to understand the conditions and the challenges that child refugees are facing in the camps and settlements. We made videos to help inform potential carers and inspire others to get involved.
We have been liaising with senior government officials and departments and campaigning on behalf of child refugees in camps in countries surrounding Syria and those in transit in Europe.
The continued plight of unaccompanied minors in transit in Europe, with thousands arriving daily into Italy, Greece, Hungary and Serbia, has never been far from our screens or our minds. These children are extremely vulnerable, and the winter season makes their journey even more perilous. Their need is urgent.
In December Home for Good partnered with Save the Children to ask the Government to clearly commit to welcoming 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees as quickly as possible. The International Development Committee report published on January 5 warned that 7.6 million Syrian children were currently in need of humanitarian assistance and backed Save the Children's calculation that the UK's fair share was to take 3,000 refugee children. Hundreds of Home for Good supporters wrote to encourage David Cameron to act immediately on his pledge, offering to undergo the training and assessment to be able to offer these children a loving home.
Today we received the government's official response to calls to take in the refugee children. That response is – if viewed optimistically – a fantastic first step or, more pessimistically, a disappointing prospect.
Overnight I went through a range of emotions as the headlines began to appear. The Daily Mail's and the Guardian's responses to the statement from Immigration Minister James Brokenshire were very different. The Mail carried the front page "PM: WHY WE MUST NOT TAKE 3000 MIGRANT CHILDREN." (Many social media commentators noting the irony of that placed next to a picture of Johanna Konta the tennis star who immigrated to the UK aged 14). It seems for the Daily Mail there are definitely some upsides for certain kinds of immigration and only downsides to helping suffering refugee children. The Guardian carried the headline "U-Turn over resettlement of Syrian Children" and explained that this is the first time that government has agreed to take Syrian refugees from within Europe.
The statement itself offers hope, mentioning the Government's intention to create "a new initiative to resettle unaccompanied children from conflict regions".
"We have asked the UNHCR to make an assessment of the numbers and needs of unaccompanied children in conflict regions and advise on when it is in the best interests of the child to be resettled in the UK and how that process should be managed," it says. "The UNHCR has already been clear that these are likely to be exceptional cases." Under standard United Nations High Commission for Refugee operating procedures it is very unusual for unaccompanied children to be resettled to another country. Despite the UK welcoming 1,000 Syrian refugees to date we know of no unaccompanied children that have been resettled to the UK. There are concerns that resettlement could actually make family reunification more complex so it is extremely rare for UNHCR to do this.
The government has pledged to host a roundtable looking at measures to prevent children making the journey to Europe. Additionally. It will offer some financial assistance to the European Asylum Support Office which seeks to offer aid to refugees in transit and to stop them from being trafficked through registration of the children when they enter the EU. It is clear from this that there is no indication that any refugee children in Europe will be offered a safe home in the UK. Instead they will be offered relief and support through blankets and warm clothes to help face a cold winter outside. Finally, the government promises to help local authorities who have already received refugee children who have arrived here illegally by working on solutions to the fostering recruitment and placement crisis. You can respond to Home for Good's call for new foster carers here.
First I want to acknowledge all that is good in this statement. There are many children in camps and settlements in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey who are without their families. During my visit I heard of young girls forced into early marriage or used as prostitutes and so it is absolutely right that UNHCR are directed to make sure children in those situations are offered a home in the UK. These are exceptional times, unprecedented numbers of vulnerable children are involved, and deviating from standard procedures is necessary. The children do need warm clothes and blankets. Registration will help to monitor children so at least we know where they are and how many there are. Preventative measures are also to be commended. The journey is costing too many lives, surely the fewer children that have to make it the better. So I wholeheartedly commend the Government's actions in these areas.
But there is much more that needs to be done. Imagine you came across a child wandering on their own through the streets of your town. She tells you that her family have been murdered and she now has nowhere to live. Moved by her story you hand her a blanket, add her name to a database, go home then hold a round table discussion with some friends to work out how to reduce the number of children wandering the streets. I'm sure the young girl is grateful for the blanket but you have still failed to make her safe or address her trauma, failed to give her a secure future, failed to show her the compassion she needs.
These are difficult times for leaders of nations, facing a humanitarian crisis on a previously unimaginable scale. But when a cross party group and reputable charities are offering unbiased counsel and thousands of people are coming forward to offer to open their hearts and homes it is also time to be courageous.
The timing of this government statement – the day after Holocaust Memorial Day – is notable. BBC1 showed the story of the courage of Sir Nicholas Winton who organised trains to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis as part of the Kinder Transport, something to which the Prime Minister alluded last year when describing Britain's planned response yet now seems distant.
Home for Good remains committed to our founding purpose that all vulnerable children in the UK receive the love and care that they need. In these exceptional times, we believe that the UK must play its part in helping refugee children, caught up in the middle of tragedy through no fault of their own, receive the same love and care. If you want to help with this, here are three things you can do:
1. Spread the word. The video below explains why we should receive child refugees. Many people are still uncertain about whether this is the right thing to do. The video may help to persuade them.
2. Express your interest in becoming a foster carer. More than ever, children need safe and loving homes in the UK and there are many children already waiting.
3. Consider supporting Home for Good's work financially