MOAS Podcast – The Importance of Safe and Legal Routes. Interview with Lord Alf Dubs.

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Welcome to our MOAS podcast. Today we are speaking with Lord Alf Dubs about Safe and Legal Routes. He was one of the Czech children rescued from the Nazi regime by Kindertransport and has since been a dedicated campaigner for refugee and asylum seeker rights.  Over the course of his long career in public service and advocacy, his dedication to the field of migration and promotion of Safe and Legal Routes has resonated across government policy and advocacy campaigns in the UK. He continues to galvanise support for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and unaccompanied child minors who are currently being neglected by government policy. MOAS is absolutely honoured today to speak with Lord Dubs about Safe and Legal Routes: 

MOAS: I am so delighted today to speak with you about your experience and your expertise on migration and safe and legal routes.  You have been instrumental in campaigning for refugee support and of course sponsoring an amendment to the government’s immigration bill in 2016, which has led to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees being able to access support in the UK.  As the pendulum of public opinion seems to shift increasingly to the right in terms of migration, it will be a pleasure today to talk to you about what needs to done to advocate for refugee rights and safe migration pathways. Could you give us here at MOAS, and the listeners, a brief overview of your story and in particular – your journey within the field of migration? 

Lord Dubs: That could take about an hour, I came to Britain on the Kindertransport from Prague in July 1939, so I came as an unaccompanied child refugee – my father was Jewish and my mother wasn’t so he left when the Germans occupied Prague in March 1939 and my mother was refused permission to leave and so she got me on the Kindertransport. Before that, the German occupation meant we had to put pictures of Hitler into our school books and so on. My mother saw me off at the Prague station – soldiers with swastikas in the background, parents anxious because they didn’t know if they’d see their children again and off on the train went 150 of us. It took us 2 days to get to the UK and when we got to the Dutch border after 24 hours the older ones cheered because we were out of the reach of the Nazis and as far as I was concerned I knew it was significant but I didn’t understand why, and I was on the lookout for windmills and wooden shoes which is all I really knew about Holland. Anyway, so we got from Holland to Liverpool street and I was about the youngest on the train as I said – I was about 6, but I was also lucky because over half didn’t have any family there to meet them and my father met me at Liverpool street station, so that was my journey to the UK.  

MOAS: In terms of your actual experience within the field of migration,  as previous Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, your organisation was asked to facilitate the resettlement of Bosnian people who had been persecuted in Serbian concentration camps, did such schemes provoke the same sort of toxicity and xenophobic narratives which are very palpable today – if not, what do you think are some of the contributing factors to such a shift in public attitudes today?  

Lord Dubs: I think that’s a very interesting question, when I was at the Refugee Council we and the Red Cross were asked, at reasonably short notice, to arrange the reception facilities for several thousand Bosnians who had been at the Serbian concentration camps. There was a big day at Stanstead airport when they arrived and half the world’s media were there and I had to prevent the media from having easy access except for those who wanted to talk – these people had been through terrible experiences and some wanted to talk to help get over it while others not all, maybe not now maybe never, maybe not until later. Anyway, there was not much opposition to it even though we had to move very fast and it was a government scheme, so no one could accuse me of being anti-government (it was something I agreed with). So, we had that on our side and there was some local resistance as some people didn’t think it would work in their area as we had set up reception facilities in various parts of the country, but I think on the whole it worked pretty well. One of the things we did in Newcastle, the Refugee Council thought of it while I was there, we had an open day in Newcastle where we welcomed local councillors, social workers, doctors, teachers, police, the whole community to meet the refugees, and I think that was helpful because it meant they had some sort of ownership of the scheme in their locality and I think that helped. On the whole, the national position was not as hostile as it became later to other refugees. I think partly, and this is my own personal explanation only, there were some photographs that showed the terrible condition of the Serb concentration camps with emaciated people, and I think people thought that if they’ve been through that we need to welcome them, and I guess the other reason was there was a defined number set by the government and so it wasn’t an open-ended commitment. I think the main thing was that people knew from the television what these people had been through and so they were less likely to be hostile.  

