Britain can do more for child refugees who have already suffered so much

Child Refugee Crisis, Save the Children
Two children play on the railway lines in Presevo, waiting for another train to take them on the next step in their journey.

By Justin Forsyth, former Save the Children CEO

A few weeks before Christmas in 1938, a party of 196 German children arrived at the UK port of Harwich. They had left Nazi-controlled Berlin by train the day before, after their Jewish orphanage had been burned to the ground. They were the first of nearly 10,000 children who travelled to Britain to escape persecution, facilitated by volunteers and far-sighted officials, in what became known as the Kindertransport.

The Kindertransport movement is something Britain can be incredibly proud of, a beacon of light in an otherwise dark time. I was reminded of it when I stood on a beach in Lesvos recently, helping families fleeing conflict to come ashore on flimsy rubber boats. Many held out their babies and small children first, calling out for them to be carried to safety – that innate desire of parents to save their children at all costs.

Child Refugee Crisis, Save the Children
A young boy looks across the street in the unofficial camp at Kara Tepe on the Greek island of Lesvos.

It was that same determination to survive that led them to set out on an uncertain journey in the first place. Unfortunately, the gamble does not always pay off – as I write this, news has come in of another tragic drowning off the coast of Turkey, with up to 21 bodies brought ashore in Lesvos including children.

As we face the biggest refugee crisis globally since WWII, it’s time to think again about how we can reach out a helping hand to those that need it most. After I met children in Sicily early last summer who had made the journey to Europe completely alone, walking across the desert and facing hunger, torture and abuse on route, Save the Children called on the UK government to offer to take in up to 3,000 of these lone children. That call was backed yesterday by a cross-party group of MPs on the International Development Committee, who recognised the extraordinary vulnerability of unaccompanied refugee children.

Child Refugee Crisis, Save the Children
A young boy who is still wearing the life jacket that he was wearing when he crossed the sea walks around the city of Lesvos.

The 3,000 number was calculated as Britain’s fair share of the estimated 26,000 children who arrived in Europe in 2015 without any family. They come from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere, some of them teenagers, some as young as eight. Like those children arriving in Harwich in the 1930s, many of them are escaping conflict. They seek safety and security, but unfortunately, with reception services in Greece and Italy totally overwhelmed, they do not always find it.

Last year, Italy said that 4,000 of the lone children they had registered had vanished. Some can be found working as prostitutes around train stations, others are moved on by people traffickers. They come to Save the Children’s centres in Rome and Milan to get a decent meal and a shower, to have the chance to call back home and be children again for a while. In Greece, we try to identify and help child refugees who are on their own, but with up to 10,000 people arriving every day at the height of the crisis, the situation is chaotic.

Child Refugee Crisis, Save the Children
A boy who just arrived on an inflatable boat from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesvos carries his lifebelt across the beach.

As a result, children on their own are extremely vulnerable. Our staff have heard reports of a ten-year-old boy being raped while he slept in a park, and of children being tortured by people traffickers on the migration route to extort more money. We believe we can do more for children who have already suffered so much.

After hearing our call, organisations and individual families across the UK have come forward and offered to help. One charity, Homes for Good, has already registered 10,000 potential carers and adoptive parents who are ready and willing to give a refugee child a chance at building a better life. We believe that 3,000 is a manageable number for the UK – it’s less than a third of those we took in during the Kindertransport and amounts to just five children per parliamentary constituency.

The UK has led the way in aid to the Syria region, and the government recently took the very welcome step of offering to take in 20,000 refugees living in camps in the Middle East. But we know that Britain can also reach out a hand to some of those who have already made the dangerous journey to Europe, those at-risk children who are on their own this winter. Like those dark days in 1938, children are leaving their homes today without their families because they fear for their lives. Britain can live up to the best of our history by offering them a better future.

Leave a Reply


  • whilst i do feel sorry for the refugee children we keep getting told that we have over 10000 children in thus country living in poverty and the same number question is if all these people offering homes etc to these children why have they not offered help to children in this country. in case you think im against charity, i support a little girl in india and a little boy in africa. i would send money to you for .the children in the uk but do not trust any donation i send would actually be used for these children {as per your advert featuring paul o grady}i have donated sums to the yemen,nepal,haiti,ebola etc.

  • Justin Forsyth

    Hi there,

    Thanks for getting in touch. It certainly sounds like you’re a very charitable person and I am sure your generosity would have made a big difference all over the world.

    At Save the Children we work tirelessly with children within the UK, and have throughout our entire history. To us, it is simply unacceptable that children are going to bed hungry and cold and have found that this inequality can last a lifetime. To help combat this, we have a number of UK programmes in place, and please let me reassure you that donations given as a result of our Paul O’Grady advert do go towards this area of our work.

    In answer to your question, we know that the current care system is severely stretched, and we are not advocating that refugee children be housed before British children. We believe all children requiring foster care should be placed through the same system. Every child has the right to a safe home, which is why we are working to support local organisations, to ensure that they are well prepared for the increased demand for their services.

    I do hope this has reassured you and thanks again for getting in touch.

  • Nicola C

    Is it possible to register interest in fostering a Syrian child if the UK government agrees to let more into UK?

  • It’s incredibly kind that there are people who are willing to help or have shown interest in fostering a child refugee. At the moment there is no co-ordinated body to help arrange this – Save the Children is asking the UK Government to play a crucial role in coordinating this outpouring of generosity, by setting up a national coordination body which would be set up to coordinate and manage the public response alongside the refugee response in the UK, and could include a hotline for people who want to help – to foster themselves, host a family, or support refugees in another way.

