“I still believe that if the argument about child refugees is put to the British people, the majority will say ‘yes we can do more for child refugees’ and be sympathetic to what is a humanitarian argument.”
So declared Lord Alf Dubs when I asked him how he managed to stay optimistic in the face of multiple setbacks to his campaign to ensure a legal route into this country for unaccompanied child refugees, which resulted in the eponymous Dubs Amendment. Lord Dubs’ enduring conviction that the great British public will ultimately wish to see right prevail may be partly due to his own experience as a child.
In the summer of 1939, six-year-old Alf was put on a train in Prague by his mother with a promise that his father would meet him in London, and a packed meal to see him through the journey. He was one of hundreds of unaccompanied, mostly Jewish, children rescued from Nazi-occupied Europe following the events of Kristallnacht, and he says he owes his life to Sir Nicholas Winton, who organised this journey for him and 669 other Jewish children, as part of Kindertransport. He continues to draw encouragement from the fact that the then British Government, initially as unwilling as other nations to accept refugees, bowed to pressure from a public that was becoming aware of the Nazi atrocities, thanks to the advocacy of prominent influential people appealing to the collective conscience. The Government eventually agreed to accept 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe, albeit on temporary visas – a grudging, imperfect welcome perhaps, but one that provided a place of safety for many innocent souls who would otherwise have been killed by the Nazis. And this is likely what first sparked Alf’s abiding conviction that most people are kind.
He insists, however, that he was one of the luckier ones, having not only a father to meet him at Liverpool Street Station, but a mother who managed to join them a few months afterwards. When asked how he coped with not knowing the English language or culture, plus the added tragedy of his father dying a few months after the outbreak of World War II, he says, “I just survived. At the age of six you learn fast.” He attended various schools within the British system, but also spent some years in a Czech boarding school in Wales. Like so many of his Kindertransport contemporaries, Alf worked hard and excelled at school. After graduating from the London School of Economics, he worked as an accountant before becoming involved in local and national politics, believing that “politics can be a force for good”. His early experiences have clearly informed and influenced his life and career, spent ceaselessly battling for the rights of the dispossessed. As a Westminster Councillor in the 1970s, he fought for Ugandan Asians to be given housing, coming into conflict with fellow Labourites. As Chief Executive of the Council for Refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, it was Bosnians, Vietnamese Boat People and Somalis who benefitted from his compassionate advocacy.
Now aged 87, Lord Dubs is still fighting the good fight. Living in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham – home to many refugee children – he has campaigned together with Council Leader Steve Cowan for those still alone in Europe. Having visited the camps in Calais and Moria, which was recently destroyed by fire leaving its inhabitants even worse off, and spoken at numerous rallies, he is determined to hold to account the current Tory government, which he describes as “extremely hard line”. He is clearly puzzled by the stance taken by Home Secretary Priti Patel, who herself came here from Uganda as a child with her family, apparently to escape persecution. Ironically, both illustrate the truth that to take in a refugee child is to shelter a person with potential, but there the similarity ends. Lord Dubs, kind, empathic and deeply grateful to his adopted country, pushes for the UK government not to abandon this next generation of children, whereas Patel seemingly wishes to distance herself from her past and in his words “pull up the drawbridge”.
Still optimistic about the government being forced into a U-turn on accepting his amendments to the European Withdrawal Bill with regard to refugee children, which is still ricocheting between the Lords and the Commons, he is clear that the crisis can only be truly addressed by Europe coming together in a spirit of liberal consensus. He is also encouraged by the young volunteers, many from Britain, working in the camps to improve the shocking conditions. He feels he owes it to the many NGOs such as Safe Passage, as well as individual supporters, not to give up the struggle. These include people of faith and, while he is himself a humanist, he says with a chuckle that he has taken his message to many synagogues and churches, convinced that, “We’ve got to keep at it and keep public opinion involved and on our side.” His special brand of humanity will certainly help to do that.