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Britain must play its part in tackling this refugee crisis and offer to rapidly relocate our fair share of the 407 unaccompanied refugee children impacted by the Moria fire.
The last time I visited the Moria camp on Lesbos was two years ago. Back then the camp, which was built for 2,000 people, but was accommodating 8,000, was described by the UN Refugee Agency as having “reached boiling point”.
Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressed his particular concern about “woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care,” and medical charity MSF revealed that children as young as 10 were trying to take their lives inside the camp.
I found an appallingly overcrowded camp where children were not protected at night and victims of torture were not receiving the support they desperately needed. Which is not to blame the Greek government. The failures I saw at the Moria camp were the fault of a collective failure of leadership and humanity from politicians and governments across Europe.
Two years on, the numbers at the Moria camp, which was completely destroyed by fire this week, had swelled to 13,000, crammed into a camp for 2,000, at a time of global pandemic.
Our government cannot keep insisting that refugee children are safe in European camps
It is a shocking indictment of some European leaders that in the intervening years, more has not been done to ease the suffering. In recent months, a number of EU countries have agreed to welcome unaccompanied children from refugee camps on the Greek islands including Portugal, France, Germany and non-EU countries including Switzerland.
In response to the Moria fire, France, Holland and Germany have offered significant help. But the UK has failed to respond to pleas from the Greek government and legal routes for unaccompanied child refugees to reach safety in the UK have been closed, or will be closed when the EU transition period ends.
The people of the Moria camp are now scattered across Lesbos. All 407 unaccompanied child refugees have been transferred to the Greek mainland, and from there it is being reported they will be found homes in Germany and the Netherlands, but other children are surviving with relatives on the streets and living rough.
The residents of Lesbos itself are also feeling the impact of the terrible fire and its aftermath. Meanwhile, there are many other unaccompanied refugee children in other camps and in Northern France who desperately need our help.
Our government cannot keep insisting that refugee children are safe in European camps – the fire, the pandemic and the terrible conditions – show beyond doubt that this excuse doesn’t hold up. Whether in a camp on the Greek islands, or in northern France, children are at extreme risk. It shouldn’t take another fire for our help to be forthcoming.
On the eve of World War Two, the UK took in 10,000 mainly Jewish refugee children like myself. We are now facing the greatest refugee crisis since the war and Britain must again play its part, as an act of solidarity with our European neighbours and as an act of global leadership.
It cannot be right that the only way a child can seek sanctuary in the UK is by taking these dreadful, illegal and sometimes deadly, risks
As an immediate response to the tragedy unfolding in Lesbos we should, as Germany and the Netherlands have already, also offer to rapidly relocate our fair share of the 407 unaccompanied refugee children impacted by the fire.
Over a longer term, we should commit to welcoming 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Europe and nearby conflict areas over the next ten years.
In our discussions with France we should offer to take all children in France who are awaiting family reunion in the UK in exchange for closer cooperation with the French authorities to tackle traffickers and people smugglers. And we must cooperate better with our EU neighbours more widely.
We must keep legal routes to safety for vulnerable refugee children open.
Of the over 3,000 applications for asylum received by the UK from unaccompanied refugee children in 2019, the vast majority were made only once the child had arrived here via dangerous routes on lorries or dinghies.
It cannot be right that the only way a child can seek sanctuary in the UK is by taking these dreadful, illegal and sometimes deadly, risks which line the pockets of traffickers and smugglers and fuel criminality. I have written to the government asking it to act. Failure to do so would be an outrage.
Lord Dubs is a Labour peer in the House of Lords.