Small boats packed with people have become emblematic of the Syrian refugee crisisMstyslav Chernov

Speakers including the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK delivered a damning indictment of the handling of the child refugee crisis in a talk at Newnham College on Monday, drawing stark comparisons between the influx of refugees from Syria and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

From Kindertransport to Calais: The Story of Child Refugees was organised by Newnham, Murray Edwards, and Lucy Cavendish Colleges to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Speakers on the panel discussed the history, psychology, and politics of the issue of child refugees.

Mike Levy, a fellow in Holocaust Education with the Imperial War Museum, told the story of the Cambridge Children’s Refugee Committee, which from 1938 helped Jewish children to flee Nazi Germany. Ultimately, the committee took in 2,000 children.

Other speakers addressed the modern crisis directly. Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, a Fellow at Lucy Cavendish who specialises in the developmental effects of early life experiences on cognition, argued that war-exposed children are at greater risk of damage to their impulse control and interpersonal functioning, and are more vulnerable to psychopathology and physical problems.

Phoebe Griffith, the Associate Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, spoke of the difficulty of helping refugee children into the UK.  

“There is an in-built reluctance in local authorities”, she said, “because we tend to distribute refugees to places that are under great pressure themselves. It shows how ill-designed our refugee policy has been for many years.”

Paradoxically, she added, regulation and an emphasis on child protection are “getting in the way” of more immediate help for refugee children.

“We can do better than that as a country.”

Kevin Watkins, Chief Director of Save the Children UK

Kevin Watkins, the Chief Director of Save the Children UK, also addressed the political side to the debate. He told the room that international human rights laws are being “comprehensively and totally violated.”

“We have a higher level of displacement than at any time since World War II,” he said. “That’s 28 million children around the world. These children are being failed by the international community.”

He contrasted the urgency of the crisis with the poverty of the British contribution: of the 90,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, the UK has so far taken in under 1,000. “We can do better than that as a country.”

The responsibility for displaced individuals seems to lie almost entirely with charities and ‘passive fundraisers’ who donate to them. Watkins reported that Save the Children has picked up over 4,000 individuals who had been stranded in open ocean trying to get to Europe. “It’s an appalling indictment of the politics of our age,” Watkins said, “that the world relies on Save the Children to be funded to pull people out of the ocean.”        

Despite the grim picture, Levy offered a glimmer of hope in the form of individual action. The 200 committees that sprung up following Kristallnacht, he said, all had “around three or four” members each. Levy urged the audience to instil in themselves a “revolutionary zeal”.

“It’s really easy to despair in times like this,” Watkins said. “But I’ve spoken to a lot of kids in terrible situations around the world. The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the magic of hope in these kids. We have a right to keep alive the magic of hope that these kids have.”