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Government blocks bid to enshrine child refugee rights in Brexit agreement

Opposition MPs warned of ‘tragic consequences’ for lone youngsters.

Boris Johnson’s re-drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill on the issue was branded ‘disgraceful’ (Jane Barlow/PA)
Boris Johnson’s re-drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill on the issue was branded ‘disgraceful’ (Jane Barlow/PA)

By George Ryan, Sophie Morris and Patrick Daly, PA Political Staff

MPs have voted down proposals to enshrine protections for child refugees as part of the Government’s Brexit agreement.

Following his election victory, Boris Johnson re-drafted his European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and rowed back on the previous government’s acceptance of an amendment from Labour peer Lord Dubs to allow unaccompanied child refugees to continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day.

Clause 37 of the Bill replaces the pledge with a watered-down vow for ministers to “make a statement” on the progress of the talks once the divorce with Brussels is complete.

Labour branded the move “disgraceful”, while the SNP said it could have “tragic consequences”.

With Conservative MPs voting against the amendment, it was defeated by a majority of 96 votes on Wednesday afternoon, on the Bill’s second day of committee stage scrutiny in the Commons.

Ahead of the debate, Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Dubs, who fled from the Nazis on the Kindertransport to Britain when he was aged six, wrote to all Tory MPs calling on them to vote against the Prime Minister’s “disgraceful” change.

Legal family reunion is a lifeline to these children who would otherwise risk their lives in dinghies or in the back of lorries Joanna Cherry, SNP

In the Commons chamber, SNP home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry urged the Government to accept proposals to protect child refugees after Brexit or risk “tragic consequences”.

She told MPs: “Right now, across Europe, there are thousands of unaccompanied children living in the most desperate circumstances, many of whom are separated from their families.

“And legal family reunion is a lifeline to these children who would otherwise risk their lives in dinghies or in the back of lorries in order to reach a place of safety with their family.”

She added: “For the Government to seek to remove those protections now risks causing panic amongst refugee families currently separated in Europe with potentially tragic consequences.”

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Lord Dubs wrote to Tory MPs about the change to the child refugee pledge in the Brexit Bill (Yui Mok/PA)

Brexit minister Robin Walker has said the Government is committed to supporting child refugees.

Mr Walker told MPs: “This Government is fully committed both to the principle of family reunion and to supporting the most vulnerable children. Our policy has not changed.

“We will also continue to reunite children with their families under the Dublin Regulation during the implementation period.”

He added that there was “very strong support on these benches for the principle of family reunion”.

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