Britain is to take in 3,000 child refugees from camps in the Middle East and north Africa, but Labour argued the government should do more to help unaccompanied children in Europe.
The plan is the “largest resettlement programme in the world” for children from the Middle East and north Africa, the government said.
The announcement comes in addition to the 20,000 Syrians that the UK agreed last year to take in between then and 2020.
The Tories have faced months of pressure from migration campaigners including charity Save The Children and former Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children who have made their way to Europe.
It is facing a Commons vote on the European resettlement proposal next week, after the House of Lords overwhelmingly backed an amendment by Lord Dubs — a survivor of the second world war’s Kindertransport programme — last month.
Immigration minister James Brokenshire said that the plan to resettle unaccompanied children from the Middle East and north Africa marked an exception to the government’s principle that refugees are better off remaining in resettlement camps.
Some of the rescued children will be accompanied to the UK with their families or carers, he said in a written parliamentary statement.
“We will do all we can to ensure that children in Europe with a right to be reunited with their family in the UK are supported to do so,” Mr Brokenshire said. “However, the government remains of the view that relocation schemes within Europe risk creating unintended consequences or perverse incentives for people to put their lives into the hands of traffickers.”
Ms Cooper said the government’s announcement “doesn’t address the crisis within Europe”.
“We welcome vital support for children and families at risk in the Middle East and north Africa, but we also cannot turn our backs on the thousands of children who are going missing in Europe,” she said. “Many of these children even have family here in Britain who could care for them.”
Lord Dubs told BuzzFeed that he welcomed the proposal but he would “continue to press the government for more action” and suggested its announcement could be an attempt to “muddy the debate”.
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader, called the announcement “not good enough” and “a blatant attempt to buy off compassionate Tory MPs in a desperate last-ditch attempt to avoid a government defeat”.
“It is pure [political] calculation ahead of the vote [on Lord Dubs’ amendment],” he said.
The resettlement announcement came the day after Mr Brokenshire set out a new system to accommodate around the country lone children claiming asylum in Britain. The new system aims to ease the strain on some councils which are already caring for relatively large numbers of children, he said.
Councils have a legal duty to care for young people who arrive in their area from abroad seeking asylum. As a result, local authorities whose areas include gateways to Britain such as seaports and major airports face particular pressure on their services.
Councils are responsible for the cost of housing and schooling child refugees; many live in foster care.
Last year Britain received 3,043 asylum applications from unaccompanied under-18s, up 56 per cent on the previous year.
The government is planning to legislate to give itself the power to force reluctant councils to take their share of unaccompanied children.
Mr Brokenshire said on Wednesday that he wanted the new dispersal scheme to be “a voluntary arrangement” with the new law “underpinning that if those arrangements don’t operate in the way that we anticipate”.