Compassion Fatigue? Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

On Wednesday there was the announcement that we would not take any more child refugees. Noticeable that the government released this statement the same day of the Brexit vote! And this story was not even on front pages yesterday.

Lib Dems had campaigned for the UK to take 3000 unaccompanied minors. Many others lobbied, including Lord Alf Dubs, and this resulted in the so-called Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act 2016.

Where is our compassion? Should we not be taking in the most vulnerable victims of horrendous conflicts that have caused children to flee their own country? This saga has gone on for too long, and now the news that the UK will not accept more. The 350 children we will have taken by the end of March is far fewer than other countries have done. Based on our size and wealth, we should feel an obligation to take so many more children. But we don’t seem to have a heart anymore.

I was at a seminar on Wednesday convened by Lord Roberts in the House of Lords about how to better support unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Representatives from the Refugee Council, Amnesty, UNICEF and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association all spoke. This was before the news broke on not taking any more refugee children. The ideas of what the UK should do (and the assumption was that we would be taking more children) were:

  • Recognise the right to family life that all children have. Reunite children, whose asylum claims have been accepted, with their families. Some would be orphans, or their families would be lost, so it would not be possible. But where possible, parents and siblings should be brought to the UK and offered asylum in order to keep family units together. This is in accordance with Human Rights law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • When their application is approved, all unaccompanied asylum seeking children should be assigned an independent guardian. This person should not be a social worker or connected in any way to the system. An independent guardian will offer support, advice and the help children need to access services, and would better protect children from exploitation.
  • At the age of 18, asylum seeking children should not be pushed into the adult asylum system and housed with adults, but should be housed with other young people within the existing framework of support offered to children leaving care.
  • Age assessments should always be done by trained social workers, not, as often is the case, by Home Office border officials. This is a specialist area that needs expert assessment. How a child looks, or their dental records, is not an accurate way to assess the age of someone who may be malnourished, exhausted from a complicated and dangerous journey, and ravaged by the effects of war. Anyone claiming to be an unaccompanied minor should, unless there is overwhelming evidence that this is not the case, be protected as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child and assessed properly.
  • The protections currently offered to care leavers by the Children Act 1989 should be written into the Immigration Act 2016. Specific protections around safeguarding need to be written into government regulations.
  • All unaccompanied asylum seeking children should have independent legal advice.

So we should be doing more, not less. We should be protecting vulnerable children, not shunning them. We should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as I wrote in an earlier blog and accept these rights apply to refugee children in this country.

I am ashamed this government is not going to accept more unaccompanied asylum seeking children. We seem selfish and heartless. Where is our compassion?

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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  • I’m afraid compassion fatigue began to set in when male ‘teenagers’ who were clearly anything but were pictured being admitted under this scheme. The few spoiling it for the many. See also the Chatham House research (with graphic) reported in this Times piece.

  • @ David I don’t need to hear comments from the Rupert Murdoch/DonaldTrump jokebook…… to know what has happened is shameful.

    Teresa was right many years ago when she said the Tory Party is (rightly) seen as the nasty party.

  • Martin Clarke 10th Feb '17 - 9:46am

    These “children” are in France. They should seek asylum there as it is a safe country. If they try to come from France to the UK they are economic migrants and should be treated as such.

  • I don’t really is caused by compassion fatigue. The basic problem is that immigration levels are way out of step with public opinion and this makes the refugee situation easy for the Right to exploit. Part of the problem is also that economic migrants are sometimes being included in the refugee figures which further increases the ability of the Right to exploit the situation.
    IMO, we probably should take more refugees but should follow stricter rules about who exactly is or isn’t a refugee. It does not particularly bother that some of the claimants are older than they say. It does bother me that a significant minority of are not from war zones and are in fact simply illegal immigrants.

  • This isn’t ‘compassion fatigue’. The people who refuse to help children fleeing a war never had any compassion in the first place.

  • Martin Clarke 10th Feb '17 - 11:25am

    They are in France. I wasn’t aware of any war being fought in France.

  • As a child I remember a lady called Mrs Bailey who lived a few streets away. Everyone knew Mrs Bailey, who always had a smile and a kind word. She lived alone and it was believed that her husband had died from the complications of some industrial injury.

