Cameron Signals U-Turn on Child Refugees to Fend Off Tory Rebels

  • Government faced losing lawmaker vote over transfers from EU
  • Children reaching Europe before March 20 eligible for help

Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain will take in more Syrian child refugees from within the European Union in a policy U-turn to stop a threatened rebellion by his own Conservative Party lawmakers.

Children registered in Greece, France and Italy before March 20, the cut-off date for a deal on refugees brokered with Turkey by the EU, will be eligible for resettlement in Britain, Cameron’s office said on Wednesday. Ministers are talking to local governments and the charity Save the Children to coordinate help for unaccompanied refugees under the age of 16.

“We are going to do more for children who were already registered in Europe before the EU-Turkey deal,” Cameron told lawmakers at his weekly question-and-answer session in Parliament in London. “We’re going to go around the local authorities and see what more we can do, but let’s stick to the principle that we should not be taking new arrivals to Europe.”

Cameron, whose Conservatives have a working majority of 18 in the 650-member House of Commons, faced a rebellion from rank-and-file lawmakers -- so-called backbenchers -- after his government said it would take in 3,000 child refugees from the Middle East and north Africa, but none who had already reached the EU.

The Commons rejected an amendment to the Immigration Bill on April 25 that would have required Britain to take in another 3,000 children from within the EU, but the backbench lawmakers planned to support a revised amendment, without the numerical target. The government has now accepted that amendment, put forward by Alf Dubs, a member of the upper House of Lords, Cameron said.

“Because of the steps that we’re taking, it won’t be necessary to send the Dubs amendment to the other place,” Cameron said, using a reference to the Lords. “The amendment now doesn’t mention a number of people.”

The EU struck a deal on March 18 to send back Syrian refugees who make it to Greece in exchange for accepting others who are in Turkish camps as it sought to deter people from making the often deadly voyage across the Mediterranean. The measure took effect on March 20.

“What I don’t want us to do is to take steps that will encourage people to make this dangerous journey,” Cameron said. “Otherwise, our actions, however well-meaning they may be, could result in more people dying rather than more people getting a good life.”

Dubs welcomed the government climbdown in an e-mailed statement, saying: “I trust the prime minister will be true to his word and move swiftly to ensure the Home Office works closely with local authorities to find foster families to give these young people a stable and secure home.”

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