Editor's Letter: Syria’s desperate refugees deserve better from Britain

Sometimes in politics you should put your hands up and admit you’ve got it wrong

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The Independent Online

On Boxing Day we published an editorial with the headline “Let them in”. It referred to a few hundred Syrian refugees who the United Nations was trying to resettle because they might not survive in the camps created by that country’s civil war. These were some of the most desperate people alive today: wounded orphans, torture victims and recent widows.

But while many of our international allies, including the Europeans, Americans and Australians, signed up to the UN’s humanitarian initiative, the British Government refused. It was wrong to do so, and this newspaper is leading the campaign to make it change its mind.

Last Saturday, we published an open letter from 25 of Britain’s leading charities to the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, reiterated his support for that letter, while a source close to Nick Clegg told our Political Editor, Andrew Grice, that the Liberal Democrat leader is campaigning hard for this inside government.

Yesterday, we published another open letter, this time from 55 peers. The shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper – who, incidentally, wrote editorials for The Independent in her career before politics – wrote a powerful article explaining why Labour is calling a vote in Parliament next week on the subject. Momentum, in other words, is building. Yet the Government remains indecisive, partly because David Cameron is under intense pressure from some of his Conservative comrades to avoid being seen as soft on immigrants.

He and senior ministers have argued that Britain is already providing £600m of aid for Syria, and that you don’t solve a refugee crisis by letting a few hundred of them into Britain. The first point  is true and admirable. The second is ludicrous.

Nobody, and least of all this newspaper, is suggesting that the horrors experienced by Syria’s refugees will disappear if a few hundred of them are let into Britain. But each extremely vulnerable orphan, torture victim and desolate widow granted refuge in our country is a moral victory for us – and a potentially life-saving chance for them. It is also, by the way, good politics, because it aligns us with our allies and keeps Britain on the moral high ground in world affairs. As that Liberal Democrat source told us, it would be “self-defeating to allow us to be painted as the least generous [country]”.

Sometimes in politics you should put your hands up and admit you’ve got it wrong. In the next few days, our Government has the chance to replace cruelty and cowardice with compassion and common sense. Over to you, Prime Minister.