Following Tuesday’s English Channel small boat tragedy, Labour peer Alf Dubs has urged MPs to look to their consciences before supporting Priti Patel’s attempt to quash his bid to enshrine help for child refugees in law.
Lord Dubs’ amendment to the home secretary’s Immigration Bill, allowing unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with close relatives in the UK, is at the centre of a battle of wills between the two houses of parliament, after peer reinstated it last week following its defeat in the Commons.
The former Kindertransport refugee told The Independent that he hopes that the deaths of four people, including two young children, off Dunkirk will “change the terms of the debate” when Ms Patel asks MPs to strike out the measure again next Wednesday.
The home secretary and prime minister Boris Johnson were quick to offer their thoughts and prayers after news of the tragedy, both stressing the need to crack down on criminal smuggling gangs who are believed to have helped almost 7,500 people make the perilous trip across the Channel this year.
But Lord Dubs said it was important not to lose sight of the fact that numbers coming to the UK are far smaller than those who seek refuge in France or Germany, many of them choosing the more difficult route to Britain because they have family or friends here. Dangerous small boat crossings had increased as safe routes to Britain were closed down, he said.
“I would appeal to MPs in the Commons who are currently inclined to support the Home Secretary next week to think again in the light of yesterday’s events,“ said the peer, who arrived in the UK as a child refugee from the Nazis.
“This tragedy will change the terms of the debate because it will focus people’s minds on how desperate people must be to try to cross the Channel in this way and on whether there is anything we can do to save children from ending up in these boats. If there are safe routes, then people will take them. If there are not, people will risk their lives.
“This is a matter of basic human rights. MPs have responsibilities and I would hope that they might think again before next Wednesday. This is probably their last serious chance to act before the transition period out of the EU is over.”
Existing reunion rights under EU law will end on 31 December, when the UK transitions to its new post-Brexit relationship with its former partners.
The chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Yvette Cooper, said she hoped the government would now listen to supporters of Lord Dubs’ amendment, which she said “helps child and teen refugees reunite with family who can care for them through safe, legal routes so they don’t try to make dangerous journeys or become exploited by criminal gangs”.
Ms Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is an awful tragedy. For anyone to lose their lives in the cold sea like this is terrible, and when young children are involved it just makes it even more distressing.
“We have feared that we would see a tragedy like this for a long time because the boats are incredibly dangerous, the journey is perilous and we’ve seen an increase in the number of these small boat crossings, these really flimsy boats.”
She added: “I don’t think they (Home Office) do have a clear enough analysis of the reasons why people are making this journey.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the incident as “an absolute tragedy” and “a heart-breaking reminder of the human cost of this crisis”.
The Scottish National Party’s home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry said it should serve as “a final wake-up call for the UK government before more innocent lives are lost”.
"The UK government must rethink its hostile approach and urgently step up international co-operation to strengthen safe and legal routes to help vulnerable people fleeing hardship and conflict reach safety,” said Ms Cherry.
"The harrowing and entirely avoidable deaths of two children and two adults yesterday must signal an immediate U-turn in the approach of the UK and French authorities. Rather than ramping up rhetoric to involve the military and to crack down on small boats, the UK government must heed the warnings from charities and organisations to help save lives."
In a statement last night, Ms Patel said: “I am truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones at this time.
“We are in touch with our French counterparts who are leading on the response and have offered whatever support they need as they investigate this incident.
“This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”