UK Politics

David Cameron 'open minded' on Syrian refugees, says No 10

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "Let's not pretend that some sort of international quota system... is going to solve this problem - it isn't"

David Cameron is "open minded" about the UK accepting Syrian refugees if a compelling case is made for resettling them, Downing Street has said.

It follows a move by Labour to force a vote on the issue, which could see Mr Cameron defeated if he opposes it.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has also been pressing Mr Cameron to change his stance.

A source close to Mr Clegg said: "Nick has been banging on about this in government for weeks."

"He is pretty confident it will happen and soonish."

Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said Britain has a "moral responsibility" to take part in the multi-national effort to resettle refugees. He suggested refugees who had been injured in the fighting could be given priority.

The UNHCR - the United Nations refugee agency - is appealing for Western countries to resettle 30,000 of those trapped in the region around Syria.

Mr Cameron has said the UK had taken in more than 1,000 Syrian asylum seekers and is fulfilling its "moral obligations to the people of Syria".

Shifting position?

He told MPs on Wednesday that the government was helping "very vulnerable children who are ill - including a child in a British hospital today".

But he expressed doubts about what he called the UNHCR's "quota system" for Syrian refugees, which he said could result in some countries thinking they had fulfilled their obligation by taking "a few hundred people".

He repeated that message in an interview with BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston, saying the UK was leading the world through its large aid programme to the region.

Speaking at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, where he is attending the World Economic Forum, the prime minister said British taxpayers' money was feeding, clothing and providing shelter to hundreds of thousands of people, adding: "We should be proud of that."

A Downing Street source said earlier that the prime minister would be prepared to shift his position "if the facts change or someone makes a compelling case he would be prepared to review that".

MPs are due to vote on the issue on Wednesday amid signs Mr Cameron could face defeat were he to oppose the motion.

Labour has tabled a motion calling on the government to take part in the UNHCR refugee appeal.

'Vulnerable people'

The BBC's Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith said a number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs had indicated they would vote in favour of the Labour motion.

Labour's shadow international development minister Gavin Shuker suggested the UK should initially resettle 500 Syrian refugees - the same number as France, in addition to those arriving in the country as asylum seekers.

"You can not just rely on asylum seekers coming in to meet your quota. What you need is to get the most vulnerable people and make a difference for them," he told the BBC's Daily Politics.

He denied suggestions Labour was scared of calling for greater numbers of refugees in case it damaged the party's opinion poll standing, saying most people were in favour of giving refuge to vulnerable people.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The UN says more than nine million Syrians are in need of "urgent aid"

Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, told BBC Radio 4's World at One the prime minister was "absolutely right to look at some cases".

Be he added that letting Syrians into the UK was "not going to resolve this catastrophic situation", and the wish of the "vast majority" was "to return to their homeland".

Mayor of London Boris Johnson said Britain has a "long honourable" tradition of helping people fleeing persecution and must "do what it can" to help.

But he said it would "make sense" for refugees to be resettled near to the country they have come from.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced that search-and-rescue equipment worth £700,000 is to be given to local councils in Syria.

Nine 25-man teams will be equipped under the plan, which includes the sending of radios, cutting gear, uniforms and protective gear such as helmets and goggles.

Mr Hague said the gift had been scrutinised to ensure sending it would not breach any of the UK's international obligations and the recipients have been "carefully selected to prevent equipment being given to those involved in extremist activities or human rights violations".