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Meet the Former WWII Refugee Leading the Call for Britain to Take In Unaccompanied Minors

As the debate about whether to bring more child refugees to the UK rages on, VICE News spoke to Alf Dubs, who escaped the Nazis by coming to Britain at the age of six.
Eritrean teenagers pictured in Calais, France. Photo by Phil Caller/VICE News

The influx of more than 1 million migrants into Europe over the last year — fleeing war, oppression, or extreme poverty — has been dubbed the "world's worst refugee crisis since World War Two."

Among the rhetoric and political posturing as leaders across the continent struggle to react, tens of thousands of children are caught up in the crisis, and many are traveling alone. Now, one man is leading the call for the UK to accept 3,000 unaccompanied minors from within Europe.


Alf Dubs, 83, arrived in Britain in summer 1939 through the Kindertransport — a specially organized rescue effort to move hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territory before the outbreak of World War Two. He is now a member of the UK House of Lords (Britain's upper house)

On Monday, the UK's House of Commons is expected to vote on his proposed amendment to the Immigration Bill which would let 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees come to the UK from other European countries — something already approved by the House of Lords last month.

Dubs told VICE News he has no idea whether the amendment will pass. "It's on a knife-edge," Dubs said, but emphasized that it would be an important "gesture" that would target the "most vulnerable."

Dubs said he imagined the children who would benefit would be mainly Syrian and Eritrean, and would be taken from countries within Europe — most likely from northern France, Greece, and Italy.

Related: 'I Am Alone With No Family': The Fight to Let Child Refugees Into Britain

The amendment is not supported by the current Conservative government, who say it would act as a "magnet," and a "pull factor," encouraging more refugees to attempt dangerous sea crossings as they try to enter the continent.

On Thursday, in an announcement seen as an attempt to stop Conservative Party backbenchers from voting against the government in the Monday vote, British Minister for Immigration James Brokenshire said the UK would take an additional 3,000 minors who had been classified as "at risk" from camps in the Middle East and North Africa.


He said, however, that those who had already entered Europe, including children currently in Greece and the refugee camp in Calais, France, would not be included. This offer — described by the government as "the largest resettlement effort that focuses on children at risk from the MENA region" — would actually only see several hundred minors resettled in the first year. It would also be up for review after two years, meaning the targeted number of children might not actually be reached.

In a statement sent to VICE News, Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of UNICEF UK, said that while the UN body welcome the announcement, "by continuing to focus only on crisis-affected areas, the government still isn't addressing the needs of all children, including some of the most vulnerable of all who are trapped alone in Europe, despite having a legal right to join family in the UK. Safe and legal routes for these children must be a priority."

Responding to the government's position that children who have reached Europe are already in countries considered "safe" and therefore less worthy of help, Dubs said: "They may be technically in safe countries but young children at risk are not actually safe. I think we have a responsibility to them. If we don't do anything some of them will be diverted into prostitution, some may be forced into slavery, and it's a very sad thing that young people are adrift in Europe and nothing's being done for them."


Earlier in 2016, European police agency EUROPOL stated that 10,000 children who had entered the continent in the last two years have disappeared, stoking fears that some could fall prey to criminal gangs or be forced into prostitution.

Unaccompanied minors are currently spread throughout countries in Europe, with NGO Save the Children estimating that there are more than 2,000 children in Greece alone at the current time. Of these, more than 1,500 are without safe shelter, while many are being held in detention centers and police cells.

Many of those who make their way further through Europe are doing so to reunite with family members — sometimes with fatal results. In January, a 15-year-old Afghan boy died after boarding a truck in the French town of Dunkirk, while attempting to cross to the UK and rejoin his sister. In April, a Kurdish 18-year-old was killed when the truck he was clinging to crashed in Oxfordshire in the UK, with friends claiming he had been trying to reach family members in Manchester.

Shortly afterwards, a 7-year-old was rescued by British police after he texted a volunteer in Calais' Jungle migrant camp to say he had been trapped in a truck with no oxygen. He was then arrested on the M1 motorway in England along with 14 others.

Related: An Unaccompanied 15-Year-Old Dies in Attempts to Reach His Sister in the UK

While it's "good" that the British government has agreed to take another 20,000 refugees from the Middle East, Dubs said, it's a "drop in the ocean compared to the need, so I think our response has been too little. I think we could be more generous… I think we, along with other countries, could do far more. We can't just leave it to the Germans and the Swedes."


Dubs also said he had been "pleasantly surprised" that public opinion seemed to be supportive of child refugees coming to the UK. "I think British public opinion sees taking unaccompanied child refugees as being a humanitarian and an important step," he added.

Politically, Dubs said he couldn't see his amendment having a negative political effect for the government. "It's an easily popular way of doing something that would be good."

Dubs said that he would like to see children who arrive in the UK given foster parents straight away, and he said he believes there are enough people willing to volunteer to do this.

"It's traumatic to flee and end up in Europe, it's traumatic to have a difficult journey," he said. "They may well have witnessed their parents being killed, they may have had the shock of all that, and then they have to adjust to new ways in a different country. I think it's very hard… I think probably what they need is a sense of security and a sense of love within a family. The ideal foster family would be a family who have kids of the same age."

Related: The UK Just Made a 'Ground-Breaking' Ruling on Refugee Children

Dubs doesn't want to see minors who move to the UK being deported again once they become adults — if refugee children are granted "temporary leave to remain" upon arrival in Britain at the moment, they are forced to reapply for asylum in the lead-up to their 18th birthday, and are often unsuccessful.


"If by the time they're 18 things have settled down and they've managed to find their families then they should be reunited," Dubs said, "but if their families have been disappeared or killed then I think it is right they should be allowed stay in Britain."

In terms of his own background, Dubs said: "Emotionally it does influence me, but logically and practically I think the argument for taking 3,000 children stands on its own."

"In 1938-39 Britain was the only European country that was taking anybody and I think… we should at least play our part today."

Nicholas Winton, the man who organized the Kindertransport program, died in 2015 at the age of 106. A moving BBC program That's Life — which aired in 1988 — showed dozens of the people whose lives he saved reunite to thank Winton for rescuing them.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd