Boris Johnson is being urged by one of Britain’s largest Jewish organisations and senior Tories to back proposals guaranteeing unaccompanied child refugees in Europe a right to family reunion in the UK after the transition period expires.
It comes after the government’s flagship post-Brexit immigration Bill suffered a series of defeats in the House of Lords, with peers passing several amendments, including a proposal by Lord Alf Dubs on safeguards for those fleeing persecution.
The Labour peer, who fled the Nazis as a child on the Kinderstransport rescue scheme, secured a decisive victory of 317 to 223 votes on his clause ensuring asylum seekers continue to enjoy the legal right to family reunion in Britain, currently covered by the EU’s Dublin III regulation.
Urging No 10 to back the proposals, Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said in a statement to The Independent: “The UK’s Jewish community will always be grateful for this country’s compassion in accepting thousands of parents and grandparents as refugees, when they faced persecution, under the Kindertransport scheme.
“It was, in many ways, the first minute of Britain’s finest hour. We urge the government to renew our country’s commitment to this core British value, support Lord Dubs’ amendment, and enable families of those fleeing persecution to provide safe haven for their loved ones.”
On Monday MPs are expected to vote on the amendment, which has the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but it is unlikely to pass without a significant Conservative backbench rebellion given the government’s considerable majority.
So far, a handful of Tories have said they will back the amendment, including David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, who described it as an “absolutely necessary measure”, telling The Independent: “It’s vital the House of Commons supports it.”
The Conservative MP Tim Loughton said there was “clearly” a need for a replacement to the EU’s Dublin regulation – a scheme under which the UK accepted 1,028 transfers on family reunion grounds in 2018, including 159 children joining relatives.
While he admitted the chances of the amendment passing the Commons on Monday were “pretty slim”, he added: “The family reunion scheme has been hugely effective in rescuing genuinely vulnerable children from the clutches of people smugglers and bringing them to a place of safety in the UK where they have the last few family remaining links.
“It would be a disaster if we were to leave the transition period without having put an equivalent scheme in place – this is a last chance basically to put it in legislation in this Bill.”
A third Tory MP, Sir David Amess, said: “Although I am one of the people who have been most enthusiastic about us leaving the European Union… I don’t want these vulnerable children to suffer in any way. I know it’s still all being sorted out but as I understand it they’re not going to be given any protection at the end of the year.”
Lord Dubs also pleaded with MPs to consider “very hard what’s at stake” on Monday and not send a message to the world that the UK is “shutting our door on some very vulnerable children” after the Brexit transition period expires.
On the possibility of the amendment securing the backing of the Commons, he said: “I always have to stay hopeful, but they are being very hardline. Under Theresa May, or even under David Cameron, I think they’d be more sympathetic. But Dominic Cummings is being very hardline. There isn’t the sympathy I think there ought to be.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of Safe Passage International, also appealed to MPs to back the amendment, adding: “It took a government defeat in the Lords to bring the amendment back to the House of Commons, but today there is an opportunity to give vulnerable refugee children a safe and legal route to family reunion. We urge members of all parties to join the growing cross-party consensus that backing the clause is a moral imperative.”
However, the government has insisted the post-Brexit Immigration and Security Bill is a “simple” piece of legislation designed to end free movement in the UK.
A spokesperson for the Home Office added: “We have a strong record on supporting vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers. Through resettlement schemes, the UK resettles more refugees than any other country in Europe and are in the top five countries worldwide. Since September 2015, more than 25,000 vulnerable refugees have been resettled, with around half being children.
“We have made a serious offer to the EU to for new, post-transition agreement, and are committed to fixing our broken asylum system. An asylum system should provide safe haven to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. But right now, ours enables organised criminals to elbow the most vulnerable to the side.”
Among other Lords amendments to be considered, MPs will also be asked to vote on a measure requiring the government to guarantee EU children in care in the UK automatic settled status and ending indefinite detention of EEA and Swiss nationals in Britain after the transition period.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, said of Lord Dubs’ proposals: “This is the best way to stop people making dangerous attempts to cross the Channel. The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need. The Conservatives must not turn their backs on them now.”
He also urged MPs to back his party’s “utterly uncontroversial” amendment requiring the Home Office to provide physical proof to EU citizens of their settled status after Brexit, adding: “The face the government is determined to overturn our amendments shows how empty their promises to guarantee citizens’ rights after Brexit and fix the broken immigration system really are. The Tories’ hostile environment is sadly, alive and well.”