MOAS: What do you think can be done to combat those narratives which are very obvious in the media and sometimes government policy that overtly criminalise asylum seekers and refugees, in a practical sense what can we do as NGOS, as people, to try and combat those?  

Lord Dubs: Well, there are a few things I suppose I can only tell you from some things we’ve tried to do. First of all, I always say whenever we say anything or do anything, we’ve got to bear in mind that public opinion is what we have to persuade. The reason why the legislation, the amendment went through, was because public opinion began to be alert to this. So, one of the things that helped – which was similar as to what helped with the Bosnians, namely over the terrible story – of course, among the shocking pictures of people drowning in the Mediterranean, of a little boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a Mediterranean beach. So I think all those things, the public opinion on our side, helped. Another thing I think we always have to explain is what these people have fled from. People have fled from war, persecution. I mean, I always talk about a Syrian boy who said he saw his father being blown up in front of him by a bomb in Aleppo in Damascus. And I think one has to say what it is that they’re escaping from and why it is that we should be humane in welcoming them. If  people just say they are looking for a better life, there is nothing wrong with wanting a better life at all, ever, but it doesn’t make them refugees under the Geneva Convention. But we have to say to our public, this is what they’ve been through, explain their experiences and how they’ve suffered – through no fault of their own and can we give them safety, comfort and a sense of family and so on. So, these things all help. The other thing I think is to try at a local level to have events which involve them, you know, whether it’s sports or anything else, which involve them with local people, with local children. And so, I hate this word normalised, but I think the trouble is people see refugees almost as a museum exhibits sometimes, and essentially they are only human beings who want to lead the same sort of life that most other people want to live. We need to normalise integrationthrough sport and so on. Locally here, there’s an organisation and once a week they have a refugee day and different refugees get to provide food in the community, and we have English classes and so on. These are all events which are here to help them. But the key thing is really to normalise the situation and to make sure that the local communities are welcoming, particularly in schools. So, there’s a whole range of things that one can do, and I believe a lot of it can be done by local communities. 

MOAS: Yeah, definitely. I think at the moment we’re trying to focus Safe and Legal Routes campaignon educating people on who is an asylum seeker, who is a refugee. I think in the media, and from government policy, you hear a lot of talk about asylum shopping, and it’s important to get back to the root of why people are leaving the countries that are coming from as well and educating people about why people leave, because, like you said, that’s what people need to know. 

Lord Dubs: On the other hand, if I can just make this link that to your earlier question, when the Bosnians came, the government wanted them to come. The government had said they’re going to do it. They asked two organizations to help, and we could always claim we had full government support. Today, we have government opposition. And I’m afraid this is true of many European countries. The government ministers send out negative signals. And if government ministers, community leaders, important people, send a signal to the government to put in place these measure. They would have to cut down the numbers and claim we don’t want them here. Then that sends a signal to the local communities to be hostile. SoI think the least we can expect is that government leaders, important people in our countries, to actually set up more positive messages, not hostile messages. 

MOAS: Yeah, exactly. And that kind of leads to my next question. So, with the Dubs amendment, which was implemented in 2016, it was such a vital component of the integration bill. But, I was wondering how the amendment is actually implemented and at the time, the kind of response you had from government and the public and how do you think it has guided the way for safe migration pathways, hopefully in the future? 

