The Government has been heavily defeated in the Lords as peers backed a move to ensure the rights of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families in the UK post-Brexit.
Voting was 300 to 220, majority 80, in report stage debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which has already been passed by big majorities in the Commons.
It was the fourth defeat for ministers on the legislation in less than 24 hours but is likely to be overturned by MPs when it goes back to the Commons on Wednesday.
Labour’s Lord Dubs led the bid to restore the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the EU to be reunited with their families in the UK after Brexit, suggesting his amendment would help disprove accusations that the Tories were the “mean and nasty” party.
The Labour peer, who fled the Nazis as a child on the Kindertransport, urged ministers not to use the small number of children involved as “bargaining chips” in negotiations.
He said the Government was seeking to delete earlier protections for child refugees in the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 but it was a simple matter of humanity to retain them.
Urging the Government not to “close the door” on the children affected, Lord Dubs said some lived in “shocking” conditions in French camps at risk of sexual exploitation.
By providing them with a safe, legal route to the UK, peers would be “thwarting the traffickers” and avoiding the need for youngsters to take more dangerous options to get to their families.
The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, said the law as it stood was “hard fought for, not easily won”.
The bishop said the issue was a “moral bellwether for the future of our country”, adding: “We want to be known as a country that is welcoming and passionate and committed to playing our full part in responding to the deep issues that arise from the reality of refugees around the world.”
Liberal Democrat Baroness Hamwee said: “There is a strong feeling that Parliament should not reduce our commitment to these children or to safe and legal routes.”
Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford urged peers not to press the issue to a vote. Lady Williams said the Conservatives’ record of the last 10 years clearly demonstrated a commitment to protecting vulnerable children and this would continue.
The election manifesto underlined the commitment to continue to grant asylum and support for refugees fleeing persecution, Lady Williams added. Yet a fraction of the so called “Dubs children” who were going to be reunited with families in the UK have arrived. Over the past few years the number is around 200 only.
Labour, Liberal Democrat and crossbench peers ignored her pleas and united to defeat the Government again.
Charities plead for the public to contact their MP now ahead of Commons vote
The Bill is already set to return to the Commons on Wednesday, when the Prime Minister is expected to use his big majority in the elected House to overturn the Lords defeats in the run-up to Brexit day on January 31.
In December the government presented a new EU Withdrawal Bill which watered down its legal obligations to find a replacement for family reunion. The government’s move shocked Lord Dubs, who had spearheaded the original cross-party legislation agreed to by the government in 2018 only to find it under threat following the election.
Today’s vote, on an amendment tabled by Lord Dubs and a cross-party group of Peers, means the Government must now decide whether to accept its original obligations or keep pushing to water them down when the issue returns to the Commons tomorrow.
The charity Safe Passage and other charities urged people to contact their MP and appeal to their conscience ahead of the vote. There is a link here where people can email their MP: https://www.safepassage.org.uk/email-mp-family-reunion
Following the vote more than 10 charities who work with refugees and unaccompanied children have urged the Prime Minister to take personal responsibility for protecting refugee children and retain the law that protects their right to reunite with family after Brexit.
Safe Passage help unaccompanied children in Europe join their family here, and say that 95% of the cases they support could lose their right to family reunion if the government is not legally required to seek a replacement.
Safe Passage CEO Beth Gardiner Smith said: “Parliament has sent a clear signal to Boris Johnson that he needs to re-think this unnecessary and reckless move. It’s simply not good enough for the Government to claim they still back family reunion, whilst taking away the legal protections that support it. All this does is create fear and panic amongst some of the most vulnerable children.
“The Prime Minister should now show compassion and agree to the Lords amendment. 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.”
Lord Dubs said: “This is fantastic news. I am enormously grateful to the Lords and of course to the public who have been so supportive of my amendment and of the moral argument for providing safe routes for children to be reunited with their families here. It’s now the turn of the Commons to show what they’re made of. For the sake of the children stranded in Calais and Greece who simply want to reach the safety of their families, I hope they will also honour our humanitarian traditions and get behind the amendment.”
‘Family reunion has given me hope for the future’ pleads refugee who lost his mother on a boat in the Mediterannean
17 year old Ridwan, a child refugee settled in the UK who lost his mother when the boat she was travelling on sank in the Mediterranean, ahead of the vote wrote to Members of the House of Lords asking them to support Lord Dub’s amendment.
In his message to the House of Lords, Ridwan said: “Family reunion is not just about family – it is about the future. Now I have a future that I can look forward to. I can see the steps to a successful and happy life, and I have the opportunity to change other people’s life. Family reunion has given me hope for the future”
The vote comes a day after hundreds of people gathered outside Parliament to show their support for family reunion, at a #RighttoReunite demo organised by the legal charity Safe Passage International. Demonstrators presented Lord Dubs with a petition in support of family reunion, which has gathered over 213,000 signatures and counting. Speakers at the demo included Lord Alf Dubs, Rt Hon Ed Davey MP, Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, Rt Hon Dianne Abbot MP, Baroness Jenny Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Ridwan, child refugee.
17 year old Ridwan, a former child refugee who lost his mother when the boat she was travelling on sank in the Mediterranean, also spoke about his experiences and the need for family reunion to continue. Ridwan survived alone in Italy for 9 months until Safe Passage were able to secure his transfer to the UK to live with his aunt.
Local authorities have also been closely involved in the campaign, with council leaders writing to the Prime Minister urging him to keep family reunion routes open. In the letter they say family reunion helps councils plan and prepare for children’s arrivals and gives children an alternative to risking their lives in lorries. In addition, councils have pledged over 1,400 places for unaccompanied children who don’t have family in the UK – places that can only be filled if the government agrees to resettle more children from Europe.
Link here where people can email their MP: https://www.safepassage.org.uk/email-mp-family-reunion