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UK Politics

'No room at the inn': Britain condemned for turning its back on Syria's refugees

Aid agencies join Labour in demanding Coalition show support for victims of civil war as policy defies UN appeal and distances Britain from 16 leading nations

The Government has been accused of adopting a “no room at the inn” policy after rejecting a United Nations appeal to allow refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria to live in Britain.

Ministers have decided not to join 16 nations, including the United States, France and Germany, which have pledged to allow a total of more than 10,000 refugees from the bloody three-year civil war to move to their countries.

Aid agencies are describing the UK Government’s approach as “there’s no room at the inn”. Now the Labour Opposition is calling for ministers to accept between 400 and 500 Syrian refugees – including torture victims, people with family connections in Britain, and women and girls at high risk.

The Government insists it is better to help neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq cope as Syrians flee across their borders. Ministers say the UK is helping more than one million of the estimated 2.4 million refugees in what the UN views as the biggest emergency in its history.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, told The Independent today: “We should be rightly proud of our humanitarian aid effort and the generosity of the British people. But we should also do our part, alongside other countries within the UN’s programme, to provide a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees fleeing this murderous conflict.

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“The British Government cannot turn its back on these people. It is our moral duty to respond to the UN’s call for help for Syrian refugees – just as our country has helped those fleeing persecution for hundreds of years.”

The Refugee Council said only about 0.1 per cent of Syrians fleeing the violence had found safety in the UK. It is urging people to ask their MPs to tell David Cameron “that we must play our part in providing a safe haven for the most vulnerable fleeing the war”.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “It is not only financial, economic, and technical support to these [neighbouring] states which is needed.

“It also includes receiving through resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification or similar mechanisms, refugees who are today in the neighbouring countries but who can find a solution outside the region.”

Australia has pledged to take 500 Syrians for permanent resettlement and Sweden 400, while Germany will allow 5,000 temporary “humanitarian admissions” for two years and France 500. The US has not set an upper limit.

The UNHCR hopes other countries will follow suit through the flexible use of family reunification rules, waiving some visa requirements and allowing Syrians to enter for work, study, family or humanitarian purposes.

Mark Harper, the immigration minister, insisted: “The Government is committed to playing a leading part in the international relief effort.”

In a letter to the Labour MP Meg Hillier, he said the UK was contributing £400,000 to a £10.5m European Union regional development and protection programme.

“I believe such initiatives should be our focus, rather than the resettlement or providing ‘humanitarian evacuation’ to displaced Syrians – initiatives which provide only limited relief to the neighbouring countries given the overall scale of the crisis they are facing,” he said.

“I do not oppose other states choosing to offer humanitarian admission or resettlement to displaced Syrians. However, in my view, this should not be the focus of activity at present and is not the best way for the UK to make a difference.”

Today the Home Office said the Government’s £500m of aid to Syria was the UK’s biggest ever response to a humanitarian crisis and almost equalled that of the other 27 EU countries combined. Some £217m will be spent inside Syria and £236m in neighbouring countries.