Brussels Labour welcomed Lord Alf Dubs to deliver our annual John Fitzmaurice Lecture on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers.
Lord Dubs, or Alf, as he insisted we call him, doesn’t stand on ceremony. In fact, he doesn’t even stand still for long, such are the demands on him as a campaigner. So, Brussels Labour was highly honoured that he accepted to give this year’s lecture in memory of one of our most committed members – John Fitzmaurice – who we lost suddenly and too soon, twenty years ago.
Alf Dubs is well known to everyone in the Labour Party, but many are not aware of the extent of his career. From Councillor to MP, to becoming the first British-Czech Member of the House of Lords, where he still leads for Labour on asylum and migration issues, not to mention his work with NGOs and civil society, Alf has been committed to fighting for people without a voice his whole career. And, he is still fighting against Tory abuse and mishandling of immigration and asylum issues, in the hope of making the UK a better place for refugees.
Indeed, until the summer recess, he was fighting for changes to the Illegal Migration Bill in the Lords, hence the decision to hold this year’s lecture in September. Little did we think that Keir Starmer would be making an announcement on the UK’s need to cooperate with the EU on migration on the day of our lecture.
Early days and current campaigns
Alf began the lecture by speaking of his early life. He arrived in Britain in 1939, aged only six, as one of the 669 mainly Jewish, Czech-resident children on the Kindertransport. Although it took some time, Alf was able to be reunited with his family in England, unlike many wartime child refugees even today. He described Nicholas Winton, the then 29-year-old organiser of the Kindertransport, as a man who saw what was happening, who said something should be done, and then went ahead and did it, an approach many of us would do well to learn from.
Alf then recounted some of his early political career, including standing against Christopher Tugendhat, coincidentally the son of another refugee who was from Vienna, and recalled his years as Battersea’s MP, where some of the audience had numbered among his constituents.
Much of the lecture focused on his work in the Lords, including the 2016 Immigration Act, when he introduced an amendment, later termed the ‘Dubs Amendment’, which aimed at helping children in Calais be reunited with family members in the UK.
He described this time as a moment when the public ‘woke up’ to the plight of child refugees and were vocal in their support of his work, even in the street. Government ministers and civil servants found it all but impossible to challenge his authority on this issue – to the extent that in one ‘discussion’ on the issue, he was outnumbered, ten to one.
Despite government opposition, the ‘Dubs Amendment’ did pass, but the Government then cruelly and arbitrarily limited the number of children to which it could apply to 480.
Alf went on to describe times when he wasn’t so successful, driving home the ‘shabby’ and often cruel approach of the current government towards refugees. For example, the Tories unilaterally ended its obligations under the Dublin III Treaty, and overturned many of the Lords amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill.
And, he commented on the most paradoxical situation of all, whereby 170,000 asylum seekers in the UK are not allowed to work, despite many workplaces across different sectors being unable to find the staff they need to run at full capacity.
Despite the clear party divide, Alf stressed the importance of refugee issues not being made party political, for the sake of the people most affected, and reminded us again that if there are no safe and legal routes, then the only option that people have is to go to the traffickers and risk their lives crossing the Channel.
Of course, this does not stop right-wing parties in the UK and in the EU exploiting refugees to gain political ground, using phrases like ‘stop the boats’, ‘invaders’ and other language to inflame and poison communities; Boris Johnson’s comments about millions of Turks poised to come to Britain was just the start.
Despite all this, Alf also gave us hope and a way forward when it comes to supporting refugees.
He told us tales of success, such as finally getting a Ukrainian girl out of a conflict area despite strong opposition from the Priti Patel and the Home Office due to ‘safeguarding concerns’, despite schools and her host family having been checked – the false logic being that it was better to leave her in a warzone. Luckily, her parents and the Ukrainian embassy were able to unlock the situation.
Or, Chelsea and Fulham football club foundations organising football training sessions with child refugees, to which Gary Lineker also lent his support.
He also reminded us all that there are many, many volunteers in Calais giving their time and energy to help the migrants there. He has found that school students, in particular, empathise with the plight of young asylum seekers (and sometimes have to be stopped on the spot from going off to volunteer their help right away!)
Alf also looked to what needs to be done, and why Labour is the party to do it. He applauded Keir Starmer’s recent statement; that Europe-wide co-operation is the only way forward and the only way to deal with traffickers. European cooperation is also needed to reduce the risk of the countries closest to conflict zones being hit the hardest by the influx of refugees.
He stressed the need to get people in place to deal with the backlog of Home Office cases, and the need to address housing and resource problems, which makes large parts of society feal insecure and hostile towards refugees and migrants.
However, there is a lot to do, especially as many people still accept the tabloid press view and do not, or do not want to, understand the different reasons for people seeking to move.
What can we do?
Members were enthusiastic and detailed in their questions, from how to tackle inflammatory and problematic language used by many on the right, to ways in which we can engage with people who are indifferent, or don’t see the difference between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’.
Alf was thanked by a loud standing ovation at the end of the event, reflecting the our appreciation of his inspiring talk and never-ending commitment to people with no power in the political and legislative world of migration and asylum. He shows no signs of stopping, and said that he’ll be heading to Calais before long to hear directly from people on the ground there
The numbers of people moving around the globe will only increase, as climate change impacts grow greater and conflicts continue. We are faced with a tangled set of difficult challenges which have invariably been made worse by the Conservative Government’s austerity policy and poisonous rhetoric about complex and sensitive issues.
It is imperative that we gain the support of local communities for refugees, challenging the far right in whatever form or at whatever level it emerges. The Tories, and the right throughout Europe, must be stopped from playing cheap politics with their lives. All of us have a moral responsibility to give people real hope.
We can all take a leaf out of Alf’s book and keep fighting the good fight – never give up!