Ethics & Morality

Calais unaccompanied refugee children: Welby grills and Government blathers


Question: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to speed up the reuniting of refugee children in the camps of Calais and Dunkirk with their families in the United Kingdom.”

It’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? Children can’t be economic migrants: they aren’t job-hunting, defrauding the authorities or seeking out the most generous welfare regime. They are innocent and vulnerable children, of whom Jesus said, ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven‘ (Mt 19:14). Yes, the primary responsibility for migrants and refugee children in Calais lies with France, but we aren’t talking about taking in all 88,000 child refugees currently estimated to be travelling through Europe, as Lord Dubbs advocates. This is about 200 unaccompanied refugee children with family members already in the UK. How are they not the moral obligation of Her Majesty’s Government? Why should they not find sanctuary on Britain’s shores? With aunts, brothers or grandparents in Coventry, why are these children trapped in the Calais squalor, crying alone, searching bins for food, sleeping in tents with strange men?

The Archbishop of Canterbury asked an incisive question in the House of Lords debate on this matter:

My Lords, the Question has been extremely specifically put about children who have families in this country; this is not about all unaccompanied children. My own diocese of Canterbury has taken on a staff member who is working in the Jungle, in co-ordination with a staff member taken on by the Catholic diocese of Arras. We are still having continual reports of delays for really quite young children who are not being brought across. Does the Minister not agree that where children—particularly young ones—have families in this country there is no reason why they should not be brought across within the day?

According to Hansard, the Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford, responded:

My Lords, many of the children are coming here very quickly, but if any child has to stay over in the camp for any longer than it should that is one child too many. I commend the most reverend Primate on the work that Lambeth Palace is doing in taking its first family. We are clear that refugees in Calais should first of all claim asylum in France and then come over here through the Dublin process. The good news is that 120 children have come here this year under the Dublin regulations, 70 of them from France.

But this neat and succinct record isn’t quite what she said. Here’s a verbatim transcript (‘verbatim’ being rather loosely applied, since some of her utterances could scarcely be called words):

Well, My Lords, many of the children are coming here very quickly, but it is, it is one child too much if the, if the child has to stay over in the camp for any longer than it should, and could I commend, erm, the Right, er, the Right, um, the N.. – I’ve forgotten his name now – the Nob – I did this on my very first question (Lord Howe prompts her) – the most reverend Primate, erm, on, on the work that Lambeth, er, Palace is doing, er, in terms of, er, taking their first family. Um, we will, er, w-we are very clear, um, that refugees in Calais sh-should first of all claim, er, asylum in France and then through the Dublin, er, process, er, come over here. And, er, you know, on good news, 120 children have come here under the Duble (sic) regulation, and 70 of those are from France, er, into, in this year.

The exchange may be viewed on the Parliament TV website. One understands the need for Hansard to clean up and clarify wordage: there’s no need to record every stumble and stammer. But sometimes it helps to know that a minister is floundering, as Baroness Williams of Trafford here manifestly was. How is it “one child too much.. if the child has to stay over in the camp for any longer than it should”? How long should a child stay in squalor and destitution?

And why has Hansard expunged from recorded history the fact that the Minister forgot how to address the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, indeed, called him a ‘Nob’?