Britain will take in unaccompanied Syrian refugee children who are already in Europe, the government is to announce, and will set aside a new £10m fund to support vulnerable migrant children.
It is the first time the UK has agreed to take Syrian refugees from within Europe and follows calls from charities and politicians for the country to allow 3,000 children fleeing the civil war to settle.
James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, said the government will work with the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) on the scheme. “We have asked the UNHCR to identify the exceptional cases where a child’s best interests are served by resettlement to the UK and help us to bring them here.”
The announcement comes hours after David Cameron was accused of using inflammatory language about refugees at prime minister’s questions, during which he referred to people in camps at Calais as a “bunch of migrants”.
Save the Children, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, and the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper have all argued that Britain needs to make a special case for some of the estimated 26,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe as they are prey to human traffickers, prostitution or being used as a form of cheap labour.
As many as 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees disappeared in Italy alone last year, prompting calls for a modern day Kindertransport scheme similar to the one that saved many children in the second world war.
A spokesman for the Home Office said it could not predict the precise number of children who will be helped by the scheme. Many will be allowed to come to the UK but in some cases the effort will be focused on reuniting them with their parents elsewhere in Europe.
Ministers have promised to take 20,000 refugees over the course of the parliament under the vulnerable persons resettlement programme but exclusively from the UN-run camps near the border of Syria in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. So far 1,000 have arrived, of whom half are children.
The Home Office said the UNHCR were the experts working in the countries surrounding Syria and other conflict zones and would be “asked to identify exceptional cases of unaccompanied children whose needs cannot be met in the region and whose best interests would be met through protection in the UK”.
The Department for International Development will set up a £10m fund to include targeted support for unaccompanied children who face additional risks when they arrive in Europe. Support will probably be delivered through NGOs and UN agencies.
In addition, the UK government will provide further resources to the European Asylum Support Office to help Greece and Italy identify migrants, including children, who could be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe. If it is in their best interests, the family will be brought to the UK.
Farron welcomed the measures as a first step. He said: “Among the horror of the refugee crisis, one of the most harrowing images has been the thousands of orphaned children fleeing conflict.”
“Britain has always been a compassionate and welcoming country, and I am delighted that the government has finally, after months of pressure, committed to vital humanitarian aid.
“This is an important step but it is far from the guarantee these desperate children need. Warm words need to be backed up by immediate action. Thousands of children are travelling across Europe. They are cold, alone and scared.”
Cooper said: “We have been campaigning for many months for the British government to help child refugees who are alone and vulnerable in Europe so this announcement is a very welcome step forward. And it is a tribute to Save the Children and everyone who joined the campaign that this progress has been made.”
Cameron has argued that if Britain took large numbers of refugees who had already travelled to Europe, the country would be rewarding refugees who had left the camps and so, in the long term, make it harder for Syria to be rebuilt when the civil war ends.
The British approach has been condemned as paltry in comparison with the efforts of Germany but Cameron argues that Britain has provided £1.1bn for the vast refugee camps on the borders of Syria, more than any other country except the US.
Brokenshire said: “The UK government takes its responsibility in asylum cases involving children very seriously. Ensuring their welfare and safety is at the heart of every decision made.
“The crisis in Syria and events in the Middle East, north Africa and beyond have separated a large number of refugee children from their families. The vast majority are better off staying in the region so they can be reunited with surviving family members.”