MPs have voted down proposals to enshrine protections for child refugees as part of the Government’s Brexit agreement.
Following his election victory, Boris Johnson re-drafted his European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and rowed back on the previous government’s acceptance of an amendment from Labour peer Lord Dubs to allow unaccompanied child refugees to continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Alf Dubs, who fled the Nazis as a boy, urged Conservative MPs to take a moral stance, look into their conscience and block Boris Johnson’s abandonment of promises to vulnerable refugee children, many of whom are homeless and at great risk of trafficking.
Clause 37 of the Bill replaces the pledge to protect the unaccompanied refugee children with a watered-down vow for ministers to “make a statement” on the progress of the talks once the divorce with Brussels is complete.
Labour branded the move “disgraceful”, while the SNP said it could have “tragic consequences”.
With Conservative MPs voting against the amendment, it was defeated by a majority of 96 votes on Wednesday afternoon, on the Bill’s second day of committee stage scrutiny in the Commons.
Ahead of the debate, Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Dubs, who fled from the Nazis on the Kindertransport to Britain when he was aged six, wrote to all Tory MPs calling on them to vote against the Prime Minister’s “disgraceful” change.
“Boris Johnson may have won a majority in Parliament, but he did not win the moral argument to absolve himself of responsibility to some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” they pleaded.
“With the numbers in Parliament being what they are, it’s up to you — Conservative MPs — to take a moral stance and force the Government to rethink its approach on this vital issue.
“You have the power to right this wrong. This is your test – and we would urge you to hold them to account over this disgraceful decision.”
‘Tragic consequences’ for children
In the Commons chamber, SNP home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry urged the Government to accept proposals to protect child refugees after Brexit or risk “tragic consequences”.
She told MPs: “Right now, across Europe, there are thousands of unaccompanied children living in the most desperate circumstances, many of whom are separated from their families.
“And legal family reunion is a lifeline to these children who would otherwise risk their lives in dinghies or in the back of lorries in order to reach a place of safety with their family.”
She added: “For the Government to seek to remove those protections now risks causing panic amongst refugee families currently separated in Europe with potentially tragic consequences.”
Clare Moseley founder of Care4Calais who care for many of the children betrayed by the MPs who voted with the Government said she was appalled. She told The London Economic: “I cannot think of any defensible reason for removing this provision from the Brexit legislation.
“There are vulnerable children alone in Europe who have close family members living in the U.K – often their only remaining living relatives.
“For anyone to think that these children should be anywhere other than with those family members is deeply shocking. To refuse these children and then say that the government still has very strong support for the principle of family reunion is incomprehensible.”
Despite the devastating U-turn, Brexit minister Robin Walker insisted: “This Government is fully committed both to the principle of family reunion and to supporting the most vulnerable children. Our policy has not changed.
“We will also continue to reunite children with their families under the Dublin Regulation during the implementation period.”
He added that there was “very strong support on these benches for the principle of family reunion”.
Lord Dubs talked to The London Economic last year after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe.
“Organisations estimate there are hundreds of unaccompanied minors in Northern France, some as young as ten,” said Lord Dubs.
“We saw children sleeping homeless in tents, children with just canvas protecting them, many very vulnerable unaccompanied young people,” he added.
Lord Dubs outlined the dangers they face, saying that many children who want to come to the UK in Northern France go missing.
“They are vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and prostitution. In the refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos, we were told there was not enough security and boys were getting raped in the camp at night.”