It is looking increasingly likely that lone child refugees in Europe will lose their right to rejoin their families in the UK after Brexit.
The latest version of Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) – which will write prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal into law – is being debated in the House of Lords this week.
Amended following the Conservative’s landslide election victory last month, this newly-worded version of the WAB greatly reduces the government’s legal obligations towards unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, Labour put forward an amendment to try and place these obligations back into the bill. But MPs voted 348 to 252 against the amendment.
Here is what the WAB could mean for child refugees’ family reunion rights and what could happen next.
What Protections Are Stake?
There is a piece of EU law known as the Dublin III Regulation which effectively gives unaccompanied child refugees in the EU a right, in some circumstances, to be reunited with family members legally present in other EU member states – including, for now, the UK.
The Regulation establishes the criteria and mechanisms for deciding which EU member state is responsible for examining an asylum claim made within the bloc.
The priority under the Dublin procedure is to place unaccompanied children in a member state where their family member is already living legally.
The UK must continue to adhere to Dublin III until the Brexit “implementation period” ends on December 31 2020 – unless this deadline is extended – under the terms of the WAB.
An earlier version of the Brexit withdrawal agreement legally obliged the UK to negotiate a continuation of this arrangement after it has left the EU.
This obligation to negotiate to continue the arrangements under Dublin III was championed by Labour peer Baron Alf Dubs, a former child refugee who fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport.
It has now been removed by PM Johnson’s new version of the WAB, and has been replaced with a requirement only to make a statement to parliament in relation to future arrangements between the UK and EU about unaccompanied children seeking refugee protection.
The government has said its policy has not changed, that it remains fully committed to the reunion of families and will still negotiate with the EU to protect these rights.
But, by removing the clauses from the legal text, this promise is based solely on trust.
What Could The Consequences Be If UK Leaves Dublin III?
In 2018, Lord Dubs estimated that there are around 200 children in France and 2,000 in Greece who would qualify for help under Dublin III.
If the UK leaves the EU without negotiating some alternative arrangement, it could have serious implications for their rights.
The children would face major obstacles in rejoining families living legally in the UK, which may infringe their right to respect for family life under Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights.
This separation is also likely to impact on their health and wellbeing – protected by the right to health. Charities have documented the impact on children’s health of existing delays in the Dublin III procedures – which they say are exposing young people to significant mental and physical harm.
These children may also face a greatly extended stay in dangerous conditions and be forced to take more desperate measures to reach their families in the UK.
Lord Dubs has warned that this move could force children to try and reach the UK by smuggling themselves on lorries or boats, both of which are extremely dangerous.
The WAB passes through the House of Lords this week before returning to the Commons for MPs to consider any amendments and take a final vote.
Lord Dubs told BBC Radio Four’s Westminster Hour on Sunday that he remains “hopeful” that the House of Lords make be able to pressure the government into backing down over its stance.
The government is eager to show that this move does not lessen its commitment to helping child refugees.
The Northern Ireland Minister Robin Walker told MPs that the government remains “fully committed” to the reunion of families, as well as supporting vulnerable children, stating that the government’s “policy has not changed”.
PM Johnson’s press secretary supported this, saying that the protections contained in the failed amendment would remain government policy, but the government did not see a need to include them in the withdrawal agreement.
There has been widespread anger about the move, with Lord Dubs calling it a “betrayal of Britain’s humanitarian tradition”.
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has labelled the move “insular” and “inhumane”, while the shadow Brexit Minister Thangham Debbonaire called the removal “an astonishing breach of faith with some of the most vulnerable children in the world”.