Thursday, 28 April 2016

Britain, once a country for a 6 year old refugee called Alfred, but no longer one for an 83 year old Lord called Alf Dubs

In a vote in the House of Commons on Monday night, the Government narrowly defeated a cross-party amendment to the Immigration Bill, that would have seen the Britain accept 3,000 child refugees from Europe. It had been passed to the House of Lords having been tabled in and pioneered through by Alf Dubs, himself one of the 699 children brought out of Prague by the individual action of the stockbroker and humanitarian, Nicholas Winton, prior to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

Alf had said in the House of Lords debate : "It is thanks to Sir Nicky Winton, who helped to organise Kindertransports from Czechoslovakia, that I got here at all. I almost certainly owe my life to him." This was the main motivation behind his amendment to the Bill.

The year before, when Alf was 5 years old, representative from 32 western states had gathered in the pretty resort town of Evian in Southern France. They were there to discuss whether to admit a
growing number of Jewish refugees, fleeing from persecution in Nazi Germany and Austria. After several days of negotiations, most countries including Britain, represented by Lord Winterton, decided to do nothing.

According to 'Save the Children' there are now an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children in Europe. They are believed to be mainly in Greece, Italy and the Calais area. According to the Italian authorities, several thousand of the children who arrived there last year have simply disappeared. The fear is that these children might fall victim to gangs who would exploit them as slave labour or for prostitution. In addition, the winter is not over and they must be enduring appalling conditions.

Alf argued that by taking in 3,000 of these children, that Britain will encourage other European governments to play their part. The Government, however, disagrees. It argues that providing a haven for unaccompanied refugee children from Europe will only encourage other families to send their own children on the dangerous journey here as some form of advance party seeking a better life. Instead, as they announced last week that Britain should take up to 3,000 unaccompanied children direct from Syria, North Africa and elsewhere so that they are not tempted to try to get to Europe alone.

Alfred was born in the republic of Czechoslovakia in 1933, the only child of a Czech mother and Jewish father and in a family prosperous enough to take summer holidays in Hungary. Hitler's coming to power in Germany in the year of his birth and his ambition to expand the Third Reich into neighbouring countries immediately cast a shadow over his childhood and he remembers "when the Germans occupied Prague we had to tear out the picture of President BeneŇ° out of the school book and stick in a picture of Hitler."

The German annexation of young Alfred's country meant that "my father left Prague the day the Germans invaded, which I think was March or April 1939. He just disappeared. His cousins, with who discussed it, apparently, they said they were staying. He said he was getting out. They ended up in Auschwitz. I never discussed why he knew what he knew or why he did what he did, because most of the Jews in Central Europe just waited for things to happen and they died. They ended up in the camps."

So at the age of six he was without a father : "My mother said "he's gone away" and I was always told never to mention anything at school which was talked about at home. I didn't quite know what was happening. I knew there was tension. I knew my father had disappeared suddenly. There were German soldiers everywhere in  Prague, but I wasn't particularly knowledgeable or sophisticated to know really what it meant, except I knew it meant something because there were tensions, that my mother was very worried about everything, I could tell, and then she said I was "going to join my father" because I kept asking her what had happened to him."

Alf's memory of events was sharp which he put down to the fact that : "When I was seven I started thinking about what happened to me when I was five or six and that fixed it in my memory in a way it would not have done had I no change in my life from year one to eighteen."

He remembered his mother : "She put me on the train. I can still see in front of me Prague Station (Praha Hlavni Nadrazi) and my mother standing there and looking anxious. It was about midnight. A German soldier with a swastika standing there." He reflected : "I was very lucky because most of the Kindertransport children said "Goodbye" to their parents in Prague and never saw them again"

"The parting for my mother was very traumatic because of the tensions. We got to the Czech-German border and the documents weren't right so they had to send somebody by car to get the documents. We went across Germany. A German soldier came in once and actually he was quite friendly which surprised us and when we got to Holland I looked out for windmills and wooden shoes and saw no windmills" and "We got to the Dutch border and the older ones, I was one of the youngest on this train, the older ones, they cheered, because they knew it was significant to have got out of Germany, because the train ran across Germany. There we got a boat to Harwich and then we got off at Liverpool Street Station where there's now a memorial to the Kindertransport. We had numbers, labels and things and most of them were taken by foster parents. I was lucky. I had a father who took me. I went to my father and then he was anxious if my mother would get out." Alf reflected that : "My mother gave me a little rucksack of food and I didn't eat anything for 2 days, so I must have been traumatised."

Then : "My father had been offered a job in Northern Ireland and so we went to Northern Ireland. It's quite funny because my father had written to my mother and said if you manage to get out of Prague we're going to Cookstown. My mother looked up an atlas confusing Cookstown in Northern Ireland with Cooktown in Australia." At first his mother was refused permission to leave Prague, a cause of great anxiety, but eventually got an exit visa and joined them in Britain.

"So we went immediately to Northern Ireland and a few months later my father had a heart attack and died. So we came back to England from Northern Ireland" For him, in addition, to his grief  : “When your father dies when you’re 7… For the rest of my life I had hundreds of questions to ask him, which of course I could never ask him" and for his mother : "It was quite tough for her : no husband, no money, no family." Eventually : "she arranged for me to go the Czechoslovak School which was actually in Wales. So I went there for two and a half years." "There were 400 of us in this school. So we did speak Czech then."

For secondary education he gained a place at Cheadle Hulme School an independent day school in Stockport and where : "When I was about 12 or 13, or even perhaps, younger I began wondering : 'why what had happened to me and the world ?' and I said to myself  : "if evil politicians can do so many terrible things maybe politics could also be a way of changing that." In other words if politics has the power to make things worse for people, it could also have the power to make things better for people." So I got passionately interested in politics."

"After I left school I went to the London School of Economics because that was the most political university in Britain and I studied Economics and Politics. I joined the Labour Party. I became a local councillor and the I stood for Parliament and the first time I didn't and then I got elected to parliament and then I lost in one election and then I was head of the Refugee Council. It was quite odd, somebody who was a refugee to actually become the Head of the Refugee Council, although the refugees at that point, this was later, were mostly from other countries, not European and then I was put in the House of Lords, where I still am."

"One election I stood in the centre of London. I didn't win and I was a part-Jewish refugee from Prague and my opponent was a man called Christopher Tugenhadt who stood for the Conservatives who was a Jewish refugee fro Vienna and the newspapers didn't pick up that the battle for the constituency for the middle of London was being contested by two people from Central Europe."

"I didn't know for years about Nicholas Winton. I knew I'd come on a Kindertransport and then only 15-20 years ago the news got out and I met him several times." The occasion had been when Nicholas made an appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC tv programme, 'That's Life', in 1988 and asked "whether any in the audience owed their lives to him ? and, if so, to stand", at which point more than two dozen people surrounding him rose and applauded and because the programme was aired nationwide, many other rescued children wrote to and thanked him :

Before Nicholas died last year Alf said : "We all feel we're 'The Winton Children' and we have an obvious affection for him because I would have thought none of us would have survived had it not been for him, that he got us out. So one feels pretty warm towards somebody who saved ones life."

For the time being, the Government's refusal to allow Alf's 3,000 child refugees to enter Britain has scuppered his chances of following in the footsteps of his hero, Nicholas. It also reveals Government policy towards refugees to be little different to what it had been in 1938. The door is closed.

Please sign this petition : At 100,000 signatures, this petition will be considered for debate in Parliament :
Alf's e-petition :

The Government should accept the call to give sanctuary to child refugees who are alone and at risk in Europe.


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