Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to drop his opposition to measures to allow unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families in the UK after his Brexit bill went down to a fourth defeat in the House of Lords.
The prime minister has vowed to overturn all Lords amendments as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill completes its passage through parliament on Wednesday.
But charities including the British Red Cross and Safe Passage urged him not to strike out a provision, introduced by Labour peer Lord Dubs, to guarantee the family reunion rights of child refugees stranded in camps on mainland Europe.
Lord Dubs, a former child refugee taken in by Britain when he fled the Nazis, called on the Commons to resist the PM’s attempt to quash his amendment and said it was time for MPs to “show what they are made of”.
Former prime minister Theresa May included safeguards for child refugees in the bill enacting the government’s Brexit agreement, but they were struck out of revised legislation published in the wake of Mr Johnson’s decisive general election victory last month.
Ministers insist that the UK is already doing more than most EU states for lone minors, but peers voted by 300 to 220 on Tuesday to reinstate the protections.
Lord Dubs told the Upper House that the government must not use unaccompanied child refugees as “bargaining chips” in the next phase of Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Urging ministers not to "close the door" on the children affected, he said some lived in "shocking" conditions in French camps and were 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, he said.
Following his victory in the Lords, he said: “It’s now be 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.”
A group of more than a dozen charities working with child migrants under the banner Safe Passage called on the prime minister to take personal responsibility for protecting the refugee children, warning that otherwise children will be forced to remain alone in camps or turn to people-smugglers in a bid to reach their families.
Chief executive Beth Gardiner Smith said: “Parliament has sent a clear signal to Boris Johnson that he needs to rethink 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.”
And Jon Featonby, of the British Red Cross, said: “We urge the prime minister not to overturn this vote and ensure that vulnerable children are not left alone in overcrowded refugee camps across Europe. This is not just about keeping loved ones together, but also preventing young children from falling prey to people-smugglers or risking dangerous journeys in order to reach their loved ones.”
The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, told peers during Tuesday’s debate that the fate of the lone children was “a moral bellwether for the future of our country”.
“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,” he said.
"I believe the minister and the government do want to act with compassion, it is simply that what is proposed is not conveying this."
The director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, Lisa Doyle, said the Lords vote represented “an important call to the government that children need their families and must be supported to be reunited with them when war, conflict and persecution force them apart”.
Dr Doyle said: “Whether these children have mums, dads, sisters and brothers elsewhere in Europe, or elsewhere in the world, evidence shows time and again that it is almost always in the best interests of children to be with their family again.”
Security minister Brandon Lewis said he was “disappointed” at the Lords vote, insisting that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill was not the right place to decide on details of the UK’s future relationship with the EU which will be subject to negotiation over the 11 months following the formal date of Brexit on 31 January.
Disappointed to see the @UKHouseofLords vote. The #WithdrawalAgreementBill is not the place to decide our future relationship with the EU. Read how we're already doing more for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than most other EU member states:https://t.co/XgCb1p1oOf— Brandon Lewis MP (@BrandonLewis)January 21, 2020
“We’re already doing more for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than most other EU member states,” Mr Lewis said, pointing to the UK’s record of granting protection to 41,000 children since 2010, and 7,500 in the last year alone.
The Home Office insisted that primary legislation was not needed to honour the UK’s commitment to seeking a reciprocal agreement with the EU for family reunion.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters: “We are disappointed the Lords have chosen to amend the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which the Commons passed unamended with a majority of 99.
“Protecting vulnerable children will remain our priority after Brexit and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill reaffirms our commitment, while clarifying the role of parliament and government in negotiations.
“We will seek to overturn this amendment as the bill returns to the Commons.”