By Lin Taylor (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
LONDON - The British government on Thursday defended its decision to end a programme to take in unaccompanied child migrants less than a year after its introduction, saying the scheme encouraged human trafficking.
Under a change to immigration law known as the Dubs amendment, which was passed by parliament last year, Britain agreed to accept "vulnerable" child migrants who had arrived in the European Union before March 20, 2016.
But Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill said late on Wednesday the government would scrap the scheme once the number of arrivals reached 350, sparking criticism from aid agencies, opposition lawmakers and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"The government has always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children," Home Secretary (interior minister) Amber Rudd said in parliament on Thursday.
"It acts as a pull. It encourages the people traffickers," she said referring to the Dubs amendment.
Across the floor from Rudd in parliament, Yvette Cooper, a senior lawmaker in the opposition Labour party, said the government's decision would drive child migrants into the arms of smugglers as they attempt to move on from countries such as Italy, Greece and France.
"The Home Secretary knows that what she's doing it shameful," Cooper told parliament. "There are still so many children in need of help."
"(Children are) heading back into the arms of people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings."
Maya Mailer, Oxfam's head of humanitarian policy, also expressed disappointment over the decision, accusing the government of "wriggling out of its responsibilities".
Reacting to the news, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who has pledged to personally take in a family of Syrian refugees at his official London residence, said he was "saddened and shocked" by the decision to end the scheme.
Conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have forced more than 1 million people to head to Europe, fuelling the region's largest migrant crisis since World War Two.
Around 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy alone in 2016, according to the United Nations children agency UNICEF.
On Monday, counter-extremism organisation Quilliam said militant groups were offering money, transport and food to desperate lone migrant children to drive recruitment.
Aid agencies urged Britain to do more to ensure the safety of unaccompanied child migrants.
"(The UK government) must ... tackle the issue of lone children, stranded in Europe and right now, preyed on by traffickers and suffering the gravest forms of exploitation," said Kirsty McNeil, Save the Children Director of Policy and Campaigns.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)