The Government has been condemned for closing down a scheme to accept lone refugee children marooned in Europe after allowing just 350 displaced youngsters, not thousands as expected.
Minister for Immigration Robert Goodwill used a written statement to announce the Government had “reasonably” met the “intention and spirit” of the landmark Dubs Amendment.
This was the Government pledge named after the Labour peer, Lord Alf Dubs, who campaigned for the UK to accept lone children. Dubs himself was rescued from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and brought to the UK under the ‘Kindertransport’.
The Dubs amendment committed the government to relocate vulnerable lone child refugees in France, Italy and Greece “as soon as possible” with charities expecting the figure could reach 3,000.
Unicef pointed out 30,000 children arrived in Greece and Italy last year and thousands of them were “alone and are highly vulnerable”.
Dubs told HuffPost UK:
“I think what they have done is shabby. It goes against what the government assured me they would do, which is to accept the letter and spirit of the amendment.
“They tried to slip it in between Prime Minister’s Questions and the Brexit votes in the Commons. They’ve done it in an underhand way but the main issue is what they’ve done.
“It is very disappointing. Yvette Cooper will raise it in the Commons tomorrow and I will try to raise it in the Lords. I’m not giving up.”
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who has been outspoken on the Government’s need to lead on the issue, said the UK should not be closing down refugee schemes when the Donald Trump was banning refugees from the US, and said the Dubs plan was never supposed to be time-limited. She said:
“The Government is completely wrong to close down the Dubs scheme and they are going against the spirit of Parliament’s amendment last year.
“It is important and welcome that Britain has helped refugee children from Syria and from elsewhere as a result of Parliamentary pressure. The vast majority of those children have either arrived with their families or are re-joining their families who are here.
“But to close the programme that helps lone child refugees after helping only 350 children is completely wrong.
“The Dubs amendment was designed to help the most vulnerable child refugees of all - those with no family to look after them who are incredibly vulnerable to trafficking or exploitation.
“Dubs was never time-limited and the government said they would abide by both the word and the spirit of the amendment. No one ever suggested we would only help children for a few months then turn our backs especially when the global refugee crisis shows no sign of abating.
“Whatever happened to the Government’s commitment to ending modern slavery and trafficking?”
“At a time when President Trump is trying to close down refugee programmes altogether, the British Government should not be closing the very programme designed to help the most vulnerable refugees of all.”
The scheme was set up after a huge public outcry when ministers initially resisted Dubs’ overtures, forcing the Tory government then led by David Cameron in to an embarrassing U-turn.
Bowing to huge pressure from his own MPs, the House of Lords and many charities, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Government would accept a proposal to allow councils to find homes for unaccompanied children in EU refugee camps at Prime Minister’s Question Time - the most-watched session in Parliament each week.
By contrast, today’s announcement was made in a long written ministerial statement that only addresses the fact the scheme has been scrapped in the fifth paragraph, and on the day attention was focussed on MPs voting on the “Brexit Bill”.
The Government says local councils had said they only had the capacity to provide places for 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children until the end of March. More than 200 child refugees had already been transferred from France to Britain under the Dubs scheme, and the final wave of 150 would bring the total number to 350.
Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of Unicef UK, said:
“We are disappointed that only 150 more children will be transferred to the UK before the Dubs scheme ends. The UK made a significant commitment last year to match the scale of the crisis by agreeing to transfer vulnerable unaccompanied children from Europe. This low figure does not match that commitment.
“Last year, 30,000 children arrived in Greece and Italy. Thousands of these children arrived alone and are highly vulnerable, living in a state of perpetual uncertainty and at risk of exploitation and abuse by traffickers. Many are victims of modern slavery – an issue the Prime Minister has rightly prioritised.”
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the Government has done “the bare minimum” and was “appearing to end the programme while thousands still suffer”. He added:
“At the end of December last year the government had failed bring a single child refugee to the UK under the Dubs scheme from Greece or Italy where many of these children are trapped. Today is a betrayal of these vulnerable children and a betrayal of British values.
“We know local communities and authorities up and down the country want to do more to help and the Government should listen to the people by offering the financial support and resources necessary to enable this rather than acting as a block.
“May’s treatment of refugee children is appalling, and shows how close she has moved to the policies of Trump. Britain has a proud history of providing refuge to those who have nowhere else to go, and Liberal Democrats will continue to fight for the rights of these kids and refugees across the world.”