Providing safe and legal routes is the best way to combat people smuggling, former child refugee Lord Dubs has said as he backed a Bill that would change the rules on reuniting refugees with family members.
The Labour peer described the Kindertransport scheme, which saved him and some 10,000 children from persecution between 1938 and 1940, as a “pretty generous gesture by this country”.
However, he noted “I wish we could have stayed more generous”, before stressing that “the way to stop smuggling is to provide safe and legal routes”.
His comments came during the second reading debate of the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill in the House of Lords. This would expand family reunion rules so family members of refugees can enter or remain in the United Kingdom.
It would also provide for legal aid to be made available in such cases.
The Bill drew support from several peers and received an unopposed second reading, as is convention for Private Members’ Bills in the upper house.
However, plans to wreck the Bill traditionally come to the fore at committee and report stage, and the Government has already indicated it will not support it.
Lord Dubs, who was six when he fled the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, said: “Just off Central Lobby in the Commons, there is a plaque and the plaque is a thank you to the people of Britain on behalf of the 10,000 children who came on Kindertransport mainly from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39.
“And that was a pretty generous gesture by this country. And I wish we could have stayed more generous.”
Lord Dubs reminded peers how under EU legislation, known as the Dublin III treaty, “a child in one EU country could apply to join relatives in another” but that came to an end after the UK left the European bloc.
He added: “I was invited to a meeting here with three Government ministers and seven officials, one from the Cabinet Office, all trying to persuade me that everything would be OK, I shouldn’t fuss too much and that and the rights of children to join for family reunion with their relatives in this country will be maintained.
“But, of course, hardly any came since that point. The door has effectively been closed, which is why I particularly welcome this Bill, as trying to keep that door open.
“Let me just finish on this: there is natural concern about people coming across the Channel, and there is total condemnation of the people smugglers who exploit people and endanger lives.
“But I still believe that the way to stop smuggling is to provide safe and legal routes. And if any of us were children in Calais, and we had family here, surely we would do the same thing. We would use any possible means to get here and, I welcome this Bill as providing one such possible means.”
Liberal Democrat former MEP Baroness Ludford, the sponsor of the Bill, told peers in her opening remarks: “This Bill will enable child refugees to sponsor their parents and siblings, as well as expand the range of family members that adult refugees are allowed to sponsor to include siblings, parents, and adult dependent children.
“The Bill will ensure that everyone with refugee or humanitarian protection status in the UK can access family reunion rather than constraining rights according to the way that they have arrived in the UK, and will reintroduce legal aid for family reunion cases.”
She added: “We must do all we can to protect people forced to flee their homes to escape war and persecution and to re-establish their lives in freedom and safety. That must include reuniting them with their families through safe and legal routes.
“If the Government is actually serious about strengthening safe routes and supporting women and children, it will back this Bill.”
While the Government did not back the Bill, Tory frontbencher Lord Sharpe of Epsom said: “I obviously understand that this remains an emotive issue.
“I will ensure that the department continues to reflect on these debates in considering the Government’s approach on this important issue.”