The UK government has moved swiftly to offer a safe haven to millions of Hong Kong Chinese following Beijing’s introduction of a new security law. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has spoken of our ‘duty of care’ and boldly challenged China on this draconian legislation.
Indeed, the UK is leading its allies in offering those with British National Overseas (BNO) passports a path to eventually gaining full British citizenship. While this amounts to about 300,000 people, this status is also being offered to anyone born before 1997 plus their dependants, which is roughly 3m Hong Kong residents.
In contrast, the day before, refugee children were denied safe passage to families living in England once the transition period for leaving the EU ends on 31 December.
Amendment NC29 to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal Bill), aimed at gaining some protection for these children, was defeated. It now goes to the Lords who might pass it, but there is little hope that the government, with its overwhelming majority, will change its mind when it returns to the Commons.
It was promised in December, when the new Tory government dropped the provision for unaccompanied children from the European Withdrawal Bill 2018, and said that this would be addressed in future legislation. This has become harder to believe, as this was the second time that an amendment specifically referring to vulnerable children had been defeated. Furthermore, from January 2021, the European Union law known as Dublin III, aimed at protecting children, will no longer apply.
In another blow, the Dubs Scheme which enabled lone children with no relations in the UK to be given a safe haven here has now come to an end with only 480 children having benefited. Frustratingly, many local councils have offered to protect more children, but the government is ignoring their pleas. It is hard to understand why.
Campaigners are devastated. Anyone with an ounce of compassion or imagination will reflect on the dangers these children face, travelling alone and sleeping rough, and the situation that forced them to leave all that they knew.
Many have been separated from parents on the long journey, or have been the only survivors from capsized boats; others have been abandoned by people smugglers.
Children as young as eight years old arrive in Calais, despite the fact that the ‘jungle’ was forcibly dismantled in 2016. There have been recent evictions by the French police with the full support of our government. Covid-19 has made matters worse with NGOs struggling to help refugees stay well without running water or adequate food supplies, and with a reduced number of volunteers. Lord Dubs (a Kinder Transport survivor from Nazi Germany sent by Kinder Transport to the UK in 1939) has drawn attention to the situation on Lesbos, where the conditions are appalling, and has appealed for children to be brought out of these camps.
So, if we have a duty of care to those in Hong Kong do we not also have a duty towards those children who are alone and frightened in refugee camps across Europe?
What is it that informs our attitudes to these groups? Both are suffering as a result of unjust and oppressive governments and for all of them the future looks bleak and uncertain. BNO status is an advantage that many Hong Kong Chinese possess but there are many more who will be welcomed without such a passport. It is apparent that the UK’s offer of safe haven is dictated by what the asylum seeker has to offer in terms of material wealth.
Therefore the beleaguered residents of Hong Kong, educated, affluent, skilled and articulate will be offered a home whilst the lost children of so many conflicts will have to wait in danger.
Yet these children offer much to this country in terms of their character – the courage and resilience that brought them to Europe, their determination and the potential for the future.
Rescue these vulnerable, desperate and traumatised children now, give them what they need in order to grow and thrive because it is right, it is kind and it is humane.
But, if at the lowest level your offer is merely transactional, which seems to be our government’s approach to Hong Kong, then still offer refuge to these children: they will repay you in their desire to work hard, do well and give back to the country which has made them feel wanted and safe.