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 1176.

    ~302 there are some relevant points as the number is small but the Arab nations should do considerably more. I don't oppose bringing refugees in but the problem is an Arab one and they have to start to fix their own problems. They understand the history the culture and are geographically in the best position to give aid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1175.

    There are people and nations that need our aid, and people and nations that don't. We've gone out of our way in recent decades to let in people we shouldn't, and give money to nations that don't need it.
    In this case this is a people we should help, and for the right reasons. Would make a nice change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1174.

    So it's only temporary and only for the 'vulnerable'. Our Dave and our Nick appear to have forgotten Article 8 ECHR which guarantees a right to a family life so as soon as these people arrive we shall have an army of legal aid lawyers suing the Government to bring the entire family over here. Thin end of wedge!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1173.

    Australia took thousands of Vietnamese boat people in during the late 60s - 70s and got their fingers burnt. These war refugees brought major social problems as they could not integrate or contribute to Australian society. If the UK govt insists on bringing refugees in then it should be temporary and they must be sent back once it is safe for them to return.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1172.

    Madness, it is not our problem, we cannot afford it and as soon as they get into the country the parasitic lawyers will contacting them to show them how to get a British passport and bring their families over.
    Is their nobody with any common sense in Westminster?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1171.

    The problem is it wont stop at 500 - the number will keep increasing! Also they will stay and never return and after making a home here they will do their best to bring all their relatives over etc. etc. I am all for helping these people but they need a peaceful stable Syria not be thrust into an alien land.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1170.


    If you want to refute the facts please enlighten us.

    Your stance seems to be, immigration has played no part in:
    Stretched services
    National security
    Social cohesion
    etc etc.

    Where does the blame lie?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1169.

    We should not take any. I'd rather spend the money on the UK's poor and old than provide homes and incomes for Syrians where we really don't know who's good and who's bad. We do know that they are not UK citizens and that our primary responsibility is to people that are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1168.

    'Now if only, if only! our Government would watch the foreign aid money, and STOP giving where it is going into corrupt peoples pockets and not where it is intended'

    Where it is intended eh? You mean the last gov't paying foreign aid 'consultants' in excess of £1bn to make sure the money went where it was supposed to or the current one for continuing the debacle?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1167.

    No one wants to leave their country most of all Syrians to come to travel to places where they are not wanted despite international obligations Stop agonizing- best to look at the root cause and how British policy has fanned the flames of conflict( as in other countries in the region) then we have endless refugees. This will not end. Stop arming fighters, call for disarming and safe passage now.!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1166.

    "We have made available £600m, which makes us the second largest humanitarian donor". Since the BBC always trumpets its balanced view, let's have a graph of the amount of real financial help other countries have given.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1165.

    'Hundreds' is a nice meaningless figure. 200 is 'hundreds'. Britain lacks compassion and is increasingly racist. The negative reaction above to any comment that suggests we are not doing enough speaks volumes. I wait my turn

  • rate this

    Comment number 1164.

    @1153.Polly On The Shore, and a lot more xenophobic, introverted and generally has a downer on foreigners. There are someplaces that have only just started to accept equal rights of non-whites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1163.

    Where are theses people going to live? We have hundreds of recently arrived eastern Europeans already sleeping rough on the streets in this country!
    Shouldn’t we house those 1st before bringing in more?
    We don’t really care about these people do we? this is all about looking good around the globe. “look at us aren’t we a moral people” This is just fake sincerity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1162.

    Take in refugees, yes but under UN Charter they must be returned to there Country of origin when war or conflict is over. We cannot afford to keep taking in people. We do NOT have a finite resource to keep them, which is sad, but hey business has made the world the way it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1161.

    Australia & Canada are accepting less that 2000 !

    Can I claim asylum there ?!

    And all because British middle class people are determined to prove how middle class they are.

    I notice this is the latest 'meme' or sound bite . .

    " Because that's what Britain does " . .

    why can't we have some clever people in government who think for themselves ? Instead of just repeating one anothers claptrap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1160.

    A blog where there are more xenophobes and racists than the 500 proposed refugees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1159.

    I see a new tv program for C4, Syria street!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1158.

    Would these people not be better placed in a country that they can identify more with culturally? I'm afraid that middle eastern culture is a world away from the cultures of Europe, North America & Far East Asia etc. As we have seen in the past, people from these backgrounds can struggle to adapt to our language, culture, customs and way of life. They become insular and closed off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1157.

    This war continues because it is funded by outsiders.
    Assad's Alawites / Shias / Minority coalition is supported by Iran and the Russians; the Sunnis are supported by Saudi Arabia.

    I suggest that these migrants are taken in by these countries, if anyone.

    We have nothing to do with this place.


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