    No doubt for companionship, she took in a stray cat, and after a while of taking in the occasional stray cat, became known affectionately as ‘The Cat Lady’. If children found the odd stray, they would take it to Mrs Bailey’s house. She never said NO.

    About four years later, I heard that Mrs Bailey had been taken to hospital with malnutrition and associated ill health complications. She never returned to her home, and it was believed that she was too ill to look after herself, and placed in a home of some description.
    [ As an aside to the story, Mr Bailey sold the empty house. Turns out, Mr Bailey had not died, but had left Mrs Bailey many years earlier, for reasons unknown.]

    The downfall of Mrs Bailey, was not her compassion,.. it was that her compassion, had no self preserving off switch. She lived by emotion and a deep caring attitude,… but was unable to grasp that her compassion was outstripping her meager resourses of a pension, plus her inability to phisically clean the house behind 60+ cats [poo-ing and pee-ing], , and keep them brushed, and generally healthy. What Mrs Bailey, was doing was deeply compassionate, but totally unsustainable, and she was unable to see that fact, because of her ’emotional fog’.

    I put it to you, that it’s not compassion fatigue, that is resistant to this unending stream of migration and * child? * assylum seekers. It is that the already existing dearth of resourses,…creating a lack of housing, schools, NHS and Social Health care, for the 65 million ‘cats’, already living in our ‘collective house’ called the UK, cannot sustain many more ‘cats’, before the sustainability creaks to the point of being broken.

    Mrs Bailey started out as the very compassionate ‘Cat Lady’, but in the end destroyed her health and became the ‘Mad~ Cat Lady’.

  • Nicholas Cunningham 10th Feb '17 - 11:57am

    Children are not economic migrants and they should not become pawns in some political game being acted out concerning who speaks for the citizens of this Nation. The answer to the very important question ‘where is our compassion’, sadly, it’s been lost in the sea of misinformation and prejudice that has been built on the back of it. Compassion is about reaching out to those in need, it’s not even about duty, it’s about having some humanity for others who are in some dire need. I really despair when I read some of these comments.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Feb '17 - 12:35pm

    J Dunn, The story of Mrs Bailey is sad, but it is not exactly relevant. Mrs Bailey may not have had room in her house for sixty cats, or been able to afford them on a meagre pension. But Britain is a wealthy country, with plenty of space. We certainly have the room and resources to give a home to three thousand refugee children. Indeed, we should be able to welcome many more than this number.

  • J Dunn
    Mrs. Bailey got very old, it happens to a lot of people. My mother was a cat lady.
    Today we remember the Kindertransport with pride.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Feb '17 - 12:54pm

    Martin Clark, I find the lack of generosity in your comment depressing. Even if it could be argued that we are not obliged in a narrowly legal sense, we clearly do have a moral obligation to do what we can in this humanitarian crisis. We are a wealthy country, perfectly able to welcome many more refugees, and we should be happy and proud to do so.
    David, I also find profoundly depressing the lack of compassion and empathy in your view that we should not try to help refugee children just because a few adults may have pretended to be children. I don’t think we should be too judgmental if a nineteen year old, in a desperate situation, pretends to be sixteen. Does it even matter all that much if some adults get into Britain in this way? Refugees do not cease to need and deserve help when they reach the age of eighteen.

  • No such statement was made, we will still be taking children from camps in the middle east.
    We will even be taking a few more from France the figure is now 350, we not taken that many yet so more will be coming.
    I agree with Martin though, they are in France and should be capable of being kept safe by French authorities. When wad it written that people claiming asylum could ignore E.U. law and insist on settling where ever they want?
    This country is one of the most generous and open in the world.0.7% GDP on foreign aid, massive private donation to various charitable causes, and a culture of volunteering. Compare that with the rest of Europe never mind the world ot is true however that we do not appreciate people taking advantage.

  • Kirsten johnson 10th Feb '17 - 1:35pm

    Thank you all for reading. David, your comments highlight the need for proper age assessments to take place but trained professionals, exactly what the Refugee Council and other organisations have been calling for.

    Glenn, immigration is confusing to many as immigrants are all lumped together (indeed I am an immigrant from the U.S.). Very few of the immigrants are refugees fleeing war and persecution, and fewer still are unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

    J Dunn, yes, properly funded services are at the root of public apathy to the plight of others. This systemic problem underlies not only our lack of support for vulnerable refugee children, but all those vulnerable in our midst (the elderly, disabled, those in need of care, etc.)

