The Lords, by a majority of 78, once again backed an amendment proposed by Lord Dubs to ensure lone child refugees in Europe maintain their right to be reunited with family in the UK once the Brexit transition ends on December 31.
It was the fourth attempt by Dubs, who came to the UK as a child fleeing the Nazis on a kindertransport, to ensure the continuation of children’s family reunion rights after Brexit.
As prime minister, Theresa May had accepted his demands and promised to maintain these rights.
But after taking office Boris Johnson deleted the protections from the flagship Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, which enacted his Brexit deal.
Since then, Dubs has won three votes on the issue, only to see MPs throw out his amendments.
Last week, a small Tory rebellion of six MPs, including ex-ministers David Davis and Tim Loughton, was not enough to change the law.
But in a sign the government was feeling pressure, Home Office minister Baroness Williams promised to carry out a review of “safe and legal routes” for asylum seekers, including lone child refugees’ right to reunite with family in the UK, before legislating next year.
Campaigners, however, said the move would be “too late” with hundreds of children standing to lose the right to reunite with family after December 31.
Following the vote on his amendment, Dubs told HuffPost UK: “The only winners if we remove legal routes to safety for refugee children trying to reach family here are the criminals – the traffickers and people smugglers who prey on refugees.
“Closing legal routes will not mean fewer refugees making a perilous journey to safety, but it will make those journeys even more dangerous.
“There is also a profound question of human principle at stake.
“We all have a duty to play our part in this global refugee crisis at least by helping reunite children with their families.
“I have visited Calais and the refugee camps in Greece. The conditions were appalling. They are no place for children.
“We should take our fair share, just as other European countries have.
“This is the fourth time the government has been told to support the right of family reunion for child refugees.
“It’s time they listened.”
Ministers have maintained that 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 if he wants to maintain them.
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.
Addressing Baroness Williams’ promise of a review and fresh legislation next year, Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, said: “The government know they are increasingly being backed into a corner on this issue and I hope they see today’s result not as a defeat, but as an opportunity to fulfil its promise of ensuring that child refugees in Europe have a safe and legal route to the UK from January.
“The minister today announced a review into safe and legal routes including for unaccompanied children and have promised legislation next year, but next year will be too late.
“Hundreds of refugee children stand to lose access come January 1 and will instead look to smugglers and traffickers to reunite with family.
“There is growing support for the measure because ultimately MPs, UK faith leaders, council leaders and the Lords know that ensuring a safe path for vulnerable children to being reuniting with family in the UK is not a political issue but a humanitarian one.”
MSF UK’s executive director Vickie Hawkins said: “Time is running out for the government to act.
“Without safe routes, children are either driven into the hands of smugglers - forced onto the backs of lorries or into flimsy dinghies – or remain stuck in squalid, unhygienic conditions, in camps or on the streets.
“MSF’s mental health specialists on the Greek islands regularly see children suffering from depression and anxiety, and others who are self-harming or attempting suicide. They urgently need to be moved to a place of safety.
“We sincerely hope that now the UK government will choose to fulfil its responsibilities to child refugees and accept the amendment. It would be a step in the right direction, towards an immigration policy that seeks to protect vulnerable people, rather than deter them from arriving at all costs.”
The defeat sets up a battle in the Commons but the Dubs amendment is likely to be thrown out again by MPs unless the government changes its position, given Johnson has a Commons majority of 80.
Meanwhile, Labour did win a concession from the government, which promised to provide an assessment of how the end of free movement of EU citizens into the UK affects social care.
It comes after the Migration Advisory Committee warned that better pay is urgently needed to attract more British carers to the sector to cover what will likely be “stark” shortages of staff once free movement ends.