Government accused of 'shabby tactics' over child refugees amendment

Critics say ministers are trying to derail efforts to get 3,000 children stranded in Europe accepted in the UK

History will judge MPs who vote against proposals to let 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe come to the UK, Labour said on Monday night.

Keir Starmer, a shadow Home Office minister, called on Conservative MPs to join Labour, the SNP and Liberal Democrats to accept the plan to take in more lone children from war zones who have made their way to camps such as those at Calais and Dunkirk in France.

As MPs prepared to vote, the former director of public prosecutions said: “History will judge us on how we responded to this historic crisis. It is on a proportion not seen since the second world war.

“It is the challenge of our times and whether we rise to it or not will be the measure of us. We have the clear evidence of thousands of vulnerable children and we now need to act. This is moment to do something about it, by voting with us this evening.”

The amendment to the immigration bill would force the government to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee minors, mostly from Syria, who have made their way to mainland Europe.

It was passed in the House of Lords after being introduced by Lord Dubs, a Labour peer who was a beneficiary of the Kindertransport, the government-backed effort to accept child refugees from Germany in the run-up to the second world war.

However, the government argues it would act as an incentive for refugees to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing the Europe.

James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said the government could not support a policy that would “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone ahead 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”.

Some Conservative MPs were considering joining with other parties to support the amendment.

However, if the government wins the vote, ministers have successfully argued for a label of “financial privilege” to be attached to the amendment, which means it cannot be sent back to the Lords because it has cost implications. This would effectively kill off the amendment and peers would be forced to think of an alternative proposal if they want to continue pursuing the issue.

Before the debate, Dubs told the Guardian: “My message to Conservative MPs is in 1938-39, Britain took 10,000 child refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. We were in the lead then and we could take an important step now. The least we can do is say this is a small number and they should be welcome here.”

If the vote is lost, Dubs said peers could not bring back the same proposals again to the Commons because of the “shabby parliamentary tactics” of invoking financial privilege. Labour peers will have to think of alternative proposals that might win over the Commons.

Downing Street said it was a matter for the Commons clerks to determine whether financial privilege was applied.

When asked why the government decided not to waive it as usual, the prime minister’s official spokeswoman said: “Our approach will be determined by what the amendment is about and how that reads across to government policy or not.

“We set out very clearly at the end of last week a government policy that will help to relocate the most vulnerable children from neighbouring countries on top of the 20,000 resettlement programme we’ve already set out. That is a process that has been welcomed by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. We think we should now get on with delivering that.”

Yvette Cooper, chair of Labour’s taskforce on refugees and former shadow home secretary, urged Conservative MPs to take the chance to vote for the Dubs proposals.

“When the Kindertransport happened there was cross-party support and I think there should be again for helping child refugees,” she said. “Now when you look at the risks that children and teenagers face in Europe, it’s not enough to say this is a problem for other countries.

“We will look back on this in 20 years’ time and think about what we did to help in the Syrian refugee crisis. That is what I think Conservative MPs should be thinking about now, that every country should do its bit.”

Cooper said the government was trying to block the continuation of debate by “using parliamentary tactics, which is an appalling thing for them to do and it shows they know they have lost the moral argument”.

One teenage refugee from Syria, who met Cooper and Dubs for an event outside parliament, said the government was missing the point when it argued that child refugees were better helped in the region.

The minor who cannot be named, travelled through 17 countries from Syria before reaching Calais and then the UK. Speaking through an interpreter, he said: “Most of the children in the camps do have their families and parents with them but those stranded around Europe and in Calais are very vulnerable because other people could do something to them. That is the fundamental difference between the children in Europe and those in the camps.”

At least 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees are estimated to have applied for asylum in Europe last year.

Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, estimated in January that 10,000 children had gone missing after arriving in Europe, warning that many had been taken by criminal gangs.

The Home Office made an announcement last week about providing support for up to 3,000 child refugees from camps in the Middle East. But Save the Children and others said it was merely a repeat of an announcement of aid already promised and failed to offer any help to children already trapped in Europe.

The government’s statement appears to have convinced some Conservatives who had expressed concerns about the issue, however, including backbench MP David Burrowes, who said he would vote with the government on Monday.


Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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