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The British Government Just Cut Protections for Child Refugees in the Brexit Bill

Why Global Citizens Should Care 
The UN's Global Goals aim to support the world's most vulnerable people in the mission to end extreme poverty. Global Goal 11 calls for the creation of sustainable cities and communities — including for everyone to have adequate, safe housing — and that means ensuring that refugees are protected. The British government just voted down proposals to continue such protections. Join our movement by taking action here.

The British government has voted against an amendment to a bill that would have provided continued protection to unaccompanied child refugees who have family in the UK.

Despite intense opposition and public outcry, the amendment to the European Union Withdrawal Agreement Bill was rejected by the House of Commons on Wednesday with 342 votes to 254 — a majority of 88.

This means that the legal route for unaccompanied refugee children to join family in Britain is in danger. The suggested bill would have required the government to seek agreement with the EU to ensure that those children with relatives in the UK could join them. Without it, the government need only make statements to parliament on the subject, according to the BBC.

The amendment fell despite passing in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

A campaign spearheaded by Lord Alf Dubs and child refugee organisation Safe Passage led to a victory in the Lords that sent the bill hurtling back to the Commons the following day.

Dubs is himself a former refugee who escaped Nazis when he came to Britain in 1939 via the Kindertransport programme.

“This is very disappointing news, especially given the public statements made by this government which suggested that they shared the public’s wish to help child refugees,” Lord Dubs said in response. “We still have moral obligations to these children who simply want to be reunited with family here.”

Previous reports suggested the government might reintroduce the protections in an immigration bill later in the year. The amendment was rejected because the government said it would complicate Britain’s trade negotiation position with the EU after the UK departs on January 31.

Numerous international nonprofits, including Save the Children and Oxfam, have now warned that the children who would have been protected now face exploitation. It’s a dangerous reality that was described by refugee aid charity Help Refugees as “dispiriting.”

“The impact of this decision will be felt immediately,” Maddy Allen, a field manager for Help Refugees in Calais, told Global Citizen. “The decision to remove a legal route to safety will strengthen the hold that smugglers and traffickers have over these journeys. Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable people in Europe and now have no safe option to reunite with family members in the UK.” 

“The hard work has only just begun,” she added. “We will not only be campaigning to ensure that the Immigration Bill holds the same rights that exist for children across Europe, but we will fight to ensure these laws are broader and more functional moving forwards.” 

There is certainly some divorce of feeling: while the political sphere dismissed the amendment, an impassioned subsection of the public embraced it. Safe Passage tweeted on Wednesday that more than 10,500 people had written to their MP in the 24 hours prior to the Commons vote — a wildly impressive outpouring of proactive empathy. 

One such letter was sent by Annabelle Roberts — a 25-year-old digital campaigner who works in Global Citizen’s offices in London. 

Roberts felt compelled to do more and started taking the issue home. After speaking to her family about it, she discovered that her grandmother shared her concerns. So, they started writing letters together.

“My nan grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham, which was badly bombed during the Second World War,” Roberts said. “She always told me about how scared her and her sister were as children hiding in the shelters.”

When Dorothy Davies — Annabelle’s 87-year-old grandmother — learned that her local MP in Telford had voted to remove protections for child refugees, she shared her story and urged them to reconsider.

Read More: Most British People Actually Do Want More Refugee Support, Study Says

“I remember how difficult it was to grow up in a war, it was terrible for us children,” Davies told Global Citizen. “But despite everything our country was going through we still took in refugees, we didn’t close our doors, and many children were saved and given a safe life here — because it was right, it was the decent thing to do.”

Such action is indicative of wider public sympathy: a 2018 study found that the majority of the British public (52%) thought that refugees should receive more help, while over a third expressed regret that the government was not doing more to assist them.

“Our experience is that the British public cares vastly about this issue,” Allen told Global Citizen. “There have been thousands of letters of support for family reunification sent to MPs in the last week and a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures sent to the Home Office.”

“It is more important than ever before that we hold our leaders to account and demand not just the bare minimum, but the best possible support for these children as Brexit negotiations begin,” she added.