The cruelty of the UK Home Office is beyond limit.


By Melissa Chemam

When the so-called “refugee crisis” started in Europe in 2015, I was in Paris, about to start a series of radio reportage in England. During mysix years as a reporter on African affairs, I visited a few refugee camps, notably Dadaab in Kenya at the border with Somalia, and covered the plight of, for instance, South Sudanese refugees in Nairobi. Almost half a million refugees live in Kenya; they have since the civil war started in Somalia in 1991, as well as other conflicts in the DR Congo, Burundi and Sudan.

So I was the first surprised to hear our French and British governments reject demands for asylum from a few thousands people, fleeing some of the worst conflicts in the world, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…

A year later I was working for a charity and was monitoring the communication about refugee camps in Greece and Sicily, watching the rest of Europe letting them down. I edited texts and reports along photographs of camps like Moria, in Greece, and later travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan to interview medical staff helping internally displaced people who had fled the violence of ISIS.

The most shocking to me, who lived years between the UK and France, especially in London and Paris, was to see the UK refuse to accept any refugees, while the country could have been the most protective place for them to settle in. Some asylum seekers I met already had family in England, others spoke perfect English, they had contact there, could hope to find jobs, etc.

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Iraqi children in a camp for internally displaced people near Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Spring 2016 (photo: M. Chemam)

Soon after, I reported in Calais, at the Italian border and in some parts of Paris, where informal refugee camps had spread (see that one: ), full of people hoping to make it to England…

Skipchen Charity, working in Calais, 2015

I now live in England again and I’m here to witness that once more, and despite governing through the worse health crisis in the world since the Second World War, the UK Home Office has rejected the bid to help secure a temporary home for refugee children at risk in overwhelmed camps in Greece.

The charity Médecins Sans Frontières reported having written to the British Home Secretary Priti Patel on 13 March, asking her to “significantly increase” the number of child refugees transferred to the UK and specifically to “facilitate the urgent evacuation” of those with chronic and complex health conditions.

But the Home Secretary has refused these pleas to accept more unaccompanied children from the notoriously overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek islands, despite dire warnings of a coming humanitarian disaster.

Priti Patel did not respond herself and instead the Foreign Office replied on 31 March, to say that the UK “would continue to support the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.” For the past four years, this deal has ensured that most refugees from the Middle East trying to reach Europe would remain on the Turkish soil, preventing asylum seekers from travelling further to our shores.

The executive director of MSF UK, Vickie Hawkins, described the response as “shameful”: “This cynical deal traps thousands of people — many of them children or deeply vulnerable — in squalid conditions on the Greek islands,” she said. “The UK government must stop sacrificing basic refugee rights for the sake of its migration agenda.”

According to the NGO, a number of EU countries including Germany, France, Luxembourg, Finland, Belgium and Bulgaria had volunteered to help transfer 2,000 children from the islands. But the UK government have refused to offer assistance. Aurélie Ponthieu, MSF’s team coordinator on forced migration, said: “The UK has so far not volunteered to help the children. These measures are symbolic; if these camps get the virus it’s going to be a disaster. Access to healthcare is very limited.”

Last week, the legal charity Safe Passage also sent the Home Office a list of unaccompanied children and vulnerable adult refugees who have been legally accepted for transfer to join family in the UK, but who are now trapped on the Greek islands because of the coronavirus travel chaos. Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International, said: “The government cannot now sit on its hands. We have a small window of opportunity to evacuate all those unaccompanied children and vulnerable adults who have families here in the UK waiting to receive them now at grave risk in overcrowded and unsanitary camps and settlements. We know children will be leaving on charter flights to the EU next week, why not to the UK too?” she asked.

The moral or economic justifications for these refusals are nowhere to be found. The Leave campaign notoriously used lies about the numbers of foreigners and refugees in Britain and potential invasion from Turkey to influence the Brexit referendum. And now the same politicians, in power, are transforming these lies into a basis for a foreign policy that is inhumane and unjustifiable.

In this time of unprecedented health threat, the decision to take on refugee children for a temporary relocation should not be left to this cruel government. Some MPs are already calling for a reopening of the British Parliament. Hopefully, a vote on the issue could soon be put into place and open a door to solidarity with these little children in need.

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics