WILTSHIRE campaigners are urging the Government to maintain the legal right of refugee children to join their families in the UK, protecting them from people smugglers and avoiding dangerous Channel crossings.

The Government is set to stop family reunion, currently protected by European Union law, after the Brexit transition period.

This will increase the chance that children will attempt unsafe ways to seek safety, or remain at increasing risk in refugee camps, according to Shelley Rawlins, co-founder of Corsham-based Wiltshire For Refugees.

Mrs Rawlins, 40, from Corsham, is urging Wiltshire MPs to support the Immigration Bill when it returns to the House of Commons in October.

She is a local supporter of Safe Passage International, a London-based charity helping refugee children to transfer legally from Europe.

She said: “Children who have lost their parents, their homes, their schools and endured traumatic journeys need the love and support of their remaining family desperately.

"It is shameful that more children will be forced to risk their lives under lorries or in flimsy dinghies to be with their families in the UK if the government fails to protect family reunion rights. We are talking about basic human rights here, the right to a family life”.

Jennine Walker, head of UK Legal at Safe Passage International, said “It is disastrous that the Government is not preserving a legal route that has protected people from smugglers and traffickers, by giving them a safe way to reach their relatives and start rebuilding their lives.

"It is dangerous and illogical to expect a child to sleep rough in Calais when they have a parent, sibling, aunt or uncle here in the UK.”

Wiltshire faith leaders, including the Bishops of Clifton, Rumsey and Salisbury and West Wiltshire Multi-faith Forum and Wiltshire Islamic Cultural Centre representatives, are among more than 250 UK faith leaders who have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to provide safe routes for child refugees to seek asylum. So far, they have received no response.

In August they wrote: “More than 1,600 unaccompanied children remain stuck on the Greek islands."They have escaped war, persecution and poverty only to find themselves now trapped in desperate conditions…with many children already unwell, they are also at heightened risk of Covid-19 infection [and of] trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence.” Wiltshire Council is among many local authorities who have already pledged support for child refugees.

The council has pledged ten places a year for unaccompanied children for the next 10 years. Unfortunately, the Government has not taken up these offers, Mrs Rawlins said.

A recent IPSOS Mori poll found that 79 per cent of the British public support child refugees being able to reunite with parents in the UK and over half support them being able to join siblings, aunts, uncles or parents.

In May, the government published a draft Brexit proposal to replace family reunion but lawyers have described the text as a ‘blank cheque to people smugglers’ that strips people of their family reunion rights and makes the system entirely discretionary.

With time running out for a UK-EU agreement, in June a cross-party group of MPs tried to table an amendment to protect family reunion rules in the Immigration Bill, but the government voted it down.

Wiltshire supporters of child refugees are angry and disappointed that despite Michelle Donelan MP for Chippenham writing to them in March to say “ the principle of family unity is so crucial to those refugees fleeing from things like war, famine and persecution” she voted against this Immigration Bill amendment and failed to protect family reunion in June.

Now that it has been recently announced that the EU has rejected the UK’s proposal on family reunion, the campaign group are hoping that family reunion protections will be secured in legislation when the Bill returns to the Lords, with Lord Alf Dubs leading efforts to rally peers in support of family reunion.

Local supporters are hoping Wiltshire MPs will also help protect child refugees when the Bill is back in the House of Commons in October.