World Refugee Day this year provided a sobering reminder of how easily the world’s great powers can turn their backs on those fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
In Europe, there was more evidence that nations have not shared the human responsibility of providing a safe haven to refugees making dangerous crossings by boat to find a better future here. The wrangling over who should help the refugees on board the Aquarius, including children and pregnant mothers, diminished the countries involved. It was to Spain’s great credit that it stepped in.
In the U.K. there was reason to celebrate — the government accepted my amendment to Brexit legislation, asking that support for unaccompanied refugee children continues after the U.K. leaves the E.U. However that support has not been unqualified. Indeed at times it has been like drawing blood from a stone and we, like other European countries, have not taken our share of the refugees arriving daily on European shores. Here too a hostile environment towards refugees has taken root.
Yet none of that prepared us for the images we saw this week of detention camps on the U.S. border with Mexico where up to 2,300 children have been detained, having been separated from their parents. Some of the images I saw were reminiscent of the darkest times that Europe has lived through in my memory.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Eighty years ago I was saved on the eve of World War Two by the kindertransport and the humanity shown to me especially by the humanitarian Nicholas Winton, but also the British people who welcomed me and 10,000 other unaccompanied refugee children fleeing Nazi Germany.
The U.S., a country itself born of migrants, also has a long and proud record of offering sanctuary. I remember during the 1990s many Haitians fled the brutal dictatorship in their country. I was then part of an international NGO delegation visiting various Caribbean countries. One of the senior politicians I spoke to in the Caribbean said to me “one more Haitian arriving here and this island will sink into the sea. I do not intend to let that happen”. He explained to me that when Haitian refugees tried to land on his island he ordered the boats to be forced back out to sea regardless of whether or not they were sea-worthy.
So all the boats with Haitian refugees made their way to the U.S. where, without exception, they were welcomed ashore. In ‘Little Haiti’ in Miami people knew that U.S. policy was saving lives.
The contrast with today could not be starker. Indeed, watching the scenes of crying refugee children on the Mexican border I could not recall a time when the U.S’s reputation in the world had been so tarnished.
Trump’s U-turn on the separation policy —forced on the President by the decent instincts of the American people—will, I hope, end the trauma of children being torn from their parents. But it comes without details of how those families affected will be reunited, and what policies will now be put in place instead.
The British Prime Minister has been rightly critical of the Trump administration’s border policy, describing it as “deeply disturbing..wrong..not something we agree with”. But she went on to say “we have a special, long-standing and enduring relationship with the United States..and it is important that we make sure that when we welcome .. the President of the United States here in the United Kingdom we are able to have discussions, which means that when we disagree with what they are doing, we say so”.
However, a growing chorus of voices here feel the invitation for President Trump to visit the U.K. in July should now be put on hold.
A few weeks ago I visited both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island has a remarkable museum depicting America’s welcome to the many thousands arriving for a better life.
On World Refugee Day, and every day, it is worth remembering the words written around the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”