Fresh proposal to help child refugees stranded in Europe tabled
A new proposal to help child refugees stranded in Europe has been tabled and is expected to pass in the on Tuesday evening, following the government’s vote against accepting 3,000 children into the UK.
The amendment to the immigration bill that would have forced the government to accept several thousand lone child refugees from mainland was narrowly defeated in the Commons on Monday night.
But, Lord Alf Dubs, the Labour peer who came to Britain as part of the government-backed Kindertransport scheme before the war, and has tabled a proposal.
The amendment captures the spirit of the initial proposal but removes the obligation to provide sanctuary to 3,000 children. Instead, it will ask the government to resettle “a specified number” of children in consultation with local councils.
Martha Mackenzie, the senior government adviser for Save the , said: “We feel very optimistic that the new amendment, when it goes back to the Commons, has a chance of being accepted. A number of Conservative MPs put their heads above the parapet to do something about children in Europe. They were uncomfortable at the prescriptive nature of it, at having a number on it. But for a number of MPs, the new amendment could be the thing that encourages them to break ranks and vote for it.”
MPs voted against the amendment by 294 to 276 on Monday night, after the Home Office argued it was doing enough to help refugee children in and neighbouring countries.
The amendment, which emerged from Labour’s refugee taskforce, chaired by former minister Yvette Cooper, was backed by Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. Only a handful of Tory MPs voted for it. Heidi Allen, one of the critics of the government’s position, abstained from the vote, describing it afterwards as the “hardest decision”.
The new proposal will help those who have links to Britain to be given sanctuary in the family reunification scheme under European rules called Dublin III. It will also help vulnerable children, including those currently stranded in and Italy.
James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said during the debate on Monday that he was personally committed to speed up family reunification. The government has seconded staff in Italy and Greece to help with asylum applications and to strengthen its commitment under Dublin III.
However, it has been criticised by charities and refugee groups for not doing enough under the provisions. Citizens UK have identified 150 lone children in the migrant and refugee camp in Calais with relatives in the UK, but only 20 have been brought to Britain since January. Unicef estimates there are 2,000 unaccompanied children in Greece.
Marleen Korthala Altes, Save the Children’s senior child protection adviser in the country, saidthey had found 13 lone children in police custody, in overcrowded detention centres, since the borders closed last month.
Korthala Altes said: “We believe children should not be placed in detention in the first place. But the longer they are there, the greater the impact on their physical and mental health. Most of them don’t understand why they are confined.”
Save the Children’s original estimate of 26,000 unaccompanied children in Europe is now out of date, after a showed there had been a four-fold increase in unaccompanied children between 2014 and 2015. Last year, 95,000 applied for asylum in Europe and Norway, many of whom fled warzones in Syria and other countries in the Middle East, it said.
Dubs said he had received many messages of support from well-wishers.
“I’m now getting so many messages from people I don’t even know, saying how much they want this to succeed,” he said. “It’s really struck a chord: it’s caught the public’s imagination that, as a country, we can do something for these children.”
The Commons vote in effect killed off the Dubs amendment because ministers argued it had cost implications and therefore should be exempt from returning to the House of Lords, where it could have been reinstated.
However, by not mentioning a specific number of refugees, the new proposal has sidestepped the financial implications. The number accepted, the new amendment says, “shall be determined by the government in consultation with local authorities”.
The government argues that it is already helping children within the refugee camps in the Middle East and is concerned that it could create a “pull factor” by bringing unaccompanied children into Britain.
On Tuesday, David Cameron’s official spokeswoman did not comment on how the government would respond to Dubs’s new amendment, but said the prime minister was concerned not to create incentives for refugees to put themselves and their children at risk.
She told a Westminster media briefing: “What we have looked at very carefully here is how do we best protect vulnerable people and how can we best help refugees, how do we not fuel a system that is incentivising people to be exploited by trafficking gangs and make perilous journeys.
“There have been UNHCR experts who have talked about the concerns that if you pursue an approach which offers resettlement for unaccompanied children in Europe, you could see families seeking to separate off from their children in order to create new ways of getting to Europe. That’s not something we want to see.
“Refugees have already been through traumatic times. We don’t want to see them putting lives further at risk. That’s why we are taking an approach focusing on resettlement from the region, led by the experts.”
Brokenshire said in Monday night’s debate that the government could not support a policy that would “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone, and in the hands of traffickers, putting their lives at risk by attempting treacherous sea crossings to Europe which would be the worst of all outcomes”.
But Dubs said that was a squalid argument and rejected the idea that unaccompanied children were safe once they reached the shores of Europe.
“Whether they’re in Greece, in Macedonia, in Italy, or in Calais and Dunkirk, these children are being left to their own devices at best and at worst they’re in trouble,” he said. He blamed Cameron for the government’s intransigence, saying: “I think the prime minister is taking the lead on this.”
The shadow immigration minister, Keir Starmer, promised on Tuesday morning that the to force the UK to do more.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Starmer said: “We can’t turn our backs on these vulnerable children in Europe, and history will judge us for that.” He added: “It’s not over: the fight will go on.”