More than 250 faith leaders have written an open letter to Boris Johnson, calling for a safe route to asylum in the UK for child refugees.
The signatories to the letter, published on World Refugee Day, include the Bishop Paul McAleenan, lead bishop for migrants and refugees, as well as former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams of Oystermouth and more than 20 Church of England bishops.
The letter has been sent to the prime pinister in the same week in which MPs in Parliament debated an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which seeks to protect family reunion and relocation for unaccompanied children in Europe. The amendment has so far been opposed by government.
Other signatories are the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, more than 30 rabbis representing Reform, Liberal and other Jewish denominations, the former president of the Hindu Forum of Europe and leaders of the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed, Salvation Army and Society of Friends.
“Even in challenging times, the UK has always remained a place of sanctuary for those seeking refuge, from the Kindertransport to the more recent Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme, and we urge you to build on this proud tradition by urgently resettling some of the world’s most vulnerable children,” they say.
The letter was organised by the charity Safe Passage in the wake of an announcement by the UK government that the 480 places available to child refugees under the Dubs Scheme had been filled.
MPs voted to establish the route to sanctuary in 2016, to help bring children safely to the UK from the Calais Jungle and Greek camps. The government capped the scheme at 480 places.
The decision by the Government to give safe passage to fewer than 500 unaccompanied child refugees has dismayed faith leaders and campaigners who argue that without a safe and legal route, children will be more likely to fall into the hands of smugglers or traffickers. The charity Safe Passage estimates that more than 10,000 children have arrived in the UK in lorries since 2010.
Highlighting the plight of unaccompanied children on the Greek islands, the signatories call on the prime minister to meet faith representatives to discuss the urgent need to continue the relocation of vulnerable children from Greece. These children “have escaped war, persecution, and poverty only to find themselves now trapped in desperate conditions, with little or no access to the most basic necessities,” they write.
The letter goes on: “Inaction in the face of such deprivation and suffering is not an option. Now, more than ever, the UK must step in and offer sanctuary to children in urgent need.”
The signatories welcome the UK’s recent bilateral work with the Greek government, which led to 47 refugees being transferred from Athens in London to join family in the UK, describing the rescue operation as a “true example of the UK’s humanitarian leadership”.
IPSOS Mori polling recently found that 79 per cent of the British public support child refugees being able to join parents in the UK, and more than half support them being able to join siblings, aunts, uncles or parents. However, after the Brexit transition period ends, from 1 January next year, EU rules on family reunion will no longer apply in the UK.
The signatories to the letter call on the Prime Minister “to ensure child refugees can continue to reunite with their family members in the UK after the end of the transition agreement”.
Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage, said: “We are inspired and grateful that so many faith leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with child refugees. Last winter, the government gave repeated assurances in Parliament that it was committed to helping child refugees join their relatives in the UK but it has now published a Brexit negotiating position that would replace concrete family reunion rights with a watered-down, discretionary system. There is a clear moral case for the UK to take leadership of this issue and provide safe and legal routes for child refugees.”
Dr Rowan Williams said: “We’ve all been more conscious than ever in these last few months of the cost of isolation, and how much more painful this is at a time of sickness and vulnerability. There are still thousands of unaccompanied children isolated in refugee camps and holding centres, especially in the Greek islands, who are more at risk than ever at this time of pandemic disease, and who urgently need safe and legal means of settling in secure environments. We are simply pleading with the Prime Minister to honour the best traditions of this country and the commitments made by previous governments, and to respond to the Europe-wide challenge to guarantee safety and welcome for them. They need the same security and love that our own children need. And we need to show what we all hope is true – that our moral compass as a country has been strengthened and not weakened by the trials we have been going through.”
In a separate statement marking World Refugee Day, Catholic religious called for people to follows the pope's call to “get to know” displaced refugees.
In the joint statement, signatories including the Jesuit Refugee Service said: “In these uncertain times, Pope Francis exhorts us to be close in order to serve. On World Refugee Day 2020, we call for transformation. We call for eyes and hearts to open to action by recognising, contemplating, and sharing the life of refugees, IDPs, and migrants. Through them we can see more clearly the truth about ourselves, our societies, and the direction we must follow. We unite our voices with Pope Francis in his 2020 Message: It is not about statistics, it is about real people! If we encounter them, we will get to know more about them. And knowing their stories, we will be able to understand them.”