Child Refugees - We Must Not Turn Our Backs

25/04/2016 08:38 | Updated 25 April 2016

On a new first class stamp is a picture of Sir Nicholas Winton. After a huge public campaign, the man who rescued hundreds of Jewish child refugees in the Kindertransport has rightly been honoured by the Royal Mail. And rightly too we are all proud of what Britain did to help child refugees with cross party support in Parliament generations ago.

But will today's Parliamentary vote on child refugees be a similar source of pride for future generations? Or will they look back with shame on the reluctance of the British Government to act?

Some 95,000 children and teenagers in Europe as part of the refugee crisis are alone with no one to look after them. Lord Alf Dubs' amendment - which had overwhelming cross party support in the House of Lords - asks Britain to take just 3,000 of those children, so we do our bit to help.

Because urgent help is needed. Thousands are sleeping rough because children's homes are full and child protection services are overwhelmed. They face huge risk from cold, sickness, abuse, exploitation, violence and rape.

According to Unicef and Save the Children there are 2,000 children alone in Northern Greece, but less than 500 places in shelters. In Italy they found girls being exploited by older men, while half the boys already had sexually transmitted diseases. And in Calais I met 11 and 12-year-olds suffering from scabies and bronchitis, sleeping in tents with adult men.

These kids should be safe, cared for and in school. One of the Syrian teenagers I met told me the thing he wanted most was to learn - he hadn't been in a classroom for four years.

Many of them have family elsewhere in Europe who could look after them. Citizens UK and Help Refugees have found 150 children and teenagers in Calais who have relatives here in Britain. Appalling failures in both the French and British system mean they are stuck in the mud of Northern France instead.

So it is shameful that the British government is still refusing to help child refugees in Europe. Under pressure in January from all our campaigns ministers have agreed to help child refugees in camps in the Middle East (And they re-announced the same thing under pressure again last week.) That help is welcome. But it does nothing to solve the plight of those suffering trafficking and exploitation in Europe right now.

Nor is it good enough to say that these children are all someone else's problem. Italy and Greece are overwhelmed. A shocking 10,000 child refugees have vanished in Europe - many of them undoubtedly into the arms of trafficking gangs.

All European countries should do more - for example it is a disgrace how little child protection France has put in place to tackle the problems in Calais. But how can we ask other countries to do more if we are refusing to do anything ourselves.

Nor can ministers hide behind the claim that if Britain helps then more will come. The fact is tens of thousands of children and teenagers are already in Europe and they have often come searching for relatives. Moreover the idea that we should abandon thousands of children to the streets and a life of trauma and abuse in order to deter others is simply immoral.

I hope today that MPs of all parties join the call to stop the government turning its back.

When the Kindertransport was passed in Parliament, MPs of all parties supported Britain's leadership in helping child refugees.

Alf Dubs himself is a child of the Kindertransport - saved by Sir Nicholas Winton from the Nazis. Now he is asking us to save another generation of child refugees. Other Kindertransport survivors have spoken out too. Like Rabbi Harry Jacobi - who came on one of the last boats out of Amsterdam. And Sir Erich Reich. All of them joining with the Board of Deputies, the Church of England and the House of Lords, Save the Children, the Refugee Council, Citizens UK, Jewish Council for Racial Equality, local government, community groups to urge MPs to do the right thing today.

When Sir Nicholas Winton's stamp was launched, Theresa May called him "a hero of the 20th Century." Yet she is refusing to support the child refugees of the 21st Century. Let us not look back in 20 years or more and be ashamed of the vote in Parliament today - let all MPs join together and vote for Lord Dubs' amendment now.

Yvette Cooper is Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and chair of Labour's Refugee Taskforce