    You can contact FosterLine in the meantime, which is funded by the Department for Education: 0800 040 7675, or via the website or on email They offer information about what is fostering, who can foster and you can use their mapping system to find fostering services in your local area.

    We hope this is useful, thank you so much again for offering your help.

  • J.Britten

    In reply to E.Wilson’s post, can I just say, in my opinion, it is not a matter of putting refugee children first, it is a matter of helping refugee children AS WELL AS British children. 3000 children is a drop in the ocean when you consider that there are about 11 million children under the age of 14 living in the UK.

    Yes there are lots of children living in poverty in the UK and sadly many are in the care system but dare I suggest that very few of them are fleeing from war zones, where their homes and families may be blown to bits at any moment. There is no comparison.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Thank you so much for sharing your support of our campaign. We agree that every child has the right to a safe home.

    Thanks again.

  • J MacDonald

    I am very much against bringing refugee children into the country. I work on a voluntary basis in a mining village in the north-east of England where we never see Save the Children. Recently residents in social housing were asked if they had space to provide accommodation for an adult refugee – people who are already hard-pressed. The placing of 3,000 refugee children will undoubtedly put under greater strain the resources of social services throughout the country. When the government says it will find new money it actually means it will take further debt for future generations, our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – the latter have no say in whether they want politicians to take on debt on their behalf. I am really unsympathetic on this occasion. You need to take your charitable work to where the children are in Europe. To bring them into this country is simply to increase the need. Further, I think you will find that if they were to be allowed into the country their relatives would suddenly appear. You need to seriously consider stepping up your work in this country to bring relief to our own children. My advice is that you give a higher profile to them. The tax payer, via the British Government, is doing a great deal to relieve suffering among the refugee community but we cannot save the whole world.

  • Dear Julia,

    Thank you for writing to us and for allowing us to address your concerns directly. Let us assure you – we have been working hard all across Europe to provide support to child refugees, for example distributing food and support in registration sites and transit camps and where possible we also work with authorities to help with family tracing and reunification, ensuring that children find a safe place to stay in the long term. Many of the children we are working with are unaccompanied and this puts them at tremendous risk of abuse, trafficking and similar threats which is why we are calling for the placement of 3000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK. We do accept that the fostering system in the UK is currently stretched, and that local authorities and foster organisations require extra support. Every child has the right to a safe home, which is why we are working to support local organisations, to ensure that they are well prepared for the increased demand for their services.

    We’d also like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the work that we do in the UK. We run three core programmes – our national reading programme, Born to Read and our work to help children in poverty through Families and Schools Together (FAST) and our “Eat, Sleep, Learn, Play!” programme. For example, the “Eat, Sleep, Learn, Play!“ programme provides families on low incomes with household essentials and we’ve helped over 40,000 children in this programme so far. We also conduct emergency relief work in the UK, such as during the recent flooding, and you can read more about this work here:

    We hope this has been helpful. Thank you once again for allowing us to respond.

  • catherine Ssali

    I would like to take a refuge child minor in the uk I will need a month or so to ask my friend to find another place.


  • Christopher Whitworth

    With reference to the campaign to support 3,000 unaccompanied Syria children. Fostering Costs alone can be £300-£400 per week per child. If you are dealing with children suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorders or associated mental disorders these children will require specialist support by Children’s Services costing in excess of £3,000 per week.

    Where is the money coming from?

    We have a government of austerity and our children’s services are already suffering.

    Isn’t it about time we changed our approach and allowed Syrian refugees entering the UK to not only help themselves but these unaccompanied children. These children need families who have a connection by geography, social connection, religious persuasion etc.

    The best support we can offer these children is by allowing Syrian refugee families entering the UK the opportunity to support these children with their own children.

    Instead of the government offering 20,000 families refugee status we should include an extra 3000 families willing to acommodate these children as the cost of supporting one unaccompanied child can easily exceed the housing and food costs of an entire family.

  • Hello Christopher,

    Thanks for getting in touch. Please let me reassure you that we know the current system is severely stretched and that there are additional costs to be considered, which will need to be picked up by local councils and the government. As you mention, many of these children and families will have fled from brutal conflicts and experienced untold atrocities, with many still experiencing trauma as a result. We acknowledge that this costs money, however, to help combat this, we have been developing partnerships with organisations to ensure children are given appropriate psychosocial support. One such organisation is ‘Our Journey of Hope’ – they provide an emotional resilience programme that supports both children and their carer’s and is already operational in Kent. In addition, we have also trained over 100 foster carers in Kent alone, and plan to scale this up.

    I would also like to touch upon your second point. We believe, where possible it would be ideal for foster parents to be recruited from amongst diaspora networks in order to provide culturally suitable carers, but it is also important that we provide training to foster parents on how best to care for children who are seeking asylum. We have also done some training with foster carers in Kent already to help them welcome children from different countries into their homes and help them to feel comfortable.

    I do hope this has reassured you and thanks again for getting in touch.

  • peter robinson

    i would be more than willing to open my home to refugee child under the age of 10

  • Hello Peter,

    Thank you so much for your kind offer of your home; we have been astonished by the outpouring of generosity we have seen in response to this. We are currently calling for the Government to set up a national coordination body to coordinate and manage the public response, but in the meantime, it may be advisable to contact Fosterline (who are funded by the Department of Education) on 0800 040 7675 or email They will be able to provide you with information of all aspects on fostering.

    Thanks so much again for thinking of us.

  • Maria

    I do hope that the fostering process isn’t any less strict because the children are refugees. These children are very vulnerable and so they must have adequate protection and and not be out into any danger just to get them a home, it’s not any home they need, it’s the right home, one that is caring, safe and nurturing.