Boris Johnson has been warned his new Brexit bill may have “tragic consequences” for child refugees after the government scrapped a legal commitment to help them.
The measure is one of several changes to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill being debated in the House of Commons today and has been slammed by charities and campaigners working to help reunite refugee children with their families in Europe.
The explanatory notes for the WAB shows the government has dropped its legal protections for child refugees from the bill. Under the terms of the newly amended WAB the government will no longer be obliged to negotiate an agreement that “an unaccompanied child who has made a claim for international protection in a member state can come to the UK to join a relative”. Instead, the government will only have to make a statement to parliament.
‘Mean-spirited and nasty’
Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs had fought for the inclusion of a commitment to assist and help child refugees in the previous Brexit bills and told the Independent the change was a “retrograde step” which could leave hundreds of children stranded alone in Europe.
He said: “It’s deeply depressing and deeply disappointing. We’re talking about children and young people who had some hope of a decent life with their relatives.”
Lord Dubs said they were aware of “at least several hundreds of children in these conditions” and described the new policy as “mean-spirited and nasty.” He added: “I will do all I can to challenge it. I think it’s absolutely wrong in principle, and what a terrible start for a new government.”
The chief executive of Safe Passage, Beth Gardiner-Smith, described it as “truly shocking” and warned of the potential for “tragic consequences” arising.
Safe Passage works to help child refugees access legal routes to safety and Gardiner-Smith said: “Right now across Europe there are thousands of unaccompanied child refugees living in the most desperate circumstances – many of whom are separated from their family. Legal family reunion is a lifeline to these children who would otherwise risk their lives in dingies or in the back of lorries in order to reach a place of safety with their family.”
Gary Lineker, the TV presenter and former footballer tweeted a link to the Independent’s story to his 7.4 million followers, adding: “Please don’t do this. It’s all kinds of wrong.”
However, the prime minister’s official spokesman insisted “the government’s policy on child refugees has not changed and we will continue to do all we can to enable children to claim asylum and be reunited with their families.”
They said the government was “committed to ensuring that children claiming asylum or international protection can be reunited with specified family members in the EU and vice versa,” adding the new legislation “affirms that commitment.”.
‘A race to the bottom’
The new policy was one of several changes to the WAB which Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said “drives the hardest Brexit of all”.
She tweeted that the new WAB meant environmental protections, a clause on workers rights and parliaments role in negotiating a future relationship were all “gone.”
Lucas added: “The UK’s future under this Tory Govt – Parliament sidelined, no protections & a race to the bottom.”