‘Kindertransport to Kinder Politics’: In Conversation with Lord Alf Dubs

Felicity Garvey 12 February 2019
Image Credit: The Cambridge Union

Lord Alf Dubs was born in 1932 in what was then Czechoslovakia, to a Jewish father. When Nazi Germany occupied Prague he was only six years old. “In March 1939, the Germans occupied Prague. My father said to his cousins, ‘If the Nazis come, I’m leaving.’ His cousins said they’d take their chances, and in 1942 the Gestapo came and took them away and that was the end of them. Auschwitz…” Lord Dubs explained. “We had a picture of President Beneš in our schoolbooks and we had to tear that out and stick in a picture of Hitler. That’s stuck in my consciousness…my schoolbook! I had memories of German soldiers everywhere… Heil Hitler and all that stuff.”

Lord Dubs was one of 669 children saved by Nicholas Winton’s efforts towards the ‘Kindertransport’: a process that, all in all, brought 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees escaping the Holocaust to Britain. “It’s unlikely any of us who came on the Kindertransport from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia would have survived the Holocaust. It just wasn’t like that – we wouldn’t have survived.” He contrasted this with the experience of today’s child refugees. “Now, child refugees have the most dreadful experiences… the journeys are much worse. My journey was straightforward… we were escaping from something horrible, but the journey was actually relatively straightforward. The refugees today are also escaping something horrible – not necessarily certain death – and they have had the most appalling journeys. … Sleeping in the streets, vulnerable to criminality, to prostitution, to trafficking and so on.” He points out that the straightforwardness of the Holocaust meant it was easier to rally public opinion than it is nowadays. “We have to tell a story of what people are fleeing from. It’s made more difficult by people from quite safe countries making their way here: I don’t decry economic migrants, but they don’t have the human rights claim that refugees have, and it’s easier to say to British people that ‘we need to give these people safety… they could face torture and execution and death’ than to simply say ‘they’ll be very poor and starving’, so we’ve got to be careful how we handle this. Equally, I don’t want to knock economic migrants because it’s a very worthy motive for movement. […] A lot of these people – even the ones who came across the sahara from ‘safe’ countries – by the time they get to Libya, they’re so abused and exploited by gangs… most of the women who have crossed the Sahara have been raped on the journey. It’s awful. So these people also have the right to have safety. So, we have to say to British people that these people are fleeing from the most terrible experiences…surely they’re entitled to a bit of safety?”

He also spoke about the politicisation of the refugee crisis and how it impacted the result of the Brexit referendum. “When the Tories said they wanted to cut the numbers [of migrants] down a large amount, it immediately put the movement of people into Britain onto the headlines, and I think that a lot of things that have happened since stem from the attempt to make it that political.” Dubs explained, “Of course, the mistake Britain made is that when the G8 countries joined the EU, there were only three countries that said you could come in immediately: Britain Ireland and Sweden. The Polish Embassy predicted to us that 30,000 Poles would come to Britain and actually a million came. It’s now acknowledged to have been a mistake – I don’t mean in principle, but in practice we should have moved with the other EU countries because then far more people came to Britain and it unbalanced things a bit and public opinion was not too sympathetic.”

Even in London, which overwhelmingly voted Remain, Lord Dubs noted that during his campaigning, “the issue that came up, with very little exception, was immigration. I think the argument about ‘Take Back Control’ was interpreted by many people as saying control of the numbers coming in.” He then went on to relate a story of a woman he met who said that her problem was not with the immigrants that are already in the UK, but rather those who are going to come in the future. “And that’s where Boris Johnson stepped in, and that Farage with his horrible poster, saying 70 million Turks were poised to enter Britain: a complete lie! Because any one country could have vetoed Turkey coming in… There was no chance of Turkey coming in. It was a complete lie – and that was really fearmongering, saying 70 million people were going to come in. And I think those arguments tipped the balance in the Referendum.” He added tacitly, “Brexit has sucked the life out of British politics.”

He noted his disappointment with the result, commenting that “dealing with refugees – particularly child refugees – depends upon a good deal of cooperation with other EU countries…unless we have that, progress will be limited. I worry that we will leave and the good will won’t be there. […] I do believe that the only way forward in the wider sense is that Europe should have an agreed, Europe-wide, refugee policy. For example, if you reach 18 as a refugee, you have no security in this country. In other countries, you do. But, in some ways we are better than other countries. So, I would like to see a Europe-wide approach to refugees, particularly child refugees. But of course, we can’t argue that, because we have so little influence now – so to that extent as well, Brexit is damaging.”

The UK is not the only country that has seen a damaging rise in anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric. With regards to the recent rise of populism in Europe and the World, Lord Dubs mentioned that “I think we should be extremely concerned. There are far right political parties in Germany, Italy, Austria, France… they’ve exploited the migration and refugee issue and they’ve exploited it to their own electoral advantage…It is poisoning the atmosphere in Europe. We should do everything we can to stop it happening here. Fortunately, the extreme right here, politically, has not quite made the same inroads as in other countries. We can’t be relaxed about that: the far right in other countries has had much better leadership than the far right has here. The far right has been a bit chaotic here: Thank God! But if they got good leadership, they could be more of a threat, so we should be very much on the alert.” He asserted that his “mantra is that we have to get public opinion on our side about refugees, and certainly about child refugees. The best defence against the far right is to have the public on our side and not theirs.”

He noted that the Labour Party, which he himself is affiliated with, have not done an incredible job of maintaining the goodwill of the public. “If there is a hint of racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism then you’ve got to nip it in the bud immediately and the Labour Party failed to do that… I don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic. What I do sense though is that the issue of middle Israel and the rights of Palestinians has got a bit mixed up with this argument. I believe firmly that it should be possible to criticise the Israeli government without being anti-semitic….it’s delicate territory. […] The Labour Party has got to go on demonstrating that it is now fully aware of the seriousness of it and it tackling it. I believe they are.”

Lord Dubs is in recent years, perhaps best known for his involvement with Section 67 of the Immigration Act, known as the ‘Dubs Amendment’, although he was keen to note that was not his personal choice of name for it. “Save The Children had identified 95,000 child refugees somewhere in Europe. … So I put down an amendment saying we should take some of them.” He consistently asserted his disappointment in the government’s response. “We had to dock the 3,000 figure. However, the government assured me that they’d adopt the spirit of the amendment. Then they arbitrarily said 480… that figure came from their few that local authorities couldn’t offer any more foster places for the children, to which we said that’s not the case. There are plenty of local authorities – we know them, we can tell you their names – who are willing to do that.”

It was not only the government as a whole’s response that Lord Dubs felt was unfeeling, but in particular that of the then-Home Secretary now-Prime Minister. “[Theresa May] summoned me in to see her and said ‘I’d like you to withdraw the amendment’. And I said, ‘Why?’, and she said ‘because if these children come, others will follow’. So I said, first of all, there’s no hard evidence for that and secondly, are you saying that we should just ignore children sleeping in the Jungle, in terrible conditions on the Greek Islands or what have you? Are we going to just ignore them? These are young people vulnerable to criminality, prostitution, trafficking and so on.” He went on to add that “Theresa May […] she offered me a bribe. She said, ‘if you drop the amendment, we will increase the vulnerable person’s by 3,000, and there will be child refugees among them.’ And I said that I can’t, you know, I think we can do both and she said no, it’s one or the other. So I said no, I’m going to push it.”

So far, of the 480 cap that was introduced on unaccompanied child refugees, the UK has only welcomed 250. This is clearly a disappointment to Lord Dubs; however, he ended optimistically: “we are hoping to go on challenging the government on that as best we can.”