The government has suffered a defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted in support of an amendment to its flagship immigration bill designed to protect family reunion rules for asylum-seekers beyond Brexit.
The clause, tabled by four peers including Alf Dubs, a former child refugee, aims to ensure that rights under UK law to family reunion, at present covered by EU legislation known as the Dublin III treaty, will continue after the transition period.
The Dublin rules allow asylum-seekers to be transferred to another member state to join family as they claim asylum but will cease to apply when the transition period ends on 31 December.
The amendment was voted for by a significant majority of 317 votes to 223 against. The amended bill will return to the House of Commons, where the government may use its large majority to overturn the defeat.
Speaking after the vote, Lord Dubs said: “Families should be together. The government defeat today demonstrates the strength of feeling that we should not abandon our humanity and compassion by removing the right of children to be reunited with relatives here in the UK.
“I would now urge the government to put their own words into practice, by rethinking its policy and supporting this amendment when it comes before the Commons.”
Since 2015, 3,079 people have been transferred to the UK under the Dublin regulation, including 714 transfers in 2019, to be reunited with their families as they claim asylum.
The Dublin regulations have been at the heart of the recent debate over the UK’s asylum policy, with the UK government arguing they are “rigid, inflexible and abused by migrants and activist lawyers”.
But humanitarian groups and charities have said the rules provide one of a small number of remaining safe and legal routes for asylum-seekers to reach the UK. In the absence of such legal routes, they argue, migrants are turning to high-risk attempts to reach the UK including crossing the Channel in small boats. More than 7,000 migrants have reached the UK in small boats so far this year.
Beth Gardiner-Smith, the chief executive of Safe Passage International, said: “This defeat should be a wakeup call to the government that providing a safe and legal way for vulnerable refugee children from Europe to be reunited with their families is not only the moral thing to do, but the will of a cross-party collaboration across the house and local authorities.”
Vickie Hawkins, the executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières UK, the humanitarian NGO, said: “It has been deeply disheartening to have watched the UK government abdicate their responsibilities by attempting to close down some of the few existing routes to safety for refugees and asylum seekers within Europe.
“This amendment gives the UK government a chance to take steps towards rectifying this: it is surely the bare minimum to ensure that safe routes to sanctuary in the UK stay open for unaccompanied children.
“We sincerely hope that the UK government will show some humanity and accept this amendment.”