When Alf Dubs sees footage of Ukrainians fleeing their homeland, he remembers his own escape – from Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939. He was six years old, and travelled to the UK via the Kindertransport, in which the UK took in nearly 10,000 mainly Jewish children from Europe.
“I was saying goodbye to my mum and saying goodbye to everything I knew,” recalled the Labour peer in his cramped office, full of papers and books about the refugee experience, on Millbank, across the road from the Palace of Westminster. A painting of Battersea Power Station, an icon of his old south London constituency when he was an MP from 1979 to 1987, hung on one otherwise empty wall.
“I have a bit of a fellow feeling with people who arrive here, because I know what it’s like,” he said, settling into an armchair, patting down his hair and straightening his tie patterned with exotic birds.
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“I spoke Czech and German, I didn’t speak any English when I got here. So there are similarities. It’s also the sense of bewilderment one finds when one is here, particularly if one is young, one doesn’t quite understand the significance of what’s happening.”
Now 89, Dubs still works relentlessly for the rights of refugees coming to the UK, most notably on what became known as the “Dubs amendment” to the Immigration Act in 2016, which allowed unaccompanied child refugees from the EU admittance into the UK. At first rejected by a majority Tory Commons, it was eventually accepted by the government – before the Home Office removed it again the following year after only taking in 350 children.
With more than three million people thought to have fled Ukraine, and the Nationality and Borders Bill (which would restrict the rights of asylum seekers and even criminalise them) making its way through the House of Lords, it’s a busy time for a man with his focus. He showed me his inbox: nearly 30,000 emails to get through.
When we met on Monday 14 March, as Michael Gove announced a “Homes for Ukraine” scheme whereby private individuals could volunteer to house refugees themselves, Dubs was appalled by the UK’s bungled response. An outlier among its European neighbours, the government was still insisting on visa access and has up until this point only been open to those with relatives in Britain.
“My sense is that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, her policy is to keep people out,” he said. “I can’t see any [other] particular rationale for what she’s doing.” (It wasn’t until the day after our interview that Ukrainians were finally able to apply for visas to the UK online, rather than having to pass biometric tests in person at visa centres outside of the country.)
“I think there’s a hostility to incomers. There’s a hostility to people whether they’re from Europe or further afield,” Dubs added, arguing the EU referendum in 2016 contributed to this environment.
“The Brexit referendum poisoned the atmosphere a bit, because when Boris Johnson said that if we don’t leave the EU, there are 70 to 80 million Turks poised to enter Britain, that was a downright lie, and Farage with his posters and so on,” he said, referring to the then Ukip leader’s notorious “Breaking Point” poster depicting a queue of migrants and refugees.
“It was fairly clear that those people for whom [the Vote Leave slogan] ‘take back control’ resonated, what it meant was ‘Keep Them Out’… And so that poisoned the atmosphere. That’s been reversed a bit with the Ukrainian situation, but the atmosphere was poisoned by the Brexit referendum.”
Even with public attitudes sympathetic towards displaced Ukrainians, and 122,305 people signing up to house them so far, Dubs nevertheless mused that racism could be at play.
“A big concern is that, although once public opinion is on side, public opinion seems to be more sympathetic to white refugees than refugees from Syria or the Horn of Africa or from Afghanistan, and we’ve got to watch that,” he cautioned. “They’re all people with an equal fear, which led them to escape, and I think we’ve got to treat them all [as] equally worthy of our protection.”
And in any case, public opinion on refugees can be “fickle”, he warned. “Because extreme right-wing parties have exploited refugee opinion,” he said, listing Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in France, and similar nativist traction in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
“There’s always the danger of extreme right-wing parties to exploit the situation, which is an added reason why we’ve got to keep public opinion on side. One may argue with Priti Patel around, one doesn’t need fascist parties – she’s doing it,” he said.
Dubs, who used to be a councillor on the Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council in the Seventies, recalled a controversial decision to put Ugandan Asian families coming to Britain as refugees at the top of the council housing list. (This attracted complaints about local families being overlooked.)
Patel’s own parents were Ugandan Indian immigrants, and Dubs described it as an “irony” that “we stuck our necks out like that so that Priti Patel’s parents could get here. I mean, talk about pulling up the drawbridge when you’re here.”
Having dealt with a number of home secretaries on the matter of refugee children, Dubs described Patel as “worse, in the scale of things”, and working with the Home Office now as like “beating one’s head against a brick wall”.
The Home Office’s Ukrainian refugee policy – characterised by U-turns, delays, gaffes and attempts at spin – has “managed to combine incompetence and hostility in about equal measure, which is an awesome combination”, he said. “It’s a lot of incompetence, which is linked with the malice.”
Describing the UK response as a “national disgrace”, “embarrassing” and a “farce, if it weren’t so tragic”, Dubs added: “I don’t know why the Home Secretary has survived. In any other government the Home Secretary would have been sacked.”
In terms of the UK improving its welcome to Ukrainians, Dubs would like to see the UK coordinate with other European countries to commit to taking a percentage of the total number of refugees. He also called for a faster, non-bureaucratic process, prioritising vulnerable people, and ditching the “long forms, biometric data, stuff like that”.
Labour, however, has stopped short of calling for visa-free access – as the EU has granted, for up to three years. While Dubs said he “has a lot of time” for the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and the Labour leader Keir Starmer, he called on his party to take a stronger line.
“I think we could be a little bit more robust. I think we’re being a little bit too cautious at the moment, and I don’t think we need to be because if public opinion is ahead of us, then clearly we ought to do some catching up. So I would like to see a more robust strategy.”
Where did he think that caution came from?
“I suppose a fear that it can be made a very toxic issue against the Labour Party, the refugee issue, and the fear that just when things are going a bit better, we don’t want to throw it all away. But the answer is I don’t really know.”