Campaigners have vowed to battle on after suffering a legal setback in their fight to force the government to open the door to more child refugees.
A debate has been raging for several months about the true extent to which Britain has capacity to help unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, many of whom are currently in camps or on the streets. Help Refugees, a charity working with displaced people across the continent, has said the process by which the government calculated the number of children it could help was "fundamentally flawed".
The government has, to date, offered to bring 480 children to the UK, a figure it says was reached after consulting with local authorities. But several councils have come forward to say their offers of help have been ignored or rejected. A VICE investigation in May of this year found hundreds of places for refugee children had been offered by councils but did not appear to have been counted. In total, councils said they had offered to accept 1,572 more children than they were currently supporting.
Help Refugees has been fighting a court case against the Home Office, arguing that its consultation with local authorities was unlawful and that the numbers counted as part of that process bore no relation to councils' actual capacity to help.
The charity has been calling on the government to reopen the "Dubs amendment", the scheme under which unaccompanied refugee children are brought to the UK. (The scheme is named after the Labour peer Alf Dubs, who secured the commitment to help an unspecified number of refugee children as an amendment to the government's Immigration Bill.) Campaigners had initially hoped the government would offer spaces to 3,000 refugee children and have been calling on ministers to commit to helping at least this number.
However, in a hearing lasting just a couple of minutes this morning, the High Court ruled against Help Refugees, finding: "There is nothing in this which can show that the consultation process or the consideration of the results was unlawful."
Responding to claims that the government had not acted quickly enough to relocate the children it had offered to help, the court said: "We are not prepared to hold that arrangements have not been made as soon as possible, for this is not something within the control of the UK government."
Help Refugees said it will appeal against the court's ruling. Josie Naughton, founder of Help Refugees, said she was "bitterly disappointed" by the result. "These places for children are needed now more than ever," she added. "There are young unaccompanied children sleeping rough in Europe completely unprepared for the coming winter."
While the ruling will come as a significant blow, the case has already achieved a couple of notable victories. The government had initially argued that its duties under the Dubs Amendment could be met by offering help to children who it was already obliged to help under other EU laws. The Home Office had also sought to offer help to just 350 children, but was forced to increase this figure to 480 after acknowledging that it had managed to overlook 130 places offered by councils in the south west of England due to an "administrative error".
Rosa Curling, a human rights lawyer at Leigh Day who is representing Help Refugees in the case, said: "This litigation has already brought about very significant advances. Our clients continue to believe that the way in which the Dubs amendment has been implemented is seriously defective."
Regardless of the legality of the consultation, there were immediate calls for the government to go back to councils to get an accurate picture of their ability to help. Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, said: "The government may have won in a court of law on a technicality, but they are losing in the court of public opinion. This ruling is bitterly disappointing, but it does not stop the government re-consulting with local authorities."
Lord Dubs, who came to the UK as a child refugee fleeing from the Nazis, said the fight to persuade the government to help more children would continue. "This result is extremely disappointing, but we must continue to campaign for the rights of the children that need us," he said. "Help Refugees are planning to appeal this decision, and I will continue to work alongside them to make sure Britain does the decent thing and help our fair share of lone child refugees."