Tuesday marked World Refugee Day. To celebrate, I went to the High Court in London to watch the government fight a legal battle to avoid helping any more refugee children.
Some background: It's believed that there are close to 100,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children scattered across Europe. Many are stuck in refugee camps or are living on the streets. In May last year, the government agreed a change to the Immigration Act, known as the "Dubs amendment," that would allow a specified number of these kids to come to the UK. That number was supposed to be decided after the government had consulted with local authorities about the number of children they could support.
Campaigners hoped around 3,000 children would be offered places. The government had different ideas. In February of this year, the Home Office announced it had held discussions with councils and was closing the resettlement scheme after offering places to just 350 children. The number was later increased to 480 due to an "administrative error."
On Tuesday, the charity Help Refugees told a court that the Home Office consultation with councils had been "defective" and "unlawful." The organization has called for a new consultation to take place and for all of the 480 children who have already been offered assistance to be brought to the UK as soon as possible. Laura Dubinsky, the lawyer acting on behalf of Help Refugees, told the court that the Home Office figures "simply did not reflect national capacity."
It's not just Help Refugees that has suggested this is the case. In March this year, an influential cross-party group of politicians published a report on unaccompanied child migrants. The Home Affairs Select Committee said it had heard evidence that "cast some doubt on how thorough the consultation undertaken by the Home Office had been," and called on the government to publish details of the offers made by local authorities.
The government has yet to publish those details. However, earlier this year, VICE sent Freedom of Information requests to every local authority in the country with responsibility for children's services. The replies we received showed councils had made offers to accept hundreds of refugee children who hadn't been taken up by the government.
So how did the government come up with its figures? The Home Office has said it "consulted extensively" with councils to find out how many children the UK could take. The current court case hinges on the fact that Help Refugees says there were "fundamental errors" in this consultation.
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On Tuesday, the court heard that the Home Office had abandoned its consultation in Northern Ireland and that confusion in Scotland and Wales meant the vast majority of councils there had failed to respond within the government's timeframe. In England, Help Refugees claims that nearly half of all the places that offered weren't counted because they failed to meet criteria that was never made clear at the start of the consultation.
In many cases, Help Refugees says local authorities weren't even aware that they were engaging in a formal consultation or that there was a deadline by which they were supposed to respond. Even in cases where offers were received by the government's deadline, the charity has claimed that many of these were not counted because of the format in which councils submitted their responses.
These claims are supported by statements from several local authorities that have expressed frustration that their offers to help have not been accepted. Stephan Cowan, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, described the consultation as "incorrect and incompetent." Julian Bell, leader of Ealing council, said the process was "chaotic" and "wholly inadequate." Brighton and Hove council said it did not make a specific offer "because we did not understand this to be a consultation."
Documents submitted in the Home Office's defense point to a matter of semantics, arguing that the government's duty to reach a number "in consultation with" local authorities is open to interpretation. The Home Office lawyers state: "There is no specification of the matters that are to be consulted upon or the manner in which those authorities are to be consulted. Nor does the requirement that the number be reached 'in consultation with local authorities' require that every local authority is consulted."
More than 12 months after the Immigration Act came into effect, the Dubs amendment has seen only 200 children brought to the UK. Further details of both side's arguments will be heard by the court over three days this week. A date for the verdict has not been set. All the while, the fate of child refugees in Europe hangs in the balance.
Help Refugees has noted that it took the government eight months to announce the number of child refugees it was willing to help. Court documents suggest this included two months spent devising a communications strategy to announce the number. Josie Naughton, one of the founders of Help Refugees, said: "The amendment was made because of an emergency situation. We're well over a year later. Every day that children aren't protected, their lives are at risk."
The situation for child refugees in Europe appears to be getting worse, not better. In October 2016, the Calais "Jungle" refugee camp was demolished. In April this year, a fire burned down a refugee camp in Dunkirk. In the wake of both incidents, hundreds of unaccompanied minors remain unaccounted for. Many children are now believed to be sleeping on the streets in northern France, and it's a similar story elsewhere in Europe. Thousands of children have simply disappeared.
"In Greece, there are well over 2,000 unaccompanied minors and only 1,000 spaces in the camps," says Naughton. "The rest fall through the cracks. All these children are at risk of anything from trafficking to exploitation. And actually, the scariest thing is, no one even knows if children go missing."
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