Lord Dubs: Well, that’s quite a complicated question, look, without going into too much detail, which would take some time. What happened was, that we learned at the time in 2016, as you say, according to Save the Children, there were 95000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Shocking figure. According to Interpol, 10,000 of them  had actually disappeared. When one child disappears in other countries, everybody goes looking, searching desperately. Here we had over 10,000 disappear. So, I put down this amendment. The government didn’t like it. Theresa May, who was then the home secretary, invited me to see her and she said she’d like me to withdraw the amendment. And I said, why? And she said, well, if we take these children, others will follow. And I said, we can’t turn our backs on young people who are sleeping in the jungle in Calais, on Greek islands or elsewhere on the Mediterranean. We can’t turn our backs on them. They are vulnerable to trafficking, to criminality, prostitution, drugs, all sorts of things. So, we parted company. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the amendment was passed by a big majority in the Lords, was defeated slightly in the Commons, but it was sent back to the Lords. And while this was going on, the media suddenly woke up to it. And as I mentioned earlier, there were these terrible photographs of people drowning in the Mediterranean – of Aylan Kurdi, the same boy who had drowned on the Mediterranean beach. And public opinion began to wake up and local groups were set up saying to welcome refugees in local areas, we want to welcome refugees or Lambeth welcomes refugees. And I think that set a bit of a tone and so, Theresa May said the government proposed to accept the amendment. Now, I think that was the weight of public opinion brought to bear in local constituencies on governments supporting MPs. I’ve always said we must not make this a party political thing. This cause – of child refugees, should go across the spectrum. But of course, we had fewer conservatives than we had other parties supporting us. And I think a lot of pressure was exerted on MPs and the government then felt that they might lose the amendments so they gave way. Now, initially, the government had a figure of 3000, which was very small actually, we had to discuss what to do and what we get could through anyway. For various technical parliamentary reasons, we had to adopt the figure of 3000 and have it open ended. And the government then said after a while they proposed to limit the number to 480. And I said, why? And they said there aren’t enough local authorities providing foster families to accommodate the children. The model is, if they’re up to 16, they would be accommodated by foster families – the model in the UK. And so, we challenged this and said we could find lots of local authorities very quickly. We did a survey and we found 15, 16 other places. But the government insisted to keep that number down. Now, there was a further amendment which was to do with the Dublin treaty, under which a refugee child in one EU country could apply to join another, so a Syrian boy in France could apply to join an uncle or brother in the UK. 

The problem was when Britain made the disastrous decision to leave the EU,  the amendment to another billwhich I got through, to say that Britain should continue to negotiate the terms of the Dublin agreement even after we left the EU – that’s to say the family reunion termsin 2017 the government had another immigration bill and the original was knocked out. And that’s a disasterbecause there’s now no proper legal recourse for family either. I tried earlier this year to get amendments through, but the government has a bigger majority now than they had some years ago. And so, we’re going to try again. There’s another bill going through parliament called the Borders Bill, and we can do our best to amend it, see if we can safeguard this, particularly for families, because there are more of those, I think, than there are the ones that don’t have any family here. So that’s the position and we shall go on doing it. We shall go on challenging the government. And the best way to do it is to move amendments in government legislation – to protect the rights of children needing to come here. 

MOAS: And how can the general public and NGOs advocate for unaccompanied minors to be supported in this way?  

Lord DubsWell, I always say that the members of the public should let their voice be heard. That’s to say they should talk to their members of parliament, they should talk to local councillors. Faith groups can be very important, and any other organisations in which people are members, whether it’s trade unions or businesses and so on, they should let the collective voice be heard and it should be a welcoming voice. So that’s important. And of course, at a local level with local councillors it matters a great deal because on the local level if one voice can be heard it may have more of a resonance if it’s linked to children coming to local schools and so on. So, yes, I think that is a crucial thing – that those of us who believe what we believe in should let our voices be heard and let other people know that this is what we stand for and that these are the right policies for our countries to follow.  

MOAS: And I guess that kind of leads onto the final question more broadly about safe and legal routes for any asylum seekers. Now, MOAS was the first NGO to run search and rescue actually in the Mediterranean, and since we have focused on running a campaign for safe legal routes. So now we’re focusing on educating people on what safe and legal routes can look like and then also advocating for their implementation. But I was wondering how you think we could generate cooperation among EU member states, because obviously that’s the ideal. But how we can actually try and generate that cooperation and in an ideal world, what safe and legal routes would look like for asylum seekers? 

