Conservative MPs have voted down a House of Lords amendment to Boris Johnson’s Brexit legislation, which would have guaranteed family reunion rights for unaccompanied child refugees after EU withdrawal.
Despite appeals from children’s charities, MPs rejected the safeguards in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by a margin of 342 votes to 254 – a majority of 88. All of those voting against the measure were Tories.
Tabled by Lord Dubs, who was himself a child refugee taken in by the UK after fleeing the Nazis, the amendment was passed by peers by 300 to 220 on Tuesday.
But the prime minister vowed to overturn the measure, along with four other Lords amendments, on the final day of the bill’s passage through parliament. After the defeat of all five amendments, the bill was returned to the Lords and was likely to conclude its final stage later on Wednesday.
Responding to the defeat, Lord Dubs said: “This is very disappointing news, especially given the public statements made by this government which suggested that they shared the public’s wish to help child refugees.
“We still have moral obligations to these children who simply want to be reunited with family here. Given the government has made several commitments to child refugees since the Brexit Bill was published shortly before Christmas, we will be keeping an extremely close eye on what they do next and ensuring they honour these commitments.”
Oxfam described the outcome of the vote as “a very sad start to the future of Britain outside the EU”, while Save the Children said it would "put some of the world’s most vulnerable and desperate children at even greater risk of harm".
Lord Dubs’ provisions would have required ministers to negotiate a scheme with the UK’s former EU partners for child asylum-seekers stranded alone on the continent to be reunited with family in Britain.
But ministers argued that the Brexit bill was not the appropriate place to deal with the issue, as it would tie the UK’s hands as it goes into negotiations over future relations with the EU following Brexit on 31 January.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the Commons: “Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we reach an agreement and that is why this is ultimately a matter which must be negotiated with the EU and the Government is committed to seeking the best possible outcome in those negotiations.”
He said that the UK had granted protection to over 41,000 children since 2010 and received 3,500 applications for asylum from unaccompanied children in the 12 months to September 2019.
Oxfam’s Head of Humanitarian Campaigns, Ruth Tanner, said: “The UK should not be turning its back on vulnerable young people who have been forced to flee their homes through no fault of their own.
“While the government has said it is intent on protecting family reunification for refugees, it must now demonstrate to families how these protections will be met so lives are not left hanging in the balance.”
Save the Children director of humanitarian policy George Graham said: “As a country, we should be proud to protect children escaping war and persecution. Instead, this bill puts some of the world’s most vulnerable and desperate children at even greater risk of harm. By taking away the right of lone children to live with their families in the UK, we leave them to risk their lives on the dangerous journey to Europe and expose them to exploitation at the hands of traffickers.”
And Safe Passage International, a coalition of charities defending child refugees, said it would be watching Mr Johnson’s government closely to ensure that it does not water down their family reunion rights and makes good on promises of legal protections in an Immigration Bill later this year.
Chief executive Beth Gardiner-Smith said: “The Government must keep its word to unaccompanied children, to Parliament and to people across the country who believe that Britain should do its bit to help refugees reunite with family here in Britain.
“Many of the children we support have lost their parents but they have grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles living in the UK and ready to care for them. It is illogical that these children be denied safe passage to the UK, left with no other choice but to consider smuggling just to reach their loved ones, or to grow up alone without the care of their family many surviving in camps and car parks across Europe.”
Labour Brexit spokeswoman Thangam Debbonaire said that the children’s rights would be better protected if they were enshrined in law.
“This Government has asked us to trust them and on all of these matters, why should we need to rely on trust?” said Ms Debbonaire.
“We are lawmakers, why not include this in the legislation? After all, the Prime Minister has changed his mind many times on many things.”