David Cameron has caved into demands for Britain to take in more child refugees who are stranded in Europe and at grave risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse, in what observers have branded a significant U-turn.
The British prime minister had previously refused to open Britain’s doors to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees, a position that was heavily criticized by human rights groups and opposition MPs.
But amid a festering rebellion in his own party, he shifted his position, promising to do more to help the children.
Cameron’s policy reversal was sparked by a group of Tory MPs who were preparing to back a recently proposed amendment to Britain’s Immigration Bill tabled by a Labour member of the House of Lords, Alf Dubs. Cameron said he would not now oppose it a second time.
The initial amendment called for Britain to house 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees, many of which are forced to live in dire conditions in makeshift camps across Europe.
However, MPs rejected the proposed changes by 294 to 276 votes. The narrow defeat came after the Home Office reportedly convinced Tory MPs concerned about the government’s lackluster response to the refugee crisis, that Westminster is doing enough to help child refugees gripped by crises in Syria and elsewhere.
Although Dubs’ amendment was defeated, the Labour peer remained defiant and quickly moved to table another. While the second was similar to the first, it lacks a precise figure of how many child refugees the UK should take in.
Downing Street has not confirmed how many child refugees will be accepted under the policy change. However, a spokesperson for No 10 said government officials would liaise with councils on the issue. Dubs, himself a former refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, benefitted from a UK-backed Kindertransport program that welcomed child refugees to Britain as the ravages of the Second World War spread across Europe.
Some 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees are thought to have applied for asylum in Europe in 2015.
The EU’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol, confirmed in early 2016 that 10,000 children had vanished after landing on European soil. The agency said it fears that many had been snatched by criminal syndicates.