UK to act with 'urgency' over Syrian refugees says PM


David Cameron and Ed Miliband on UK helping Syrian refugees

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The UK will act "with the greatest urgency" in offering the "most needy people" in Syrian refugee camps a "home in our country", says David Cameron.

The prime minister told MPs he wanted to "particularly help those who have been victims of sexual violence".

Deputy PM Nick Clegg said on Tuesday torture victims, elderly and disabled people would also get priority.

The government expects the number of refugees accepted to be in the hundreds but has not set a specific target.

Syria refugee camp Germany is taking 11,000 refugees

The UK's resettlement programme is to be separate from the ongoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees scheme which has seen Germany commit to admitting more than 10,000 Syrian refugees and France take 500.

The government has been reluctant to admit any Syrian refugees to the UK, preferring to focus its humanitarian aid on refugees in the region.

But a fear of looking hard hearted and the threat of parliamentary defeat on Wednesday changed minds in Downing Street.

The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said Britain had a moral responsibility to help and several hundred refugees would now be able to come.

It is not clear where the refugees will go or how long they will stay but it is expected they will get temporary visas that will be reviewed after three years.

The government is still refusing to take part in a resettlement scheme run by the UN high commissioner for refugees.

But the agency welcomed the government's offer and said it would help officials identify the most vulnerable people.

Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs the UK's goal was a political settlement that would "bring an end to the violence in Syria", allowing Syrians to "return to their homes and livelihoods in peace".

But the UK had agreed with the UNHCR office in London to set up a "vulnerable person relocation scheme", which will run in parallel to the agency's own refugee scheme, with the aim of resettling those at the "greatest risk" in the UK.

The programme will focus on individual cases "where evacuation from the region is the only option", said the home secretary, and will "prioritise help for survivors of torture and women and children in need of medical care", as recommended by the UNHCR. There would also be a focus on rescuing the victims of sexual violence, Mrs May told MPs.

"This is in the spirit of the UNHCR programme but it is not technically part of it," she added, saying it would provide "greater flexibility".

She said 3,500 Syrian refugee asylum seekers were already in the UK.

Ahead of that statement Labour leader Ed Miliband welcomed the move to take refugees and urged the PM to act with urgency.

Mr Cameron replied: "We will act with the greatest urgency because, when it comes to Syria, we have acted with the greatest urgency throughout.

"We have made available £600m, which makes us the second largest humanitarian donor, we provided food for 188,000 people, clean water for almost a million and medical consultations for almost a quarter of a million.

"We will be coming forward with a scheme to help the most needy people in those refugee camps and offer them a home in our country."

During exchanges in the Commons on Monday, the government faced criticism from MPs of all political parties for declining to participate in the UN-led scheme.

The deputy prime minister's announcement on Tuesday, and the PM's comments, pre-empted a Labour-led debate on the issue, where the government was facing the prospect of a Commons defeat over its refusal to sign up to the UNHCR initiative.

Syrian refugee children play at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria The UK says half of Syria's nine million population have been displaced

Mr Clegg said: "The coalition government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria. The £600m we have provided makes us the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in the world.

"But as the conflict continues to force millions of Syrians from their homes, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can.

"We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help.

Chart showing country pledges on Syrian refugees

"The UN High Commission for Refugees - which backs our new resettlement programme - has said the highest priority should go to women and girls who have experienced or are at risk of sexual violence; the elderly; survivors of torture and individuals with disabilities, so that's who we'll target.

"Sadly we cannot provide safety for everyone who needs it, but we can reach out to some of those who need it most."

The BBC understands the refugees will be given temporary visas allowing them to stay for at least three years.

The visas will then be reviewed on a case-by-case basis taking into account personal circumstances and the situation in Syria.

The UNHC's representative in the UK, Roland Schilling, said the government move was "an encouraging and important step, reaffirming the UK's commitment and contribution to international relief efforts".

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper: ''It is a good thing that the government has completely reversed its position''

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government's move was a "big reversal" but that "compassion and common sense have won through".

"Vulnerable Syrian refugees, torture victims, abandoned children and those struggling to cope or survive in the camps desperately need sanctuary and Britain has a moral obligation to help," she said.

But she said the UK should be working with the UN to decide on numbers rather than setting up a "parallel programme" of its own.

Refugees fleeing Syria
Map showing the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries

The move was welcomed by MPs from all sides of the Commons, former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell saying it gave the UK flexibility to help those whose suffering had been the most "grievous".

But Conservative Brooks Newmark - an expert on Syria - said numbers should be limited and those countries not making such a big contribution to the aid effort should be taking in more refugees than the UK.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage also backed the move, saying a clear distinction must be made between genuine refugees from persecution and economic migrants.

