The Lords, by a majority of 94, backed an amendment from Lord Dubs to ensure lone child refugees maintain their right to be reunited with family in the UK once the Brexit transition ends on December 31.
The home secretary also faced a second defeat as peers insisted EU children in care are automatically given settled status in the UK.
It was the second attempt by Dubs, who came to the UK as a child fleeing the Nazis on a kindertransport, to restore children’s family reunion rights. Boris Johnson had deleted the protections from his flagship Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, which enacted his exit deal.
Ministers have said the government is seeking to negotiate with the EU new arrangements for lone child refugees to be reunited with family in the UK.
But peers fear that the EU is refusing to discuss the issue during the stalled talks on a post-Brexit relationship, and question why Johnson stripped the rights from his own legislation.
It also comes after Patel warned of a crackdown on people seeking refugee status in the UK, including by floating ideas such as sending them 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island, or repelling dinghies crossing the Channel by somehow creating waves.
Following the vote, Dubs said: “Families should be together.
“The government defeat today demonstrates the strength of feeling that we should not abandon our humanity and compassion by removing the right of children to be reunited with relatives here in the UK.
“I would now urge the government to put their own words into practice, by rethinking its policy and supporting this amendment when it comes before the Commons.”
Dubs added: “The home secretary claimed on Sunday that the Conservative Party has a proud history of providing a safe haven to those in need.
“This claim does not align with what we have seen in the House today, as the government is prepared to callously abandon these most vulnerable of people, leaving them at risk of exploitation of the worst kind.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International, said: “This defeat should be a wake-up call to the government that providing a safe and legal way for vulnerable refugee children from Europe to be reunited with their families is not only the moral thing to do, but the will of a cross-party collaboration across the House and local authorities.
“Rather than spending time and energy on pie in the sky talk of magic wave machines or sinister internment camps on distant islands, the government should now support safe and legal routes and back this amendment when it come back to the House of Commons.
“The home secretary said at the weekend that family and community are her guiding principles, accepting this amendment is her chance to prove it.”
Vickie Hawkins, executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres UK, said: “It has been deeply disheartening to have watched the UK government abdicate their responsibilities by attempting to close down some of the few existing routes to safety for refugees and asylum seekers within Europe.
“This amendment gives the UK government a chance to take steps towards rectifying this: it is surely the bare minimum to ensure that safe routes to sanctuary in the UK stay open for unaccompanied children.
“We sincerely hope that the UK government will show some humanity and accept this amendment.
“Irrespective of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the government has an obligation to protect vulnerable people who have crossed borders seeking international protection.”
The defeats set up a battle in the Commons over the immigration and social security coordination bill, where Patel must win two votes to delete Dubs’ amendments from the legislation.
But Dubs’ amendments are likely to be thrown out by MPs, given Johnson has a Commons majority of 80 and any Tory rebellion is likely to be small, if there is one at all.