Amber Rudd faced the fury of MPs in the Commons on Thursday after the Home Office announced that the government would only take in 350 child refugees.
Ministers agreed last year to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in the country, thanks to an amendment put forward by Lord Dubs, and the UK has so far taken 200. However, immigration minister Robert Goodwill said on Wednesday that the scheme would end after taking in an extra 150 children.
The archbishop of Canterbury said he was "saddened and shocked" by the statement, adding that "our country has a great history of welcoming those in need, particularly the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children".
"We must resist and turn back the worrying trends we are seeing around the world, towards seeing the movement of desperate people as more of a threat to identity and security than an opportunity to do our duty," he said. "We cannot withdraw from our long and proud history of helping the most vulnerable."
Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, secured a debate on the subject and asked Rudd, the home secretary: "Once those 350 children are here, that’s it, it is closed. Where does it say in the Hansard debate that I have here from our debates in the Dubs amendment that we will only help lone child refugees for less than six months? Where does it say that instead of the 3,000 that parliament debated we will only help a tenth of that number?"
She went on: "Where does it say that when we get the chance we will somehow turn our backs once again? It doesn’t, because we didn’t say that at the time. The home secretary knows what she is doing is shameful."
Rudd denied that the scheme was closing, and said instead that the government had to "put a number" on the amount of child refugees it could take in, which it had done. "We have done what we were obliged to do," she said.
The home secretary said she believed taking in large numbers of unaccompanied refugee children was not the best solution, as "the government has always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children".
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, however, hit back, saying: "The worst thing about this government’s failure to step up to the totality of the refugee crisis is the children.
"How does she live with herself leaving thousands of people ... leaving thousands of children subject to disease, people trafficking, squalor, and hopelessness?"
She then added in a statement: "There will no doubt be legal challenges to this decision. This government is not above the law."
Rudd also had to deny that the policy brought the UK in line with Donald Trump and other protectionist leaders, as Labour MP Pat McFadden asked: "There are always those who will say 'look after our own, charity begins at home, Britain first, America first, France first', and so on. Does she really want us to be aligned with that sentiment, or a different one?”
"We are not saying that 'we are closing the door, we are putting up a drawbridge'. We are not saying that," Rudd replied. "I do not recognise the comparison he is making."
Labour's Stella Creasy told the house that up to 50 refugee children a day were arriving in Calais to "sleep in mud and cold because the UK and French governments appear to be in a game of chicken as to who will take responsibility for them".
She was joined in her criticism by the Tory MP David Burrowes, who said the government had "cut and run from child refugees", and another Tory, Will Quince, who said he was "disappointed".
In a speech to the House of Lords, Dubs himself, who came to the UK as a child refugee, expressed his disappointment at the government.
"I must confess I’m slightly puzzled because if the government says there’s a specified number of children then after that total has been reached, the scheme is being closed," he said. "I remember the prime minister, when she was home secretary, told me that the government was prepared to accept the amendment.
"It was on the same day that the then immigration minister said to me that the government would accept the letter and the spirit of that amendment. I believe that in arbitrarily closing down the scheme without any good reason for doing so, the government is in breach of its own commitments."
Marie Le Conte is a politics and media reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Marie Le Conte at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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