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 1196.

    To all those opposing these refugees - a simple solution: an exchange program.
    500 Refugees in
    500 convicted phone hackers, tax 'avoiders' and hedgefund mis-managers out. Send them to Syria.

    Everybody wins!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1195.

    If the Conservatives said
    "We're not letting any of them in, ever"
    and stuck to it they would probably pick up several thousand votes.

    I can't see they would gain votes by admitting refugees.

    I'm surprised that David Cameron hasn't done this (yet?). While not my favourite person, he is clearly very perceptive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1194.

    Can't wait for BBC Question Time tomorrow night when the panel suck up to the audience saying this is the right thing to do

    Another cringeworthy moment

  • rate this

    Comment number 1193.

    Refugees from Syria should be given a safe haven but the UK is the wrong place for that on many levels. Why would Cameron condemn refugees to a life on benefits in cold, very wet England? It would be better to focus on restoring peace in Syria.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1192.

    Keep them in North London, if they like the countryside and see air then maybe invite them down to Brighton or Lyme Regis ?

    We haven't got any houses in Cheshire / North Wales area and you have to speak Welsh if you want to work there.

    Got that ? !

    Good !

  • rate this

    Comment number 1191.

    The "little Englander" mentality displayed by many posters here is truly sickening. I suggest you take a good hard look at yourself and ask where your humanity and morality has gone. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in desperate need, thanks partly to the UK's interference, yet you trot out the same old cliches about an overcrowded island and your personal prejudices. Shameful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1190.

    It's only a matter of time before they start letting the Taliban into the UK then when it all kicks off over here with all the warring factions going at each other our politicians will wonder why. Also how do we know that those that they are letting into the UK are the 'good guys' and not the bad guys??

  • rate this

    Comment number 1189.

    During military service, we were deployed several times to provide/protect UN/NATO safe havens in their own countries or neighbouring states,for civilians in war zones around the world; while combatants slugged it out. In most cases there was little moral or ethical difference between the warring sides and atrocities were pretty evenly shared. Scattering refugees around the world is no answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1188.

    Why do people keep saying wealthy Arab countries have more responsibility than us? Are we a different species?! Aren't we all human? These people are being raped and tortured! How anyone has the nerve to say we're a 'soft touch' for helping is beyond me. All humans have a right to peace and safety - not just the lucky ones who happen to have been born into a currently stable country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1187.

    Oh I've got a brand new leather jacket and brand new mobile phone,
    Brits they live in cardboard boxes while we get furnished homes.

    Now we've claimed asylum they treating us right

    Something tells me, this the place to be, cause here we're getting everything, we're getting it for free.

    Legal aid driving lessons central heating and free bills
    Oh we get all the benefits and you get all the bills

  • rate this

    Comment number 1186.

    David Cameron - state multiculturalism has failed.

    A rare beast - a speech from a Prime Minister I actually agreed with. But words are one thing, actions are another I guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1185.

    Now it appears that the Ukraine is on the brink of a civil war. Jump forward three years or less and I expect Mr Cameron (or another PM) will be telling us we're to expect more refugees from yet another war torn country! Would these countries take us in if we ever found ourselves in a similar position? I doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1184.

    Seeing that the biggest backers of the terrorists are in the M.East, then they should take more in than us. We too are guilty of giving the green light for this catastrophe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1183.

    I sympathise with the Syrians and all people caught up in conflict but I thought we were in an housing crisis; I thought we could not afford to pay benefits and I thought we were on the verge of bankruptcy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1182.

    we can not afford them the government must realise this but david wants the uk to look to other countries like we are so generous that we give what we cant afford to give, dont we owe billions of pounds i was told if you owe money you look after yourself and the debt before giving money"

    You win the star prize for the most convincing argument !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1181.


    We will get no thanks, and do little good.

    We should have learnt by now - no good deed goes unpunished.

    The government was right to give help in the area - not bring these people here.

    Times have changed, and we cannot be accepting refugees now. Instead, we should set up centres in zone, and divert everyone there, and help them there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1180.

    Strange_UBoat "A blog where there are more xenophobes and racists than the 500 proposed refugees". People used to respond to the use of terms like xenophobe or racist by shutting up, but I am pleased to see that the majority of people in this country, who oppose further immigration, are speaking up regardless. Politicians take note.

  • Comment number 1179.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1178.

    134. Mike Scott- "The sad thing here is that the uncontrolled immigration policies of passed & present governments have erased any sympathy that people may have had for deserving refugees."

    If you don't have sympathy for deserving refugees, please don't blame the government. That really takes the govt. blame-game to new depths. If your conscience has escaped you, you need to look for it yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1177.

    We have always been a very generous country when it comes to assisting the oppressed. The problem I have it that there are many more countries that are on the verge of going down the same road as Syria. Largely driven by radical Islamism. Where does it all end ?


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