The Refugee Council's Maurice Wren said the move had been a "long time coming" but the UK was standing up for an important principle.

And Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: "This move is long overdue but of course it's never too late to do the right thing."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    No 50 - so so true.
    Where is the money they send these countries and will be giving these people coming from. OUR pockets. Yes we have floods over here, any help to them - NO, just your piece today about telling farmers THEY should do more to stop floods by storing water!.
    What a farce, what a farcical Government, in fact all of them in Parliament.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    As I said before, yes we should let in some orphaned children from Syria, the way this lot are cutting costs for our own born and bred, I wonder which country will take some of us in. I may be wrong but I thought this coalition encouraged the so called arab uprising to get rid of certain leaders in certain middle east countries. We need to vote out this lot, something of the night about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I despair of this country.
    Is this the sort of country my Grandfather and his brothers went to fight in the trench's for, I'm sure they wouldn't have bothered if they could see what a shambles it is now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    This is a conflict between two branches of Islam, resettlement should be with Syria's neighbours where culturally they will be at home. The Gulf states should be the aid providers, this is an ethnic not a natural disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    If this is to be allowed by our hand wringing politicians let them be Syrian Christians for they are the most repressed and oppressed people in the Middle East. Once again this conflict is a struggle between Islamic factions

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Temporary.... hmmm. I don't think people believe that word any more. People will stay permantley. The problem is that uncontrolled imigration has of course made us less tolerant.. many people have had enough with the pressure on housing, education and health. With open borders the thousands going to other EU countries could end up here anyway. What are the rich middle east countries doing to help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Why does our Government consistanly ignores the wishes of the people. All I could hear on the commuter run this morning was 'why us again' the radio phone-in programmes are similar.
    It is noticeable that the British Government supports countries when the populace wants to be heard such as in the Ukraine but when is our Government really going to listen to the British public

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    37. Conger
    Wow, have they forgotten we are still seriously broke and one of the most indebted counties in the world as % of GDP.
    Maybe the Syrians can have a concert & send us some aid....

    Seriously, look at the rest of the world & tell me with a straight face that we're broke.

    P.S About 3/4 of this HYS should read the UN convention on refugees. We signed that in 1951

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Foolish political posturing, keeping up with the Joneses (or Germans in this case). The cost of relocating say 300 refugees from Syria to the UK would help ten times many more Syrians in the refugee camps. It is just about making a headline to show our leaders have compassion and principles (a very expensive one at that).

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    3 Minutes ago
    I am amazed at the cold hearted attitude of so many. Half of the refugees are children, perhaps we should just open work houses for them

    Do not worry Motty ,Tory Boy somewhere is working on your idea. Cheap Labour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    They would be welcome as refugees if Governments had not already made a rod for their own backs with immigration. The country is full. The infrastructure cannot cope. We cannot afford the facilities needed. We can't even afford to dredge our rivers to prevent flooding. Has it flooded in Holland, no & they have much more below sea level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    My Own Grand father fled to the UK as a Jewish Refuge from Eastern Europe Prior to the First World War on His own Aged 14 His parents having been killed. He went on to fight with distinction for the British Army
    There appear to be a chunk of the UK population who would have refused Him entry .
    They should be ashamed of the contempt they hold for Britain's long standing status as a safe haven.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Perhaps Cleggy will house them in one of his homes, just a thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    A few hundred refugees coming here will not solve the big problem and would set a precedence that is unwanted by most people in the UK. When so many refugees (and indeed asylum seekers) are affected, they need to stay in their home country and protest/fight rather than run away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    Once again politicians ignore the public on immigration

    The original government policy of keeping people in their home region is sound.

    These people don't speak English or have a common culture

    Asylum seekers must stay in the region of their home birth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The Syrian Muslims are basically economic migrants taking advantage of Syria's situation because they are leaving Muslim countries safe havens for far wealthier non Muslim countries by the boat loads and even drowning in the process. And their deaths are caused by the UN and the human rights activists for encouraging such dangerous trips by condemning nations who are trying to force them back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I'm sorry for them, I really am, but why is always us?

    Could we have a list of how many refugees are being resettled in the wealthy oil-rich countries of the Gulf?

    No, don't bother, I think I already know the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    They have been talking about taking Christians who are being persecuted and are in fear for their lives. Fair enough, but the only problem with that is the Christian population mostly supports Assad, while it's the Islamic fundamentalists (who we are seemingly supporting by proxy) are the ones threatening them. Do you see the irony Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron ?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    "But a fear of looking hard hearted and the threat of parliamentary defeat on Wednesday changed minds in Downing Street".

    Hardly the correct reasons to base a decision on , fear and threat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Wow, have they forgotten we are still seriously broke and one of the most indebted counties in the world as % of GDP.

    Politicians ego demand Business as usual i guess?


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