    Nicholas, I couldn’t agree more! This is about our basic humanity.

    Catherine, thank you for pointing out that as a wealthy country we should, at the very least, be able to afford to support 3000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

  • Catherine, in response to “Does it even matter all that much if some adults get into Britain in this way? Refugees do not cease to need and deserve help when they reach the age of eighteen .I don’t think we should be too judgmental if a nineteen year old, in a desperate situation, pretends to be sixteen”, do forgive me: I thought this post was about child refugees. And if nineteen, why not 21? 25? 27?

  • I don’t think we should be too judgmental if a nineteen year old, in a desperate situation, pretends to be sixteen

    True. No one fleeing a desperate situation should be turned away just because they have passed an arbitrary chronological marker.

    However, what if a nineteen-year-old who is not in a desperate situation, but simply fancies moving to a country with a higher standard of living. pretends to be a child of sixteen fleeing from a war zone (when in reality they have never been near a war zone in their life)?

  • Dav: don’t omit “and destroys all papers relating to themselves, making their story unverifiable – or, if you prefer, unchallengable”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Feb '17 - 2:53pm

    I would like to add a well done to Kirsten for raising this important situation and , like the wretched decision of the government , it could slip through unexplored or debated.

    Catherine is correct here, we can afford this number, and while I do want David to stop presuming that because something is in the so called Murdoch press, it is not true, especially as Sky News has some exemplary journalism, I do agree with his disdain for the Tory decision.

    It is about something else which shows both the worthwhile and alas worthless EU here. We could have , should , a co operation on refugees thus meaning all EU countries share equally according to per head of population and recent immigration, and wealth , the refugees. But the EU, duet o internecine warfare, no, crass silliness, no, due to being flat as a pancake , have had a poor response, about as collective as Milton Freidman singing solo in a political choir !

  • Kirsten
    I was pretty much saying that, but adding that immigration levels and a tendency to treat illegal immigrants in Calais as part of the refugee crisis makes the confusion easier to perpetuate.

  • Dav
    ” (when in reality they have never been near a war zone in their life)?”
    A few questions in Arabic would quickly ascertain whether the person came from Syria or not.

  • A few questions in Arabic would quickly ascertain whether the person came from Syria or not

    Arabic is spoken in other places than Syria, you know.

  • Sorry, but many of these children have traveled half way around the world. They are very street wise and are far and away from being what most people would consider unaccompanied minors. There were – and still are – many desperate refugees in europe and I would be more than happy for the UK to take many thousands more than we have. However, unaccompanied young children, vulnerable women/girls and families with young children must have priority. Strapping boys claiming to be 16 or17 – no matter how hard it seems – should be towards the back of the queue.

  • Dav
    I am more than aware of it, with regional accents I should add.

  • Dav
    Tell me something of the taxis in Damascus.

  • Eileen Riley 11th Feb '17 - 9:28am

    I have just subscribed to LibDem Voice. This is the first article I have read, and the first set of comments. Have to say, I’m very surprised by some of them. Not so much for the opinions, which I don’t agree with, but for the tone of voice in which they were written, which doesn’t strike me as being very … liberal. I have been actively looking for a place where I can read opinions that don’t agree with my own but which I could actually read without wanting to hurl my laptop through the window. Looks like I might have found it, in the most unexpected of places.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Feb '17 - 10:47am

    Eileen Riley, I can understand why you are surprised and disappointed by the tone of some of the comments above. One would expect, on a liberal website, that the vast majority of comments would show sympathy and empathy for refugees, and take for granted that Britain should help them. Sadly, that has not been the case with the comments here. It is especially disappointing that many people have been focusing on the possibility that a few people may pretend to be younger than they are, or pretend to be from a war zone when they are not, and have been using this as an excuse not to help refugees at all. Also very sad to see someone say that some refugee children are “very street wise”, implying that this means they are less deserving of help. It is not surprising that some of these unaccompanied children may have had to grow up far too quickly. But they are children, and vulnerable, and need and deserve our help.

