FAITH leaders and charities were disappointed this week after an amendment to the Immigration Bill, committing the UK to taking 3000 unaccompanied child refugees who are already in Europe, was narrowly rejected by the House of Commons.
MPs voted 294 to 276 against, on Monday night, after reports that rebel Conservative MPs in favour of the amendment — which was tabled by a Labour peer, Lord Dubs, and backed by the SNP and Liberal Democrats — had been persuaded to back down by the Home Office.
The Conservative MP James Brokenshire argued that the policy would “inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children alone, ahead and in the hands of traffickers, putting their lives at risk”, and that Europe should already be a “safe space”.
Peers in the House of Lords responded on Tuesday by voting 279 to 172 in favour of an alternative amendment that would relocate to the UK, and support, a specified number of refugee children each year.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, urged Ministers to address the “question on our doorstep” as a matter of urgency.
The ping-pong stage of the Bill came after the Government announced last week that the UK would take in up to 3000 refugees from Syria by 2020, mostly vulnerable children.
Christian Aid said, however, that the move “ignores some 26,000 unaccompanied minors, as well as the hundreds of thousands of adults” who had already made the journey into Europe.
“The Government’s response is once again too slow and too reluctant,” Christian Aid’s senior political adviser, Tom Viita, said.
Lord Dubs told Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “It’s not over: the fight will go on.”
In a letter to The Times last week, Church of England bishops joined leaders of Christian Churches across the UK, and leaders of the main world faiths, in urging the Prime Minister and President Obama to fulfil their “moral duty” and do more for Syrian refugees.
“Welcoming the stranger sometimes takes courage, but the joys and the hopes of doing so outweigh the challenges,” they wrote.
On Saturday, Citizens UK had accused the Home Office of being “legally immoral and shameful” for using a recent court ruling, allowing unaccompanied children with family members in the UK to seek asylum here (News, 29 January), to deport more than 700 people.
Commenting on Monday before the vote, a signatory to the letter, the Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, said: “Unaccompanied child refugees, wherever they are, should always have the first claim on our compassion and our help. The amendment to allow 3000 unaccompanied children to be received in the UK, in addition to any other refugees, can surely not be opposed without a grievous lack of compassion.”
In a separate interview with the Daily Post, on Sunday, Bishop Cameron said that Wales should take in at least 20,000 refugees, over and above the 20,000 the Prime Minister promised to admit the UK in the next five years (News, 18 December).
Welcoming more refugees would help to prevent the escalation of modern slavery and human trafficking, which was becoming particularly prevalent in north Wales, he said.
“It’s very hard to work out the scale of the problem, because it’s largely invisible; people don’t know it goes on,” he said. “[We] don’t like to think cosy, friendly north Wales is the kind of place where sex trafficking is going on, but it is there, and it is significant enough to draw the attention of the Church.”
The number of slavery victims in Wales is reported to have doubled in the past two years; 70 people, including children, were officially identified by police as victims — up from 35 in 2012.
“The reality is that human trafficking victims exist in communities across Wales. Slavery in Wales is on the rise,” Bishop Cameron said.
He also urged communities in Wales to prepare to “open their hearts and homes” to those fleeing war and persecution, and to help prevent the vulnerable from falling victim to slavery and trafficking. The diocese of St Asaph said that it had offered four homes to accommodate refugees.
“We may not think of ourselves as very rich, but, actually, in world terms, we are very prosperous,” Bishop Cameron said. “We should be able to do more than we are doing now, and the Church is willing to put its money where its mouth is.”