David Cameron has given in to calls for the UK to accept unaccompanied refugee children from Greece, Italy and France in a bid to avoid defeat in the House of Commons.
The prime minister climbed down in the face of a growing rebellion among Conservative MPs who were preparing to back an amendment by Labour peer Lord Dubs.
Confirming the U-turn, Cameron paid tribute to Dubs, who came to Britain as a refugee through the Kindertransport and had led the campaign for the UK to take 3,000 unaccompanied children from camps within Europe.
Dubs’s first attempt was voted down by Conservative MPs, but the peer resubmitted the amendment without a specific figure included and this will now be accepted by the government.
Downing Street could not say how many child refugees would be accepted under the new plans but a spokesman said the government would consult with councils about accepting under-16s who registered as unaccompanied refugees in Europe before 20 March.
The plan to accept only children already in Europe preserves Cameron’s principle of not creating a “pull factor” that would encourage parents to send their children on perilous journeys with people traffickers.
“No country has done more than Britain to help when it comes to Syrian refugees,” Cameron told MPs.
“But I do want us to proceed with as much support across the house as I can. I think it is right to stick to the principle that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to make this dangerous journey. I think it is right to stick to the idea that we invest in the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries.”
But he said that he was willing to speed up the process of taking child migrants with family links in the UK, and do more for children who arrived in the UK ahead of a deal between the EU and Turkey.
“It won’t be necessary to send the Dubs amendment back … the amendment doesn’t mention a number of people. We are going to go round the local authorities to see what we can do,” said Cameron.
But he insisted that he wanted the UK to stick to the principle that the priority was to take children from camps in the region from which they were fleeing – and not take children from European countries that ought to already to be a safe haven.
He said that “housing them, clothing them, feeding them” was today’s equivalent of the Kindertransport.
The intervention was immediately welcomed by the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, while a key Tory MP who was minded to vote with Dubs, Heidi Allen, tweeted her support.
Dubs also said he was pleased that Cameron was taking steps to “ease the plight of some of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe”.
He added: “I trust the prime minister will be true to his word and move swiftly to ensure the Home Office works closely with local authorities to find foster families to give these young people a stable and secure home.”
However, Labour said the plan did not go far enough, with a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn arguing that more than 3,000 child refugees should be welcomed to the UK.
Refugee and children’s rights groups were scrambling to clarify whether Cameron’s announcement referred to the speeding up of existing and legally binding processes to allow family reunification or whether it would lead to additional children being allowed into Britain from Europe.
A spokeswoman for Save the Children said that it expected further details from the government soon. She added: “We have spoken to various levels of government and various departments about the extreme risks that these children face – and where the UK can best intervene. This includes how the relocation of the most vulnerable children – which Save the Children has long called for – would work in practice.”
Tanya Steele, Save the Children’s chief executive,said the charity “welcome today’s significant announcement that the UK will offer them sanctuary and the chance to build a new life here.
“Refugee children, many of whom have fled war and persecution and have made dangerous journeys to Europe alone are now living on the streets, in overcrowded camps or locked in police detention.
“The prime minister has today offered a lifeline to these vulnerable children and we will work with the government and the UN to ensure that these commitments are rapidly implemented so that thousands of lone, vulnerable children can reach safety in the UK in the coming months.
“The UK government has today matched the great leadership they have shown in providing aid and support to Syrian refugees in the region by reaching out a hand to children already on European shores.
“This announcement echoes Britain’s proud history of offering safety at times of great crisis and we want to thank the members of parliament who have led the way in championing this cause, as well as the British public who have opened their hearts to refugee children.”
The first attempt to get Britain to take 3,000 child refugees from the EU was blocked in a Commons vote last Monday by a majority of 18. But a group of up to 30 Conservative MPs said they were ready to back the reworded amendment to the immigration bill next week.
The Home Office minister James Brokenshire was due to meet the Tory rebels on Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to reach a deal to avert a government defeat.
Allen, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, abstained in last week’s vote and had said she and others would defy the party whip if concessions were not offered.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme before the concessions were announced whether she and others would rebel if the government did not back down, Allen said: “Absolutely, 100%.”
She criticised Cameron’s claim that child refugees were out of danger once they reached Europe. She said: “The prime minister mentioned in PMQs last week ‘relative safety in Europe’. It is not relatively safe to be pulled into trafficking and prostitution. Talk to the doctors – Médecins Sans Frontières – they are literally stitching up children on a daily basis and sending them back to the camps. So these children are not safe at all and they need our help.”
Allen pointed out that at the last count 150 unaccompanied children at the makeshift “Jungle” refugee camp near Calais had relatives in the UK.
She said: “If we can establish where those children are and who they are, then the magical number of 3,000 almost becomes academic. It is about finding those who have the right to be here.”
Former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who chairs Labour’s refugee task force, said ministers had shifted position because they feared a Commons defeat.
“We need to see real action to help child refugees who are at risk of abuse, exploitation and trafficking within Europe,” she said. “So far, ministers have only ever announced increased support when under serious political pressure – we will keep this up until next week’s vote.”