Lord Dubs: Ok, well, let’s do the first question first. Look, all I can do along with other people is to argue wherever we can. Unfortunately, the UK not being in the EU, our influence over other European countries is less, much less. Even though I’ve always argued that this should be Europe wide, not just an EU thing, it should go beyond EU countries to other European countries. Soone of the tragedies was that because a lot of the burden was on some countries like Germany, the extreme right wing political parties could exploit the situation, which is another argument why public opinion must be on our side, we must keep public opinion on our side – because the extreme right wing parties have had a damaging effect on the politics of their countries, whether it’s France or Italy or Hungary. So, we’ve got to try and get the maximum international cooperation. And that undermines the extreme right wing parties who campaigned on total opposition to refugees anyway. So, I think we should use every international forum possible. For example I’ve been involved in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I’m on the Migration Committee – we’ve argued this there when we have had joint meetings with the Council of Europe. We’ve argued this, and we have to make it a key political demand of European countries to work together, share responsibility. Well, I think we would work together with UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration to see what the scale or what the volume of arrivals is and how we can share them across different countries. We have to assess that they are refugees, not just economic migrants, there is nothing wrong with being an economic migrant but it is up to each country to decide – how many individuals they can take and what the workforce needs are, and that’s important. But if we’re talking about refugees, I think one possible model is what I mentioned before – to get cooperation between UNHCR and one, two other international organisations and see if we can work out what the numbers areand then how we can transfer them from one EU country to the other and share the substantial responsibility. So, we would be saying to Greece, you know, we want to help you and you’ve got so many people and we give priority to the most vulnerable since many people who were qualified to be refugees stay on Lesbos and so on. And then, you know, 800 will come to the UK and FranceSpain and something like that. That’s what we should do. It may be too idealistic, but I still believe the world could cooperate in this way. And that’s what I’d like to see.  

MOAS: Yes, and I hope if we can continue to advocate for this and galvanise communities this would be a possibility.  

Lord Dubs: Well, OK, I mean, you know, we have to keep saying the same thing when people say we can’t handle these people. You can’t say, well, nobody’s asking to share responsibility with other countries. And, we’re not taking our share. We’re taking fewer (in the UK) than most other countriesI hate those cross-channel dinghies because people are being exploited as they are very, very dangerous. People should come on safer, legal routes. I hate the idea that people are being exploited, coming on dinghies. Well, in previous years, they mainly came on the back of lorries – but whichever way I hate the illegal routes. They are dangerous, they’re humiliating and they are exploitative. And we have to have an agreement about safe and legal routes. I was on a parliamentary committee for this parliament, and we were looking at how people were coming across the Mediterranean at that time. What was it called? Operation Sophia. I think that was intended to catch the traffickers. Well, it didn’t. It saved lives, it didn’t catch the traffickers because unfortunately, the traffickers in Libya simply push the boats many miles outside of territorial waters. So that was stopped.  The boats were stopped and then various arrangements were made with Libya. And as you know, those refugees who get to Libya are exploited and eventually held as slaves in the camps in Libya unless they can pay the traffickers to take them across the Mediterranean Sea. And obviously, we’ve got to do everything we can to try and stabilize the situation in Libya, whether that’s working or not. But I’m not sure. But it’s been a terrible, terribly difficult situation there. 

MOAS: Yeah, definitely. But that’s all my questions today. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk through this with me. It’s been amazing and I’ve learnt a lot, and I hope the listeners have learned a lot too. 

Lord Dubs:  Thank you for saying that. Look, there’s one more message – a lot of us put in good work. It’s wrong that I just get the publicity, but I guess that’s the way the media operates. A lot of good people are working on this. Can I just add to this that there are some fantastic volunteers working in the camps? You know, people and young people give up a year, two years of their lives to help the most vulnerable fellow young people in the harsh conditions in what was the jungle in Calais and the very bad conditions on the Greek islands – and these young people are fantastic. They deserve all the medals, as do all the NGOs who work with refugees, who do a fantastic job. It’s been very privileged and lucky for me to be able to meet people like you. 

MOAS: It was an absolute pleasure speaking to Lord Dubs today. Please check out MOAS’ website and socials for more information about safe and legal routes and about how you can get involved with the campaign. 


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