  • These child refugees have become a political football. The truth is that some contributions on this topic would always find a reason to belittle the opinion of those who are caring. As the refugee organisations say, no-one from the British side is talking to them, so no options are being discussed with the individual child. The youngster who was cleared in October to come here is still languishing in a camp, how awful is that for him. These are vulnerable people, is it too much to ask for us as aq Nation to allow this small number who have passed the tests to come here ,in line with the parliamentary approval of Dubs law.

  • The Government claims that councils have offered to take only 400 of the Dubs children. I know there are few Lib Dem councils, but how many places have they offered between them? I know from other recent threads that Lib Dem South Lakeland has accepted no Syrian refugees yet. I’ve just checked another council at random (Lib Dem-dominated Eastleigh) and they don’t appear to have taken any either. If I have time later I’ll check them all.

    There is also the matter of the Government’s claim that the French authorities have asked them to stop the scheme because it is acting as a lure for people traffickers and hence putting vulnerable young people in greater jeopardy. If this is true, then how can it be “compassionate” to continue the scheme? The appropriate response to the Government’s claim is to ask for the evidence, instead of lashing out.

    But the more fundamental problem with the whole Dubs approach is that – if we assume the number of children we can take is finite – then for every child we take who has made it to the relative safety of France, we must leave another child in or near a camp in Syria. That does not sound like the most compassionate response to me.

    I think Lib Dems should move away from this approach of constantly questioning the compassion levels of others and instead work on the assumption that there are compassionate people in all parties and none, and the proper way forward is to take an evidence-based look at how we can maximise the number of people we help given the resources we have available. To be fair, I think the Government is doing a reasonable job on that.

    Amber Rudd’s full statement here for anybody who actually wants to give a fair hearing to the Government’s reasoning :-

  • suzanne fletcher 11th Feb '17 - 11:49am

    @Eileen Riley, very sorry this is the first venture into LDV. Bear in mind that it is open to the public, so not everyone contributing is a member of the Lib Dems, or indeed a supproter of our vaues.
    if you would like to be part of some discussions with Lib Dems there are a number of closed groups on facebook that you might find better ?

  • suzanne fletcher 11th Feb '17 - 11:57am

    First, thank you to Kirsten Johnson for writing the article, and giving the feedback from the meeting with Roger Roberts and others. Helpful to know, and inspiring that there are the good constructive thoughts there.
    I despair of some of the comments made by many in this “discussion”, where I fear that the uninformed and biased media has had an undue influence.
    I’ll just give 2 facts.
    1. Uganda takes more refugees a day than a number of the richest EU countries takes in a year.
    2. I know a Syrian refugee here in the UK, who managed to get here, now has refugee status so can work, and is doing a job and voluntary work valuable to our society. He was not a “minor” but in his mid 20’s. He was despairing because his twin brother had been stuck in Calais and they had never been separated before, and was losing hope they would ever be reunited after the 18 months apart. a few months ago the twin brother did get to the UK, and I met him at an event. He looked at least 10 years older than his twin. enough said.

  • For those who are getting stuck on what age constitutes a “child refugee”, can I ask at what age you left home, and at what age you stopped getting practical support from your parents? And for the parents amongst you, what age did you cut off your own children?

    In the UK, it’s common for children to stay with their parents into their twenties. Many sort-of leave home when they go to uni, but that’s not really leaving home, and most continue to get financial support from their parents and somewhere to go for comfort when something goes wrong with a romantic relationship or in their professional life.

    If you think that’s all reasonable, what it is about being from a war zone that makes you think that 19 year olds are not vulnerable, and fully equipped to deal with all that life throws at them?

  • Is it now Lib Dem policy to take in all refugees? Because if you are saying that single young men/boys claiming to be in their late teens are a priority, it basically means we are taking everyone. I’m not trying to be hard – just practical. Which type of refugee wouldn’t be classed as vulnerable and a priority?

  • Tony Vickers 11th Feb '17 - 2:56pm

    Anyone who knows about the way these children get here knows that if they ever had any ‘papers’ to prove everything they say they’d have had them taken along the way by the traffickers. This is not like catching Easyjet to Las Palmas! It is an atrocious Kafka-esque system that we’ve devised. It should make any Liberal deeply ashamed to be British but I’m proud that our Party is standing up for these people, whatever their age. Our history is full of refugees who have made us the Great country we are. The corollary of that is obvious: turn them all away and God help us – because why should anyone else? Post-BREXIT, I wouldn’t rule out a reverse movement from Poor Little England.

