Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the French coast in August 2019 | Photo: Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the French coast in August 2019 | Photo: Reuters

Parliamentarians (MPs) in the British lower house recently repealed a crucial amendment in the Brexit transition agreement which would have allowed unaccompanied minors to rejoin a parent or relative resident in the UK even once the UK has left the EU. The Brexit transition is expected to begin at the end of January. So what will it mean for young migrants?

Just a few days before the official Brexit process begins on January 31, defenders of migrant children’s rights are up in arms. On January 8, the British Parliament's lower house chose to repeal an already agreed amendment (number 17) to the Brexit transition agreement concerned with the protection of child migrants and their rights to join a relative resident in the UK.

"It is extremely disappointing to see that one of the first concrete decisions taken by Boris Johnson’s new government deals a crushing blow to migrant children," said Lord Alf Dubs, a Labour peer in the parliament's upper house, the House of Lords. "It is also a complete betrayal of Great Britain’s humanitarian traditions which will leave vulnerable children in dangerous situations, whether they be in the north of France or on Greek islands," Dubs added. He pledged that he would challenge that decision in the House of Lords.

The transition agreement will govern the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU).  Amendment 17 was adopted in 2016 under Theresa May’s government after Alf Dubs fought a tireless campaign in order to guarantee the rights of unaccompanied migrant children. Dubs wanted to enable them to reunite with members of family who were resident in the UK, even after the Brexit process was completed.

Now that this amendment has been suppressed, the UN and various non-governmental organizations are worried that one of the bases for the negotiation of and protection of migrant children’s rights has been removed.

"Today, the only useful judicial tool that we have at our disposal to allow unaccompanied migrant children to join their relatives in the United Kingdom is the regulations under Dublin 3. Once Brexit is concluded, that will no longer apply to the United Kingdom and so unaccompanied children could be deprived of their rights to be reunited with their relatives – in the widest sense of the term, parents of course, but also uncles, aunts, grandparents, perhaps even brothers and sisters. Without the Dublin agreement, 95% of minors supported by our association would not be able to unite with their relatives across the Channel," said Marie-Charlotte Fabié, director of the French arm of the non-governmental organization Safe Passage, in an interview with InfoMigrants.

'The only alternative remains smugglers or jumping on to lorries'

"In the last few years, more than 3,000 people have arrived on European soil and have been able to join their relatives in the UK," explained Fabié. With the Brexit process, the transition period when the Dublin agreement will still be applicable will only last until December 2020. "After that date it is anyone’s guess what will happen, now that they have repealed this amendment. We have no idea what will happen and we are very worried about the potentially dramatic consequences of this decision. We fear that the only options to many young people will be to try and reach the UK illegally, via dangerous routes, (for instance smugglers, jumping on to or in to lorries or setting off on inadequate inflatable dinghies)" explained Fabié.

If they are not able to reach an agreement in the next few weeks then the only legal avenue left for unaccompanied minors hoping to be reunited with their relatives in the UK will be the British legal system. At the moment, that system only has provisions in place for minors to join a mother or father. Even brothers and sisters are not considered eligible, even though they actually form the majority of the cases we deal with, said Safe Passage.

"British domestic immigration law does not offer the same level of protection for children traveling alone as the Dublin regulation," confirmed a spokesperson from the British office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "It is absolutely vital that the UK negotiates with EU member states a new agreement which will allow these children to be reunited with their relatives," the spokesperson told InfoMigrants. Like Safe Passage, UNHCR urges the British government to put effective measures in place as soon as possible, and long before the expiration of the transition agreement in December 2020.

A subject which has no place in the Brexit negotiations, according to Downing Street

Following the vote on January 8 in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister’s cabinet rushed to explain that the government’s responsibility towards child refugees had not been abandoned but had simply been repealed from the Brexit agreement because, according to the cabinet, it wasn’t the right place for it. A spokesperson for the prime minister’s office in Downing Street clarified that the proposals contained within the "Dubs amendment" remained an integral part of British government policy and that it just wasn’t necessary to address these issues within the Brexit transition phase.

"There is clearly a lack of political will," retorted Marie-Charlotte Fabié. "Repealing this amendment, which had already been voted in is a sign that the protection for unaccompanied minors and their eventual family reunification rights are not a priority for this government. So it is easy to fear that there will be no other alternative after December 2020."

The UNHCR is of a similar opinion. They have also called on the British government to amend its domestic laws in order to simplify the process of family reunification. They have proposed that refugee children who are already resident in the UK can sponsor their close relatives and be given the right to "reconstruct a life together." They underline that it is important to enlarge the definition of "family members" so that children who are older than 18 also have the possibility of joining their parents in the UK. These proposals are part of the UNHCR’s campaign "Families Together" which is supported by at least 40 non-governmental organizations working in the field.

As for Lord Dubs, he is busy campaigning in the House of Lords in the hope of recruiting support for his cause. A debate on the subject took place on January 15. However, the house of lords holds less sway than the lower house, the House of Commons. They have the right to examine and debate laws approved by the Commons and they can modify laws or invite the government to look again at something but they only seek to block a law totally on very rare occasions.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's political breakfast show The Today Program on January 15 Lord Dubs tweeted that he was "unconvinced by the government’s vague and unenforceable suggestion these rights can be reinstated later."

He said it was "disgraceful to use child refugees as a bartering chip" and refused to withdraw his amendment.

This article was translated from the French by Emma Wallis. Two additional tweets were added at the end which were not in the original French article.

 

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