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 1396.


    I never gave any information as I asked a question and therefore do not need to state a source. If you require any other post to be explained to you please feel free to ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1395.

    Surely humanitarian efforts should be given to Syrians by Britain in countries that are close to Syria so when this conflict is resolved they can go back into Syria and rebuild it, rather than transport them thousands of miles away from their countrymen and culture that they are familiar with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1394.

    No matter how hard we try there is no way to fit millions of refugees into this small island. Imagine the misery of those on the housing list who will see themselves moved further and further down that list, their childrens' schools admitting more and more non-speakers of English and their benefits cut yet thrown at incomers left, right and centre. You can't give what you haven't got..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1393.

    Nick. Please explain why we have a moral obligation to help?

    Look at the list of refugee pledges by country and the very countries who are playing out their proxy factional war in Syria are conspicuous by their absence. So Lebanon by virtue of it's proximity to Syria gets 800,000+ while the gulf states who are arming the 'rebels' haven't given a bean in aid or taken any refugees.Splendid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1392.

    1383. MassMediocrity

    'Ivory towered liberals, like you, .....I guess you'll be opening your home'

    Yes. Three spare bedrooms. Already begun to make enquiries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1391.

    How long before the "needy" refugees take up Jehad against us, the decadent westerners
    Probably not long - about as long as it takes them to find out that we were arming the insurgents who are refusing to negotiate and are committing war crimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1390.

    How come the Government can act with urgency to help Syrians yet their own countrymen`s plight in the floods is ignored for weeks.
    Any one know how much disaster relief has been received from abroad or whether the Red Cross and British based charities are helping the people of Somerset?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1389.

    'So you want Israel to take in thousands of people..a country the size of Wales which Europeans are at the forefront of trying to cut into even smaller pieces and handing them over to create a 22nd Arab nation.'

    The pieces are home to the Palestinian people. They have the same right to a homeland as the Israelis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1388.

    To see how out of touch the BBC and Establishment are with regard to public opinion just read the Editors picks.

    But hey who cares what the tax cattle think.

    2015 bring it on, then lets turn our attention to the fee, lets let Auntie swim with the sharks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1387.

    I would rather my tax money go to help foreign refugees that British born scroungers. Go down your dole office and see who's claiming unemployment benefit. Quelle Surprise. BRITISH BORN people who can't wait for their benefits to arrive so they can waste it. My 3 months unemployment a few years ago was soul destroying because I was one of the only people there who seemed to be looking for a job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1386.

    @1367 Conger
    "I guess men are not equal in this case"

    No,I'm afraid they're not. Was it women who started this war? Is it women committing the atrocities?
    Apart from the odd female suicide bomber,the violence is always perpetrated by men.

  • Comment number 1385.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1384.

    There has been an active movement within politics and media to blur the traditional categories of imigration. We used to have:

    Economic Migrants
    Illegal Imigrants

    The first was always a yes, the second was likewise welcome with the third being resisted.

    Now we simply view 'imigrants', with no qualification or distinction.

    We should offer what help we can to these poor souls.

  • Comment number 1383.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1382.

    To all you bleeding hearts out there who criticise the rest of us for not wanting this, urgently contact the government and offer a room in your houses to take these people in. But make sure that once peace breaks out in the Middle East (and that has not happened in my lifetime) you take the responsibility for driving them to the airport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1381.

    This country is over a trillion in debt and continues to borrow hundreds of billions each year to pay day to day expenses.

    We don't earn enough to live at our current level, or to pay back what we have borrowed yet there are people who say we are rich!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1380.

    I wonder, if the roles were reversed - would these Arab/Islamic states give us refuge, ship us over to their countries, help us financially & medically...

    Judging by the total apathy and inaction of the UAE & other very rich middle eastern states - I somewhat doubt it.

    Feel free to rate this comment down.
    Like that actually means anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1379.

    We will act 'with the greatest urgeny' or in otherwords only when forced to do so by the opposition and his own back-benchers

  • rate this

    Comment number 1378.

    @ 1368.Graham

    Please give your source of this information. A study or report that you must have read that links every immigrant and muslim to extremism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1377.

    Can we please challenge at least one myth being propagated in this forum.

    It isn't just 'Champagne Socialists' that applaud the decision to accept our international responsibilities and take in a small number of abused, disabled and elderly Syrian refugees.

    I sincerely believe the majority of Conservatives (as opposed to the swivel-eyed rump mouthing off on here) will fully support the decision.


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