The peer who fled the Nazis, aged six, on Labour’s troubles – and his attempts to make the government accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees
The public support Lord Dubs received when the Labour peer’s amendment to the immigration bill passed through the Lords in March took him by surprise. “I’ve had people in the street shouting at me, saying well done,” he says. “And you know, when politicians in the street normally get shouted at, it’s with abuse.”
The Dubs amendment to compel the government to take 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe – proposed amid reports that some 95,000 refugee children have reached Europe without their parents – was voted down by the Commons last week. But it was immediately revised by the Lords and sent back – to be voted on in the Commons again next week. Dubs says the new amendment, which states that numbers of child refugees will be determined by the government in consultation with councils, has made it “easier for the government to accept”, but the key principle, that Britain should take in unaccompanied, mostly Syrian minors from Europe, remains in place. The government has argued that the UK is already helping refugees in the Middle East, and that accepting vulnerable children from European camps would create a “pull factor”. But Dubs, who arrived in the UK from Czechoslovakia on Kindertransport aged six, disagrees. “There is little evidence to suggest that, but in any case the plight of unaccompanied children in various parts of Europe is so serious that one has to set that off against the possibility that one or two might come as a result of a magnet effect,” he says.
This isn’t the first time Dubs has worked on migration issues – he chaired the Refugee Council for seven years and worked on immigration while on the Labour shadow cabinet front benches during the late 1970s and early 1980s. But he believes that public support for his amendment is significant at a time when resentment and negative sentiment has been stirred around the issue of refugees and migrants across Europe.
“It seems to have got hope to people, that it’s something we could easily do as a country and is important to do,” he says, adding: “British people have good humanitarian instincts. Basically people feel that it’s a rough world, and if we can do something to help a few people, then we should do that.”
A Labour working peer since 1994, the Prague-born Dubs says that he is fighting this case on principle, but in terms of garnering media attention his background has obviously helped. He arrived in Britain in 1939, one of 10,000 children who the UK received as part of the government-backed Kindertransport scheme from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries before the outbreak of the second world war.
Dubs was one of the youngest children and also, he says, luckier than most, because both his parents survived the war: his father was already in Belsize Park, north London, and his mother also eventually escaped – he is not sure how – and joined them in Britain. His father died of a heart attack shortly afterwards, leaving her alone with a child and no money, scrubbing floors and travelling the country for various jobs. She died of leukaemia just after Dubs finished university at the London School of Economics. Years later, he learned that he was one of the 669 children saved from the Nazi regime by Sir Nicholas Winton – the “British Schindler” – and the two became friends.
Dubs says that, steeped in politics at an early age, he quickly realised he wanted to enter this field, because “if evil politicians had caused so much that was dreadful in the world, maybe politics could also be used for good”. Always aligned to the Labour party – “the only way forward” – he was selected as Labour candidate for Battersea South, which he represented until 1987, a post he describes as “a privilege”. There followed a short period out of work – he went to sign on for the dole after losing his seat and wrote “not enough votes” on the form as the reason for his unemployment. After writing a book on how to lobby parliament, to help campaigners and activists, he worked for the Refugee Council, becoming the first refugee director of the organisation, and later for Liberty, as well as other charities and trusts.
It seems that Dubs has always been a thorn in the side of governments, during Labour tenures too. In 2008, while Gordon Brown was prime minister, Dubs refused to approve the government’s attempts to increase the period of detention without charge, from 28 to 42 days.
“The whips asked me four times if I’d support the government and I said no. Then they asked me if I’d take the day off and I said no.” He opposed the Iraq war, though he says that, to this day, he regrets not moving a Lords amendment that declined to support military action in Iraq without endorsement from the UN security council. It wouldn’t have passed, he says, but still: “There was a point of principle about it and a time when it was important to go on the record. I would have felt more at peace with myself if I had played my part”
In the Lords he has fought, among many other things, to make mental health trusts more open, to provide more support for neurological diseases – his son has MS – and in favour of assisted dying. He wants to see an income tax increase hypothecated to the underfunded health service – something he feels the public would support if they knew every penny of the increase was going to the NHS.
He has also been consistently vocal on race relations – during the Brixton riots of the early 1980s he “got into long arguments” about police stop and search, which was disproportionately targeting young black men and which he views as one of the factors causing “understandable resentment”. Still clearly passionate in opposing discrimination of any sort, and at a time when the Labour party has been under fire over antisemitism, Dubs says: “I think antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism are all absolutely and equally abhorrent,” adding: “If I thought the Labour party had a problem with antisemitism, I would leave tomorrow.” He does, however, feel that party leader Jeremy Corbyn began to address the issue “too slowly, and didn’t make a clear enough statement” about it early on.
As for the government, he thinks the current administration is “harsher than the Thatcher government in some ways – the cuts in our services are awful, the cuts in social security support, all these things are a terrible package, where the poor are having to carry the burden”. He was pushing to tackle tax avoidance long before the Panama Papers and still believes this is key – along with opposing austerity measures. The unfairness in our society is much more manifest. How can we have a world with such wealth inequality? It is scandalous – and I shall go on playing my part, to lessen inequality, to work for equality, to oppose discrimination of any sort and to have decent public services.”
As the new amendment on unaccompanied child refugees goes back to the Commons, he remains hopeful that MPs will do the right thing. “Britain is a great country, but I don’t think we are doing a good enough job,” he says. “I keep saying, I’d like other people to have the same opportunities in Britain that I had.”
Alf Dubs: ‘Antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism are all equally abhorrent’
by RACHEL SHABI, theguardian.com
Education Cheadle Hulme school, Cheshire; London School of Economics, BSc politics and economics.
Career 1994 to present: Labour peer, House of Lords; 1997-99: junior minister, Northern Ireland Office; 1994–97: opposition whip; 1988-95: director, Refugee Council; 1979-87: Labour MP, Battersea South (later Battersea); 1983-87: opposition front bench spokesman on home affairs; 1981–83: member, home affairs select committee; 1971-78: member, Westminster city council.
Public life chaired the Fabian Society and Liberty; past trustee of Action Aid and the Immigration Advisory Service.
Interests Walking in the Lake District, tennis, political histories, biographies and thrillers.