LONDON — A former child refugee, Alfred Dubs was elated in May when he helped force the British government to accept unaccompanied refugee children from other European countries.
Less than a year later, the Czechoslovakia-born Dubs, a member of the opposition Labour Party, is trying to prevent the closure of the refugee program he helped spearhead.
The British government announced quietly Wednesday that it would limit the number of lone child refugees brought in from Europe under the “Dubs Amendment” to 350 — far fewer than the 3,000 that campaigners wanted.
The rollback, however, reflects forces that resonate across the West as many countries tighten immigration policies, rethink the size of their welcome mat for refugees, fret over perceived threats to their culture — and watch a landmark court battle play out in the United States over the Trump administration’s entry ban on refugees and on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said at a news conference Thursday that President Trump’s ban was “wrong” and “divisive” and not something that Britain would do. She also insisted that Britain’s approach to child refugees is “absolutely right” and said that Britain is helping refugees from Syria.
“What we are doing in terms of refugees is absolutely right, on top, of course, of the significant financial support and humanitarian aid we are giving to refugees in the region of Syria — a commitment of 2.3 billion pounds, the second-biggest bilateral donor,” she said.
Dubs, whose father was Jewish and who entered Britain at age 6 on one of the famed “Kindertransports” out of Nazi-occupied Europe, disagreed. “They have no right to stop it at any point on any basis. It’s going against the whole tenor of the parliamentary debate,” Dubs, 84, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Britain is not the only country in Europe wrestling with its stance on immigration and refugees. In Germany, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing an election this year, has recently taken a tougher position on deporting rejected asylum seekers. Germany deported 620 unaccompanied minors in 2016.
Amber Rudd, Britain’s home secretary, defended the government’s decision, telling Parliament on Thursday that the initiative risked encouraging traffickers and suggested that local councils did not have the capacity to accept more children.
In a statement Wednesday, the British government said that 200 children had arrived from France and that 150 more were expected next month. A spokesman for the Home Office said that a total of 350 children would be accepted under the Dubs program.
Last year, Dubs sponsored an amendment to the government’s immigration bill that required Britain to make arrangements for the safe passage of unaccompanied refugee children who arrived in the European Union before March 20, 2016. The government never agreed to a specific number, but Dubs originally proposed that it take 3,000 children.
In a passionate address in the House of Commons on Thursday, Yvette Cooper, a Labour politician who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, urged the British government to reconsider.
“Where does it say that instead of the 3,000 that Parliament debated that we will only help one-tenth of that number?” she said. “Britain can do better than this.”
Some have suggested that by limiting the number of refugees allowed in by this route, May is moving Britain in the direction of Trump’s immigration policies.
“May’s treatment of refugee children is appalling, and shows how close she has moved to the policies of Trump,” the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said in a statement.
But Rudd insisted that the United Kingdom was not turning its back on vulnerable children, and that it would focus on supporting those in Syria and the region.
“The U.K. has a strong reputation, in Europe and internationally, for looking after the most vulnerable that will continue,” she said. “We have a different approach to where the most vulnerable are. We believe that they are in the region. That’s why we have made a pledge to accept 3,000 children from the region and we are committed to delivering on that. They are the most vulnerable.”
Campaigners have indicated that the decision to end the Dubs scheme could face a legal challenge.