UK agrees to accept unaccompanied Syrian children. Why now?

After one failed vote, a plan to offer five-year "humanitarian visas" to an unspecified number of children who arrived in Greece, Italy and France before March 20 is moving forward.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Syrian refugee children chant slogans behind a fence at the Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey on April 23, 2016. British Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure from lawmakers on Wednesday and said Britain would take in an unspecified number of Syrian refugee children who have arrived in Greece, Italy, or France before March 20.

Britain will now take in some unaccompanied children from Syria who have made their way to Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron's office said Wednesday, bowing to political pressure to approve a policy some compare to the famous "kindertransports" during World War II. 

The Conservative government said children would be eligible if they registered in Greece, Italy or France before March 20, 2016, the week the European Union struck a controversial deal to return many migrants to Turkey. It is unclear how many children would be impacted by the government's change of heart. 

Britain's plan comes amid growing concerns about what happens to unaccompanied children once they arrive in Europe. While some may be reuniting with their families, others could fall prey to traffickers, according to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 

In Germany, for example, nearly 6,000 refugee children and minors were reported missing last year, the country's interior ministry reports.

"I trust the prime minister will be true to his word and move swiftly to ensure the Home Office works closely with local authorities to find foster families to give these young people a stable and secure home," Labour politician Alf Dubs, a former Member of Parliament, told lawmakers.

Lord Dubs had pushed for the bill, citing his own experience of having come to Britain from Czechoslovakia via the 1930s "kindertransports" of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Details of the plan are still being worked out. Children, who will possibly selected by aid workers in Europe, will be given "humanitarian visas" that let them stay for five years in Britain, the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg reports. There may also be negotiations between the government and local councils about how many children they could accommodate.

Estimating the program's impact, one person described as close to the negotiations told the BBC that "if this is done properly it will mean thousands" of refugees. 

The British government's decision comes as Germany has seen a decline in the number of asylum seekers flooding its borders as other Balkan states have adopted more restrictive policies.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced calls to stop accepting refugees, she has reaffirmed her commitment to carrying out the deal with Turkey, which the two countries argue is helping relieve the pressures of the refugee crisis in Europe.

"As far as I see it, Merkel is the most sensitive and objective European leader when it comes to Syrian refugees," Hasan Kara, mayor of the Turkish city of Kilis, whose population has doubled because of Syrian refugees, told The Wall Street Journal.

In Britain, the plan to allow some children to stay came as a political compromise.

The proposal had previously been rejected by Conservative lawmakers and was set for a second vote before Britain's House of Commons next week, which the government might have lost, the BBC reports.

Mr. Cameron told MPs that while the government will still maintain its existing commitment to support refugee camps in neighboring countries, "we are going to go round the local authorities to see what we can do."

Some rights groups said they were waiting to hear more of the details of the plan, but others welcomed the prime minister's decision.

"The prime minister has today offered a lifeline to these vulnerable children," Tanya Steele, chief executive of Save the Children, told The Guardian, "and we will work with the government and the UN to ensure that these commitments are rapidly implemented so that thousands of lone, vulnerable children can reach safety in the UK in the coming months."

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