Outrage at U-turn on promise to reunite child refugees with UK family

Charities fear for safety of lone youngsters as draft text of Brexit negotiations shows Britain wants to end sanctuary

The Home Office has drawn up plans to terminate the current system of allowing child refugees to be reunited with family in the UK, according to a draft text of the government’s Brexit negotiating document.

It reveals that the UK government will be pushing during the next round of EU exit talks to effectively end the system where unaccompanied minors, often fleeing conflict, are granted sanctuary in the UK.

The negotiating text contradicts the Home Office’s previous position which states a “commitment” to reuniting child refugees with family.

In February, Boris Johnson told parliament he wanted to “discuss cooperation” with the EU on family reunion. On 16 March, Priti Patel’s Home Office released a statement promising that Brexit “should not affect our commitment to continue working together to reunite unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with family and keep them safe”.

News of the actual negotiating position outraged refugee charities, who warned the proposals would drive vulnerable children into the hands of criminal gangs and people smugglers.

Beth Gardiner-Smith of legal charity Safe Passage, an organisation working with unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, said: “The UK government’s planned Brexit agreement would be the end to family reunion from Europe as we know it.”

In December, the government provoked public and parliamentary furore when the Brexit bill, defeated in the Lords, watered down legal protections for refugee children.

But the UK’s draft negotiating document – titled “working text for an agreement between the UK and EU on the transfer of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children” – goes much further and signals the government’s intention to ensure family reunion is no longer a mandatory obligation.

Instead, after Brexit it says that an EU country “may” only request sending an unaccompanied child to the UK with no assurance that the Home Office will act on it.

More fundamental is a paragraph that states the UK government wants to stop “conferring rights” to refugees or give them recourse to the courts, such as legal challenges or a process of appeal, depriving children of their right to have a wrong decision scrutinised by a judge.

Priti Patel
In March, Priti Patel’s Home Office said Brexit wouldn’t affect commitments to child refugees. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

In effect, the process of accepting child refugees would become entirely discretionary. The most recent year when it was not a mandatory obligation to reunite children with families was 2014 when just eight people, including but not limited to unaccompanied child refugees, were transferred to the UK.

By contrast, 1,028 individuals were transferred to the UK under family reunion obligations in 2018, according to Eurostat.

On Thursday, it emerged another key Home Office scheme for offering sanctuary to lone minors in Europe had ended, despite thousands of child refugees remaining stranded on the continent.

Gardiner-Smith added: “By diminishing children’s chances of reaching their relatives legally, this latest plan would be a blank cheque for people smugglers. This is not what the prime minister recently promised vulnerable refugees.

“We urge the government to think again with its proposal to the EU and deliver an agreement that doesn’t risk hundreds of children being denied the ability to reunite with family and left alone in camps.”

A petition urging the government to continue family reunion for refugees stands at more than 335,000 signatures.

A recent Ipsos Mori online poll of 2,100 people, interviewed between 12 March and 3 April revealed that 79% of people agreed that child refugees should be able to reunite with a parent living in the UK, compared to just 7% who disagreed.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have made clear that protecting vulnerable children is a key priority for this government and the progress we have made – with generous support from local authorities – underlines our commitment to that.

“The UK provides a number of legal routes for those seeking protection and we will continue to offer a range of support for those who often need it most.”


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Revealed: child refugees will be detained or deported under small boats plan
Senior Tories condemn ‘sickening’ plans which would allow unaccompanied minors to be held, in U-turn on past legislation

Michael Savage and Toby Helm

11, Mar, 2023 @7:07 PM

Article image
Migrant children’s welfare is being sidelined in UK’s ‘brutal push to deport’
The hostile environment appears very much in operation as documents show the Home Office focusing on exclusions

Mark Townsend Home affairs editor

15, Nov, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Give refugees crossing Channel a chance, say Windrush survivors
Priti Patel risks replicating Home Office failings that led to scandal, victims and human rights campaigners warn

Mark Townsend

15, Aug, 2020 @1:15 PM

Article image
UK ministers ignore pleas to return ‘innocent orphans’ from Syria
After last week’s Shamima Begum ruling, Home Office stays silent on rescue of minors from camps in the north-west of the country

Mark Townsend

18, Jul, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
EU countries snub Priti Patel’s plans to return asylum seekers
UN criticises the proposals as so damaging they risked Britain’s ‘global credibility’

Mark Townsend

09, May, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘Send us home,’ beg Afghan refugees stuck in UK hotels
Thousands who fled Taliban are living in hotels with inadequate healthcare in Operation Warm Welcome

Mark Townsend

09, Oct, 2021 @12:05 PM

Article image
Gove bids to end Ukrainian refugee chaos with £350 ‘cash for rooms’ offer
Patel humiliated after fortnight of failure, while experts warn the accommodation scheme carries risks

Toby Helm Political editor and Mark Townsend Home affairs editor

12, Mar, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
‘They just vanish’: whistleblowers met by wall of complacency over missing migrant children
As scores of youngsters are disappearing from hotels run by the Home Office and being trafficked across the country, sources claims warnings over their safety were ignored

Mark Townsend Home affairs editor

21, Jan, 2023 @6:14 PM

Article image
UK ‘reneges on vow to reunite child refugees with families’
Home Office accused of making ‘no arrangements’ for transfers of unaccompanied minors after EU rules expire at end of year

Mark Townsend Home affairs editor

13, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Home Office ‘ignoring offers to give homes to child refugees’
Lord Dubs calls response ‘miserable’ amid claims 1,400 offers from councils spurned

Mark Townsend

21, Dec, 2019 @9:00 PM