  • I think the vast majority of people in this country are happy that those most in need, are given as much as help and support as can be realistically offered. In my opinion a problem arises when the government states children will be allowed in and then, it is clear that this offer is being abused, this abuse by desperate people is then compounded by some people saying it is ok and that we shouldn’t even really be checking because ‘everyone was a child once’. This creates a lot of anger, not because people feel that only refugees under 18 years old should be allowed top enter the country but that there is a perception amongst some, particularly liberal voters that it is perfectly ok for our system to be abused, and that we shouldn’t even question it, adults posing as children, NHS tourisms etc. There is a view amongst some people that we should be proud of the amount of abuse that takes place, that is one cause of the anger and hardening of view point.
    If we don’t care how old people entering the country as children are, be honest , say so and have the debate. If it is ok for people to access the NHS when they are not entitled to do so, again be honest enough to say so, make it official policy and have the debate.

  • @Tony and @Suzanne
    I think you are mistaken in wanting to prioritise these particular young people.

    There are about 4.8 million refugees in countries bordering Syria, and something like 6.5 million displaced within Syria itself. Almost half of all those people are under 18. These numbers are mind-boggling. I take it we all accept that the UK cannot bring them all here – so choices have to be made.

    This being the case, why should we give priority to people who are already in western Europe, when we could bring more people in from Syria and the surrounding area instead? What you are suggesting would actually mean fewer refugees making it to western Europe – and I don’t see how that is that is more compassionate than the alternative.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Feb '17 - 5:22pm

    Eileen Riley, Following my previous reply, I should have added – Welcome to Lib Dem Voice! I hope that you have not been put off, and that you will continue to read Lib Dem Voice and to comment 🙂

  • @ Eileen Riley. I’d like to echo Catherine’s comments and welcome you.

    Unfortunately, particularly in a thread like this, we get posting from a few regular non LD members who get some sort of buzz out of posting very non liberal views. We also get a few differences of opinion between LD members – but hopefully there is no real animosity.

    But….. welcome.

  • I would just like to add that I think we should take more refugees mainly because the stupid actions of our governments since the 1990s did a lot to create the crisis in the first place. You can’t go around bombing people and practicing “regime change” with no real plan and then walk away from it. All I was arguing was that the confusion over who is or isn’t refugee helps fuel the Right. The problem is 70 plus% of the population want lower immigration and you have to focus otherwise you end up damaging the chances of the vulnerable. Everyone talks about how this or that happened, but really you should never forget that the electorate is capable of electing people who will shift the ground from under your feet.

  • suzanne fletcher 11th Feb '17 - 9:40pm

    just to add.
    it isn’t about prioritising the young people, it is about keeping to the promise that gave them hope. A promise agreed by parliament, I might be wrong, but without opposition.
    it isn’t going to encourage more to come to Europe, there was a cut off date in 2016.
    there certainly is a lot of confusion in people’s minds about refugees / asylum seekers / migratnts. some of the media don’t help by mixing it all up.
    I do a lot of work with asylum seekers in our community where there are quite a lot of them. People that have met them, and got to know them have no problems at all.
    those asylum seekers who get leave to remain and stay here are determined to make a contribution to society, working, paying tax, voluntary work etc.
    A pity this is a virtual discussion in a way, there are people I’d like you to meet, including some young people who arrived here whilst under 18.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Feb '17 - 3:43am


    Can I as a regular member of the party who contributes here , join my colleagues , Catherine Jane Crosland , and David Raw, two excellent equally regular members in a big welcome to you. The mention of them in this context is very significant , as the three of us often agree and strongly , and disagree and just as strongly on issues, not always on the same ones, but are always able to engage with each other with at best , warm, at
    worst , sardonic bon homie , and as David says , no animosity.But insomnia , or at least later night draw!


    You make a good point on prioritising the camps in the region, ie not our continent of Europe. I admit to liking the measured contribution in the debate, of Alastair Carmichael , more than the bitter angry comments on this, because I am confused now since earlier comments. If Amber Rudd is to be accepted on merit of what she told the House of Commons , the scheme is n ‘t closed, but the French and other colleagues in our continent want the decision?! Someone please explain ?!

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