It was May 2014 when 16-year-old Tedros fled Eritrea after becoming a military target for suspicion of smuggling. Giving his parents no notice of his departure, he slipped over the border into Ethiopia, and from there traversed Sudan, Libya, Italy, and France by himself until finally settling in Britain. Of the family of six he left behind, his youngest brother, Danni—both names are pseudonyms to protect their identities—would follow the same route four years later.
Now, after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government removed child refugee protections from the European Union withdrawal bill last month prior to Britain’s Jan. 31 departure from the EU, the brothers hope other young people like them will continue to have the same chance they did.
In the final stretch of his journey, Tedros recalled living on a river’s edge in Calais, France, among strangers, dependent on a charity that provided food each day. “There’s no protection there,” Tedros said of the camp, formerly referred to as the Jungle, where children and young adults were at risk of exploitation and trafficking. Both Tedros and Danni had stayed in the camp, though years apart, prior to forging a new home in Britain. “They are young … they are desperate to join family, they will take whatever chance they get,” Tedros said.
Danni, he said, was desperate. Tedros contacted the British Red Cross to help him reunite with his brother, who was nearly 13 when he left for the same arduous journey. From there, Safe Passage, an international organization that provides aid to unaccompanied children, reunited the brothers under the Dublin III Regulation, established by the EU in 2013 to transfer asylum claims to Britain and other member states, guaranteeing unaccompanied child refugees the right to reunification with family members.
The brothers’ story is not unique. Since 2010, Britain has granted protection to over 12,000 unaccompanied minors. There are currently an estimated 4,000 unaccompanied minors in Lesbos, Greece, and a few hundred in northern France, many living on the outskirts of formal camps. In both 2015 and 2016, over 1 million people applied for asylum in Europe—the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
After three years of political instability during which Britain sought to withdraw from the European Union, calls for sweeping immigration reform to wrest control over Britain’s borders dominated the national narrative. In the week leading up to Brexit, Johnson’s government introduced plans for a new points-based system, a new global talent visa, and the removal of protective measures for refugee children as part of the EU withdrawal bill—even as the House of Lords voted to restore the refugee protections after Brexit.
Despite being enshrined in British and international law, and former Prime Minister Theresa May including the Dublin Regulation in her former Brexit bill, last week members of Parliament gave a final stamp of approval, voting 348 to 252 against the Lords’ amendment, ceasing to allow unaccompanied child refugees such as Danni to be reunited with family members in Britain after Brexit.
“It is bitterly disappointing,” said Alf Dubs, a Labour Party member of the House of Lords and an ardent defender of unaccompanied child refugees given his own experience being evacuated from Czechoslovakia as part of the Kindertransport—a British effort that welcomed 10,000 children over the course of nine months beginning in 1938. “What could be more humane than arguing for child refugees to be able to join relatives in this country?” Dubs wrote in an emailed statement.
As members of Parliament declared that including the amendment in the EU withdrawal bill “weakened their negotiating flexibility,” making political pawns of young people who take life-risking measures to flee to safety, a Home Office minister assured the House of Lords that the amendment would be included in the immigration bill set to be introduced later this year during the 11-month transition period.
But the compassion extended to child refugees 80 years ago has all but faded. Even as the government says it “intends to seek a family reunion agreement with the EU for separated children,” it simultaneously withdrew all legal obligations to do so and refrained from making similar commitments for adults. In 2018, Britain transferred 209 migrants out of the country under the Dublin Regulation, while accepting 1,215—a paltry figure when compared to Germany’s acceptance of 7,580 migrants that year.
Britain’s Conservative Party has long been hostile toward migrants. But at a moment when Britain claims to be reclaiming its sovereignty and hails Brexit as a “moment of real national renewal,” the government is backtracking rather than making progress when it comes to protecting basic human rights and international obligations upheld by national and international humanitarian and refugee laws under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.