British Lord Who Fought for Refugee Child Protections 'Shocked' to See Them Dropped From Brexit Bill

The recently formed Boris Johnson government is facing a backlash after British lawmakers voted to reject proposals seeking to keep protections for child refugees in a redrafted agreement on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

MPs in the Conservative-dominated Commons voted 348 to 252 on Wednesday against preserving the protections, which sought to guarantee the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with family members in the UK after Brexit.

The measure had previously been accepted under the government of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May.

Speaking with Newsweek, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords (the upper house of British parliament) who fought for the child refugee protections in 2016, said he was "shocked" that British political leaders would want to drop the measure.

"I'm still dismayed and disappointed, but yesterday was probably what I should have realized was going to happen," he said.

The message the decision sends, he said, "is that they don't like unaccompanied child refugees joining their families in Britain."

Dubs also warned that dropping the protections could push refugees and asylum seekers, including children, to try to find other ways of reaching Britain, including risking the dangerous journey across the English Channel.

"The message it sends is that we're closing down the legal pathways to get to Britain, so it's up to you mate," he said. "The message is that we're not going to help you."

Ultimately, Dubs said, "it's sending a very disappointing signal about Britain's attitude to vulnerable refugees."

Dubs was far from alone in condemning the decision, with Labour MP Jess Phillips branding the vote "cruel and inhumane."

"There will be many votes we cannot win in this parliament," Phillips said. "Some will pass us by as 'just one of those things.' Not this, this is cruel and inhumane," she said.

Fellow Labour MP Keir Starmer also weighed in on the decision, calling the government's move to "tear up the commitment to family reunion for unaccompanied refugee children after Brexit" a "disgrace."

"[Conservative] MPs should take a moral stance and force the Government to rethink its approach on this vital issue," he said.

Despite outrage over the vote's outcome, however, Johnson's press secretary has maintained that protections for refugee children would remain intact, but did not need to be included in the withdrawal agreement bill.

"Protecting vulnerable children will remain our priority after Brexit, and this new clause [on refugees in the bill] reaffirms our commitment, while clarifying the role of parliament and government in the negotiations," the press secretary told British newspaper The Guardian.

Dubs, Starmer and other critics, however, have questioned why the measures wouldn't be included if Britain is committed to them.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Starmer, the shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, had joined Dubs in signing a letter addressed to Conservative MPs imploring them to "take a moral stance" and force the government to maintain the protections.

"Boris Johnson may have won a majority in Parliament, but he did not win the moral argument to absolve himself of responsibility to some of the most vulnerable people in the world," the letter said.

People gather to hear speeches on Whitehall before Lord Alf Dubs (6L) handed in a petition to 10 Downing Street calling on the Prime Minister to reconsider the decision to close the Dubs scheme to take refugee children into the UK in London on February 11, 2017. Dubs has condemned a vote to remove protections for refugee children from the EU withdrawal agreement bill. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty

Given the Conservative party's majority in the Commons, the letter said, it is up to their MPs "to take a moral stance and force the Government to rethink its approach on this vital issue."

"You have the power to right this wrong. This is your test⁠—and we would urge you to hold them to account over this disgraceful decision."

Dubs told Newsweek, however, that the MPs' vote was not the end. Wednesday's decision, he said, "will be challenged in the Lords."

The lord said he hoped that the British public would "wake up" to the reality that they are living under "a government that is not sympathetic" to the plight of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

"One of the things that will influence the government is getting public opinion on our side," he said.