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PM signals Government will accept more unaccompanied child refugees from Syria

Published 04/05/2016

Sir Erich Reich, pictured, says David Cameron should do more to help lone and vulnerable Syrian children
Sir Erich Reich, pictured, says David Cameron should do more to help lone and vulnerable Syrian children

David Cameron has moved to head off a damaging Tory backbench revolt, signalling the Government will now accept more unaccompanied refugee children fleeing the conflict in Syria.

The Prime Minister announced ministers would no longer seek to overturn a Lords amendment requiring the UK to re-settle a "specified" number of children amid warnings it faced defeat if it went to a vote in the Commons.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions, he gave no indication as to how many children who had succeeded in reaching Europe could now be admitted, although officials indicated the numbers would run to "more than tens".

While Mr Cameron said ministers were holding talks with local authorities and the charity Save the Children about what assistance they could offer, he stressed he would not take any steps which would encourage more people to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

But with no exact figures, campaigners who had been pressing the Government to take up to 3,000 children from camps such as the notorious Jungle in Calais reacted cautiously to the announcement.

Labour peer Lord Dubs - a former child refugee who fled from the Nazis and who tabled the Lords amendment - said it would ease the plight of some children.

"I trust the Prime Minister will be true to his word and move swiftly to ensure the Home Office works closely with local authorities to find foster families to give these young people a stable and secure home," he said.

Lisa Doyle, of the Refugee Council, said it could provide "limited chances" for some lone children to find a safe haven in Britain.

"We shouldn't be fooled into thinking the Government has suddenly discovered its conscience while it's simultaneously vilifying asylum seekers who are already in the UK and doing its best to trap all other refugees in poor countries," she said.

Mr Cameron said that the scheme was aimed at re-settling lone children who had reached Europe before the EU's deal with Turkey in March which effectively closed the migrant trail through the Balkans.

He strongly defended the Government's approach in concentrating its main effort on supporting refugees still in the region in countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

"I do want us to proceed with as much support across the House as we can," he told MPs.

"What I don't want us to do is to take steps that will encourage people to make this dangerous journey because otherwise our actions, however well-meaning they will be, could result in more people dying than more people getting a good life."

Ministers have consistently argued taking unaccompanied minors from European countries such as France, Italy and Greece - rather than direct from the region - would simply act as an incentive for more parents to send their children on the dangerous journey.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils stood ready to play their part in supporting unaccompanied minors, but said ministers needed to clarify the long-term funding arrangements.

"We are already working with Government to ensure that unaccompanied children currently in the care of English councils are not disproportionately located in a small number of areas, and that councils taking responsibility for additional children have the necessary resources to properly meet their needs," said David Simmonds of the LGA's asylum, refugee and migration task group.

"It is therefore vital that the scheme announced today is fully aligned, and funded, alongside this and other existing programmes for resettling refugees."

Former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who now heads Labour's refugee task group, said "much more detail" was needed about the Government's plans.

"They need to show they will turn the amendment into new and tangible action," she said. "The spirit of the Dubs amendment is for Britain to give sanctuary to lone child refugees in Europe and simply reiterating their previous promise to speed up existing rules isn't enough."

Mr Cameron's announcement was prompted by a challenge at Prime Minister's Questions from the Scottish National Party's leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson.

Mr Robertson said: "Last week, I accused the Prime Minister of walking by on the other side when he stoutly defended his then policy, opposing further help for unaccompanied refugee children in Europe.

"If what we are hearing now is the beginnings of a U-turn, I very much welcome it - as I am sure do members from all parts of the House."

Downing Street said the scheme would apply to children whose arrival in Europe was registered before the EU's March 20 agreement with Turkey which effectively shut down the migrant trail through the Balkans.

While it is predominantly aimed at Syrians, the Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said small numbers from other countries could benefit.

"There may be other individual cases that merit our support," the spokeswoman said.

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