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UK Politics

Government U-turn over Syria: 500 of most vulnerable refugees to be let into Britain

Nick Clegg announces decision after campaign by The Independent

About 500 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees will be allowed to enter Britain, the Government has announced as it completed its U-turn on the issue.

Nick Clegg, who has been pressing David Cameron for weeks to admit hundreds of refugees, said the UK would open its doors to women and girls who had experienced or were at risk from sexual violence, the elderly, the disabled and survivors of torture.

Mr Cameron overruled objections from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who wants to do everything to ensure the Conservatives meet their target to reduce net migration below 100,000 by next year’s general election. “He realised that, although we are the good guys and the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria in the world, we were in danger of looking like the villains,” said one Government insider.

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, which co-ordinated two open letters to Mr Cameron published in The Independent, said: “This isn’t about party politics, it’s about compassion and the Refugee Council is delighted the UK Government looks set to deploy a full spectrum of solutions in addressing the greatest refugee crisis of our time.”

He added that The Independent deserved “the highest praise” for its sustained coverage of the issue.

Britain will not join the UNHRC programme to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees, which Mrs May warned would set a precedent, so it will not fix a formal quota. But the UNHRC has backed the Government’s move and will work closely with it to identify refugees in urgent need of help. “We are not focused on a target, we’re focused on helping the most vulnerable,” said a Whitehall source. About 500 Syrians are expected to come to the UK over the next year.

Mr Clegg said: “The Coalition Government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria.

“We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help. Sadly we cannot provide safety for everyone who needs it, but we can reach out to some of those who need it most.”

The Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement takes the heat out of a Commons debate on the issue today called by Labour. The Government’s previous hard line had raised the prospect of an embarrassing defeat amid all-party criticism of its stance.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, who led the demands for a U-turn, said: “Compassion and common sense have prevailed over government and ministerial resistance.”

She added: “Given the considerable flexibility in the UN programme for countries to set their own priorities, numbers and security checks, the benefits of not running parallel bureaucracy and the value of being able to encourage other countries to follow suit, the Government would be best to sign up with the UN.”

She said ministers now need to confirm that the 500 would not be at the expense of the 750 refugees the UK accepts every year. She called for refugees to be exempt from the Tories’ migration target

Syamend Farhan, a Syrian refugee living in Manchester, welcomed the Government’s move, saying: “I am very happy to hear that because I lived what they are living… The first thing they are going to escape is hunger, and the risk of dying. Getting a passport in Syria at the moment is impossible. People aren’t able even to move to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. I was lucky, I already had a passport.”

The 21-year-old student added that even taking a few “from the mass of those suffering means something”. He said: “If other countries do the same then little by little the suffering will be reduced”.

Timetable of a U-turn

December 26: The Independent reveals that David Cameron is under pressure to reverse the Government’s rejection of UNHCR request to allow some Syrian refugees to come to Britain. Labour calls for 400-500  Syrians to be allowed in.

January 6: Nick Clegg defends the Government’s policy but says that more than 1,000 Syrians have been allowed entry as asylum-seekers in past year. Refugee groups point out that most of the 2.4m people in camps in neighbouring countries have no prospect of reaching Britain to claim asylum.

January 18: Letter signed by 25 aid agencies and refugee groups, published in The Independent, urges the Government to join 18 western countries backing the UNHCR’s resettlement programme. They ask: “ How can we call on Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open to refugees if we keep our own under lock and key?”

January 20: Labour tables emergency Commons question. Mark Harper, Immigration Minister, comes under fire from Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs after saying that joining UNHCR scheme would be  a “token” gesture.

January 22: David Cameron softens the Government’s line when Ed Miliband raises the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions. The PM says he is ready to see some of the most vulnerable refugees come to UK. To keep up the pressure, Labour announces Commons debate and vote a week later.

January 23: The Independent reveals that Nick Clegg has been pushing behind the scenes for weeks for the Government to admit hundreds of Syrians, and is now “hopeful” of persuading the Conservatives.

January 24: Fifty-five peers from all parties call for Britain to sign up to the UN programme. In a letter published in The Independent, they say the scheme is a “moral imperative” and the only “durable solution”.

January 26: William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, tells the BBC that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing to announce plans to help “particularly vulnerable” refugees.

January 27: Mrs May confirms that an announcement will be made before Wednesday's Commons debate called by Labour.

January 28: Nick Clegg confirms that hundreds of Syrian refugees will be allowed in, including women and girls at risk of sexual violence; the elderly; the disabled and survivors of torture.