The man who forced David Cameron into agreeing that Britain would allow in more unaccompanied child refugees has told BuzzFeed News that the government's decision to close the scheme shows it has failed to keep its word on the issue.
Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs, who fled Nazi Germany as a child in the 1930s on the Kindertransport scheme, was speaking after the government announced on Wednesday that the scheme would shut down. Just 350 children will be accepted into the UK, rather than the thousands that ministers originally hinted at when Cameron, then the prime minister, agreed to it last year.
With 200 children already transferred to the UK from the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, immigration minister Robert Goodwill said just one more group of 150 children would be accepted into the UK "in due course" before the scheme is closed.
Goodwill said local authorities had the capacity to accept only a few hundred unaccompanied asylum-seeking children during this financial year. He also emphasised that British policy was to spend foreign aid money trying to solve the "root causes" of the crisis rather than simply responding to the consequences.
The announcement was made on the afternoon of a crunch parliamentary vote on the Brexit process in the House of Commons, raising criticism that the government was trying to avoid substantial media attention or scrutiny.
After the announcement, Dubs told BuzzFeed News: "The government said they'd accept the letter and spirit of the amendment and they're not doing that."
He attacked ministers' decision to cite council funding as a reason for only accepting a few hundred children.
"The government have been dragging their heels all along and recently I was worried they would use local authorities to shut the thing down – they've used that exactly as an excuse."
Dubs said the decision was particularly depressing given current immigration policy in the US and said he would commit to pressuring the government to accept more children: "I think it's very depressing in the light of what Trump is doing not to accept the children.
"It's an arbitrary thing on their behalf. We've got the legislation on the statute book – all we need is the pressure on the government to implement it."
In May last year, Dubs tabled an amendment in the House of Lords requiring the UK to do more to help lone child refugees.
"The secretary of state must, as soon as possible after the passing of this Act, make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe," his amendment stated.
It was the prospect of a rebellion by Conservative MPs in favour of the Dubs amendment that forced Cameron to do a U-turn and accept the scheme.
Although the legislation did not specify a specific number, ministers at the time told rebellious Tory MPs to expect at least 3,000 children to the UK under the scheme. Downing Street disputed at the time that there was a fixed number, although the expectation remained that thousands of children would arrive.
Dubs told BuzzFeed News that Theresa May would have been aware of the decision to limit the number of children to 350.
"She was home secretary at the time the amendment went through," he said, "and I would have thought the [new] home secretary would've run it past Theresa May."
Until now there had been few updates on the progress of the scheme, angering Dubs and pro-refugee campaign groups, which had grown impatient by the lack of action.
Opposition parties said the government was meeting the letter rather than the spirit of the law.
"The government has done the bare minimum, helping only a tiny number of youngsters and appearing to end the programme while thousands still suffer," said Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron. "At the end of December last year the government had failed bring a single child refugee to the UK under the Dubs scheme from Greece or Italy where many of these children are trapped."
Goodwill said that in 2016 a total of 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were transferred to the UK from Europe under various schemes including the Dublin regulation, largely as a result of the the clearance of the Jungle refugee camp in Calais.
The Dubs amendment, named after the Labour politician, is unrelated to the broader Dublin regulation that also governs some aspects of European asylum cases involving children.
In total there were 33,000 asylum claims in the UK last year, including some children travelling with relatives.
The minister said the government paid local authorities £41,610 per year for each unaccompanied asylum-seeking child aged under 16 and £33,215 per annum for those aged 16 and 17.
"By the end of this parliament," he said, "we will have resettled 20,000 Syrian nationals through our Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and a further 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa region under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at email@example.com.
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