The government has been defeated in the Lords as peers voted to allow 3,000 into the country.
Peers voted by 306 votes to 204, a majority of 102, to amend the immigration bill in order to require the government to let the children, currently in Europe, come to Britain.
They warned the government it must act fast to take in unaccompanied child refugees amid complaints from cross-party MPs that child migrants in were enduring terrible conditions.
The vote came as three unaccompanied Syrian children, including one orphaned by war, arrived in the UK from the Calais refugee camp to be reunited with relatives.
Labour peer Lord Dubs, who proposed the amendment to the bill, said the step would protect children from exploitation, people trafficking and abuse. Dubs, who was rescued as a child as he fled the Nazis, called on the government to remember the spirit of the and take the lead in Europe in giving homes to child refugees traveling alone.
The amendment stipulates that “the secretary of state must, as soon as possible, make arrangements to relocate 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children who are in European countries to the United Kingdom”.
Save the estimates that there are 24,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, and calculates that 3,000 would be the UK’s fair share.
Earlier in the day, Yvette Cooper, the chair of Labour’s refugee taskforce, and Conservative MP Heidi Allen, called on the government to do more to support , after meeting some of the estimated 450 unaccompanied child refugees living there in caravans and tents.
They described their anger and frustration after meeting boys such as 12-year-old Kareem from , who told them he was exhausted after a night spent trying to hide in the back of lorries to get to England. “He wanted to keep hugging people, he wanted comfort. He has no one looking after him. He is about the same age as my son,” Cooper said.
They also met Majid, 17, from , who has spent the past year trying to reach his mother and brother who are already in Birmingham. He showed them the scars on his hands from barbed-wire injuries incurred during his nightly attempts to board trains to get to England. He told them he was hoping to return to school and wanted to study to be a surgeon in England.
Cooper and Allen went to an undemolished section of the Calais camp where around 450 unaccompanied child refugees are living in caravans and wooden shacks. At least 150 of the children have family in the UK, and are entitled under Europe’s Dublin III regulation to have their asylum claims transferred there, so they can be with their relatives. But it can take up to nine months for the French authorities to issue a request to the UK to take over an asylum claim, followed by a further wait while the Home Office makes a decision.
Volunteers working in Calais told them many of the children had been badly treated by the French police, with some suffering from eye blistering after being hit with tear gas as they tried to approach the Eurotunnel tracks. Others had had their shoes removed by the police to discourage them from trying to walk to the railway. Still others had been hit with water cannon when much of the last month.
The MPs also heard about the deteriorating condition of S, a 17-year-old Iranian boy travelling without his family who has been on hunger strike for the past three weeks, and who has stitched his lips together to protest against human rights abuses in the camp.
Allen said she felt “embarrassed” that British volunteers were having to pick up responsibility for these children in the absence of effective help from the French and UK governments. She said immigration ministers should travel to Calais to understand the situation that unaccompanied children were living in.
But David Cameron told the House of Commons that he did not support the Dubs amendment. In response to a question by Cooper, who had referred to how Dubs was himself rescued by the Kindertransport, the prime minister said: “We think it is right to take additional children over and above the 20,000 but to take them from the region and to do it with the UNHCR. And I think the unfairness of comparing child migrants in Europe with the Kindertransport is that countries like France, and Germany and Italy and Spain, these are safe countries and these are countries where anyone who claims asylum if they have family in Britain are able to come to Britain so I don’t think it is a fair comparison.”
After the government defeat in the Lords, Cooper said she would work to get the amendment passed in the Commons, too. “David Cameron must now drop his opposition to helping unaccompanied child refugees in Europe,’’ she said. “It is morally indefensible and does not do justice to Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary to those most in need.”