Child migrants: Britain is far from full

James Woudhuysen

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David Cameron says he hates racism. He says he cares, deeply, about children – enough to cosset the charity Kids Company until well past its sell-by date. But he is refusing to give in to another charity, Save the Children, which has called on Cameron to allow 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees, currently residing in continental Europe, into the UK. Doing that, Cameron warned, might spur more refugees to make dangerous journeys across Europe.

So compassionate! Yet many have agreed with the PM. ‘Fast-tracking unaccompanied children is nowhere near as simple as it sounds’, said one commentator. ‘Once the word gets out that unaccompanied children will receive preferential treatment, their numbers will grow exponentially.’ Another writer observed: ‘The core European problem is the speed with which refugees or economic migrants can be absorbed… If just a page or two of the various climate-change reports turn out to be true, the next-but-one migration wave could include millions fleeing threatened coastal states.’

So apparently this crowded island can’t take even 3,000 kids now, let alone adults. Really? Perhaps some historical perspective might help here.

In September 1939, in an officially organised mass panic about prospective Luftwaffe bombings, Britain evacuated 827,000 school kids and a further 524,000 mothers and small children away from their homes in cities, in three days. In fact, a quarter of Britain’s population gained a new address within a week.

All that took place more than 75 years ago, and after nearly a decade of interwar depression. Contrast then with now. George Osborne’s economic prosperity is a fraud – but we are not on the brink of a world war. The NHS is in genuine difficulty, social care is very weak, and we have a housing crisis; but pediatrics is much advanced, and China, at least, is able to 3D-print and assemble houses in three hours. We have Eurostar high-speed trains to ferry migrant children from Calais to London and beyond.

True, new migrants will add to Britain’s population, not reshuffle it as in 1939. But Britain isn’t bursting at the seams: buildings, roads and car parks cover just seven per cent of its surface area. Nowadays, too, we build much higher than in the 1930s. What’s more, around the world, construction techniques are leaping forward. Drones are now used on construction sites. In India, JCB uses the Internet of Things to connect up thousands of digging machines. In America, robots can lay bricks three times faster than a human.

Are we really saying, in 2016, that we lack the space, the technology or the brains to add, say, 300,000 children and three million adults to a country where more than 31million people are already at work, creating wealth?

Even a child ought to be able to give the right answer to that question.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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