No haven for young refugees

This country throws the law at refugee children and expects them to stand their ground
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TODAY, A plaque will be unveiled in the House of Commons to commemorate the Kindertransport of the Thirties. Just before the Second World War, nearly 10,000 Jewish children came to Britain under this system, and the plaque will express their gratitude towards the government that allowed them to flee from Nazi persecution. The unveiling of the plaque begins an extraordinary three-day reunion of Kindertransport survivors, more than 1,200 of whom are expected to turn up in London for the occasion.

Laura Selo was one of those 10,000. Now 75, she is a frail but smart and bright-eyed woman living near Golders Green, London. In May 1939 she was 15 and living with her two younger sisters and her mother in a seedy hotel in Prague. They had already fled from Berlin to Czechoslovakia, but in March 1939 they saw the Germans march into Prague. When their mother heard that there was a chance that she could send the three girls to London, she seized it. So on the last day of May she took her children down to the train station in Prague and put them on one of the very last Kindertransport to Britain. "She made the ultimate sacrifice for us," Laura Selo tells me. "She waved us off and told us not to worry, that she would follow soon. But we never saw her again."

Of course, Britain could have done more. It could have allowed not just those 10,000 children to enter, but also their parents, who were instead, for the most part, deported and murdered. It could have allowed many more children than those 10,000 to enter. But it did something. It saved Laura Selo's life and those of her sisters, among others, and gave them a home here for ever.

Coincidentally, today also sees the publication of a new report by Amnesty International - Most Vulnerable of All - that details the treatment of child refugees in Britain today. It isn't about children who enter Britain with their families, but about those, like the children on the Kindertransport, who arrive here all alone, with no adults to accompany them. Nearly 3,000 unaccompanied children entered Britain to claim asylum in 1998, rising from 1,000 in 1997. Most of them came from well-known areas of devastation - Somalia, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.

These children may have been placed on an aeroplane by a parent who knew the whole family was in mortal danger because of political or ethnic persecution, and who wanted to make the same sacrifice for them that Laura Selo's mother made for her. Or they may have seen their families killed and managed to run from their dangerous homeland on their own wits or with the help of older acquaintances. Whatever the circumstances, they tend to arrive in Britain deeply traumatised and with no preparation at all for life in an alien culture.

You often hear that the immigration authorities in Britain operate in irrational and vindictive ways. But it's hard to believe that they take out their venom about "abusive applicants" and "bogus asylum-seekers" even on children. Above all, you'd expect that these unaccompanied children would find it far easier than adult asylum-seekers to find a permanent home here. Would you accuse a 14-year-old boy from Uganda who says that his family are all in prison, or a 13-year-old girl from Nigeria who says, with tears running down her face, that her parents were killed in front of her, of being economic migrants? But, amazingly, unaccompanied children are seven times less likely to be given full refugee status in Britain than people in their twenties. That's because the stringent proofs of political persecution that the immigration authorities require can rarely be supplied by children. Instead of being given a secure haven, the children who arrive here asking for asylum are often put through a process that appears designed to add to their trauma.

One girl I met, whom we'll call Ella, was 13 when she arrived in Britain in 1997 from Rwanda. Like Laura Selo, she was fleeing genocide. Her parents were missing, presumed killed, her sister was dead, and her sister's boyfriend had bought her the aeroplane ticket, desperate to get this vulnerable child out to a place of safety. Ella arrived in Heathrow in the middle of the night. She had been told to find a policeman when she arrived, and say that she was a refugee. She did that, but because she was carrying a false passport she was then taken away in a van to spend the first days of her life in Britain in Campsfield Detention Centre. "My heart was going bang bang bang. I thought I was going to die," she told me. That experience still recurs. "It was like being in prison. I tried to go back there once to visit someone, but I couldn't bear it."

Once released from detention, Ella was placed with a foster family, where she still lives. She now does things normal kids do - she goes to school, she has friends, she acts in plays. But two years after arriving in Britain, she still doesn't know whether she can stay. Ella has no idea what is happening in her case. She hasn't been interviewed by immigration officials since her traumatic arrival. Twice a year she gets a letter to say that her temporary leave to remain has been extended for another six months.

In its report, Amnesty International recommends that legal guardians should be appointed for unaccompanied children who would be able to act as their advocates, explaining the system to them and finding out how they can best put their cases. It is extraordinary that this reform is necessary; that a civilised country that would never expect its own children to stand up to the legal system by themselves throws the whole weight of the law at refugee children and expects them to stand their ground.

But instead of trying to make sure that Britain acts in a civilised way towards genuine refugees, the Government is, as we already know, determined to add trauma to trauma. The Immigration and Asylum Bill now looks likely to go through the Commons with no revolt from backbench MPs, after Jack Straw announced last week that he was making some concessions.

Those concessions turn out, on examination, to be worthless. This is still a Bill that will victimise refugees, particularly children. As Ella found, immigration officials are not trained in dealing with children, and are unsympathetic to their plight. But the Bill will confer sweeping new powers of detention on those officials. What's more, Clause 108 of the Bill removes the basic protection of the Children Act from refugee children. That is the Act that ensures that the child's interests must always be paramount in legal process, and that gives local social services departments a duty to care for children. Straw argues that the new asylum- seekers' support agency will take on part of that duty, but it is impossible to understand why refugee children should not simply receive the same rights that British children have, to be protected from any abuse and mistreatment.

And this Bill will also plunge refugee children into destitution. Even with the much-trumpeted concession to give pounds 1.43 in cash a day to refugee children, the total amount that they will have to live on is still being cut to to the bone. Children who are seeking asylum will have to live on just 70 per cent of the money that the poorest British child is expected to need to live. As Ella told me, it's already hard for refugee children to fit in at school and to find common ground with their peer group. When they have no access to their fellow children's standard of living, another wall will be built around them. And this measure comes from a Government that pontificates about social exclusion.

When members of Parliament see the plaque commemorating the Kindertransport unveiled in the House of Commons today, will they feel a warm glow that Britain once did its duty by 10,000 children who needed their protection? Or will they look into their hearts and wonder how they can bear to pass a Bill that will do nothing to help the children who are fleeing persecution and genocide today?