Czech-born peer forced UK’s hand on 26,000 child refugees

UK Labour veteran Alf Dubs tells of his flight from tyranny in Prague in 1939

Labour peer Alf Dubs: critical of his own party’s low profile in the EU referendum campaign, he warns that if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will be Labour’s fault for failing to mobilise its supporters. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Labour peer Alf Dubs: critical of his own party’s low profile in the EU referendum campaign, he warns that if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will be Labour’s fault for failing to mobilise its supporters. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

 

Britain’s unelected House of Lords has few champions these days but one man has done more to enhance its reputation in recent weeks than most of its members have managed in years.

Eighty-three-year-old Labour peer Alf Dubs this month forced David Cameron’s government into agreeing to accept thousands of the estimated 26,000 child refugees in Europe.

Dubs’s amendment to an immigration Bill won majority support in the Lords but was narrowly defeated in the Commons at first. But public opinion was behind Dubs, who came to Britain from Prague aged six as one of 10,000 Kindertransport child refugees in 1939, and Cameron caved in.

“I would argue that the logic and the humanitarian impulse is there regardless of who moved the amendment. But it would be naive of me not to say that my personal background upped the emotional pressure and also gave me more of an emotional involvement. So it certainly helped politically that I had this background,” he told me over lunch this week.

Irish affairs

Trim and energetic, with an enviably thick mop of hair, Dubs looks much younger than his years, an impression reinforced by his informality and ease. He was a Northern Ireland minister in the late 1990s and he retains a keen interest in Irish affairs, serving as a member of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Now that Britain has agreed to accept child refugees from Europe, 10,000 of whom have gone missing and more of whom are in danger of exploitation, he would like Ireland to follow suit. “This is a very serious situation. Britain should take our fair share and we’d like other enlightened EU countries to do the same. They’re not enlightened in the eastern part of Europe but Irish governments are enlightened on this. I’d be delighted if the Irish Government would look at what we’re doing and do something comparable,” he said.

Dubs spoke Czech and German as a child in Prague and he retains the slightest trace of a Czech accent. His father was Jewish although his mother was not, and his father had determined to leave Prague if the Germans took over.

“He said to his cousins, if the Nazis come, I’m getting out. And they said they’d take their chance and in 1942 the Gestapo came for them and that was the end of them. One went to Auschwitz, the other took a cyanide pill,” Dubs said.

His father fled to England the day the Nazis arrived in Czechoslovakia in March 1939 but his mother was refused permission to go. She found him a place on the Kindertransport, part of a group rescued by Nicholas Winton, who died last year aged 106.

“There were German soldiers everywhere, there was an awful change in the atmosphere. My father had disappeared and I didn’t know what was happening. I was six. I remember my mum taking me to the station. She said I was going to see my dad,” he said.

“It was a long journey. I know the seats were wooden. I had a knapsack full of food but I didn’t touch it for the whole journey. I don’t know, there was nobody to tell me it was time to eat, I must have been a bit traumatised,” he said.

A friend of Dubs’s father had taken over a factory in Drapersfield, near Cookstown, Co Tyrone, and when Dubs’s mother reached London at the end of August 1939, the family moved to Northern Ireland. Dubs went to the local school but a year after they arrived, his father died of a heart attack. Dubs and his mother left for Manchester a year after that. “I remember my father saying before he died, if anyone else asks me what my religion is, I’m going to ask them what their salary is. He was a secular Jew so he didn’t fit anything they knew,” he said.

Despite his background and the traumatic circumstances of his arrival in Britain, Dubs never identified as Jewish, or as anything else. But the recent row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has made him more aware of his Jewish identity.

Muddied waters

Jeremy Corbyn initiated an inquiry into allegations of anti-Semitism after Bradford MP Naz Shah apologised for Facebook messages insulting to Jews which she posted before she entered parliament, and former London mayor Ken Livingstone suggested that Hitler supported Zionism.

Dubs is reluctant to criticise Corbyn but he believes the party leader responded too slowly to the anti-Semitism row. “I think the waters have got very muddied in this and I think you’ve got to be absolutely clear that we can criticise the Israeli government passionately and strongly and say anti-Semitism is abhorrent,” he said.

Dubs is critical of his own party’s low profile in the EU referendum campaign, warning that if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will be Labour’s fault for failing to mobilise its supporters. He has other causes to champion, including that of integrated education in Northern Ireland, which he says is receiving little more than lip service from many Northern politicians.

“There was one leading SDLP politician who said to me, I’m all in favour of integrated education as long as my daughters go to a Catholic school,” he said. “Officially, Sinn Féin supports integrated education but now they’ve copped out and they’re now saying ‘shared education’. Shared means you play football on the same football pitch. And there’s one school in Omagh where they actually had their lunch hours separately.”

As we walk back towards Westminster, Dubs is preparing to tackle some of the 3,500 unread emails in his inbox following his child refugee amendment. All but a handful of the messages and letters he has read so far have been supportive and he is regularly hailed in the street by well-wishers, but the adulation hasn’t gone to his head. “I’m a minor figure. I’m a minor Labour backbencher in the unelected house in parliament,” he said.