WHAT kind of person or government would turn away a child escaping a devastating war?
Whenever a TV programme discusses unaccompanied migrant children, viewers overwhelmingly react by reaching out to offer protection and succour. But good intentions are not enough. Too many people see the problem of unaccompanied children as a simple one: take them in, give them a cuddle and a milky drink and all will be well.
But is offering them a home in Britain or other European countries really a kindness?
At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared in Europe, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency. Many could be in the hands of traffickers. “Not all of them will be criminally exploited,” says the agency. “Some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or who they are with.”
Some 5,000 of the children have disappeared in Italy; a further 1,000 have gone missing in Sweden. Sixty thousand unaccompanied migrant children and youths have turned up on Germany’s borders since last year.
Last week German police arrested two young males, aged 15 and 22, accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in a shelter for unaccompanied juvenile migrants in Düsseldorf. Both youths were living among the other unaccompanied migrant children.
Most of the children have been sent by their parents on a perilous journey in pursuit of a better life. Sadly, 20 per cent of them are reported to have fallen into lives of vice and crime.
Sweden’s determination to deport up to 80,000 failed asylum seekers leaves them with a greater headache: what to do about the 35,000 unaccompanied children who last year claimed asylum in Sweden, most of them arriving in the last four months of 2015 drawn by news that Sweden would automatically accommodate anyone younger than 18.
Care homes that were set up are far from satisfactory. Last week, a 22-year-old working at one of the homes – herself the daughter of immigrants – was stabbed to death. A 15-year-old refugee was arrested. While the vast majority of children – peaceful, scared and desperate to start a new life – are the type Save the Children talks about there are, as Sweden has found, many kinds of child refugees. FAKE children, who lie about their age to have a better chance of asylum.
FOOTHOLD children, sent ahead by their desperate families hopeful that they will establish themselves and provide a foothold for the rest.
TRAFFICKED children, in the hands of gangmasters who may force them into work or prostitution.
STREET children, who live in abandoned buildings and are often sucked into a criminal underworld. Rescue them, as Sweden has, and they simply run away.
Would it be any different here? Already some 8,000 families provide foster homes for vulnerable British children. Could we find enough new foster parents equipped to deal with a bereft child who might not have a word of English? And do we really want to commit abandoned children to institutions in a country which is strange to them?
Talk of the Kindertransports of World War II –efforts which smuggled thousands of refugee Jewish children to Britain out of the Nazis’ clutches between 1938 and 1940 – often omits to mention that every one of the nearly 10,000 children had to first have a sponsor and a home awaiting them. And those homes had the same ethos and many of the same customs as the homes they had left behind along, with a common language in Yiddish.
Does this mean that I would turn my back on unaccompanied children? Far from it, but the wrong move is worse than no move at all. These children deserve not only our compassion but our common sense.
MPs Andrew Mitchell and Clare Short, political opponents but both former international development ministers, have united to demand the introduction of safe havens, places where children can be cared for in a manner they understand in countries bordering the conflict. Countries like Jordan, which has done yeoman work in offering shelter but now declares itself unable to do more unless it receives aid.
Providing that aid is where our efforts should be concentrated. Loving parents will always let their children go in pursuit of a better life. That’s why parents put their children aboard the present-day Kindertransports.
It is up to us to make sure that their sacrifice is not in vain.
We are the Voice of The North and we would like to be your voice, too