A commendable U-turn: It was morally indefensible to turn away Syria’s most vulnerable refugees

At last, the Government has seen sense

If there were ever a U-turn for a government to be proud of, then this must surely be it. The decision to refuse sanctuary to refugees from Syria was never a morally defensible one. The Deputy Prime Minister’s confirmation that Britain will, after all, offer a new home to some of the most vulnerable victims of the conflict is, therefore, to be unreservedly applauded.

How long it took to get here, though. It has taken weeks of pressure – from politicians of all types (including Nick Clegg), from aid agencies and refugee groups, from a concerted campaign in The Independent – for the Government to come to its senses. Indeed, the timing of the announcement could hardly tell a plainer tale, coming as it does directly ahead of a Commons vote on the subject which the Coalition was all set to lose.

Judged only through the myopic lens of domestic politics, the initial refusal is understandable enough. Already on the run over immigration, near certain to miss its (ill-conceived) target to control it, the Tory half of the Coalition instinctively responded by hauling up the drawbridge. Syrian asylum-seekers – of whom Britain has 1,100, so far – are one thing; they do not show up in the figures. A contingent of refugees is a different story.

And yet, in this instance, to understand all is not to forgive all. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a more egregious confusion of priorities. More than 100,000 lives have been lost in Syria over the past three years. Many millions more have been ruined. With swathes of the country devastated, some 8 million civilians have been displaced and a further 2.4 million have fled to camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Such is the scale of the humanitarian crisis that the UN has launched a £4bn appeal, its largest ever, and wants rich countries to help resettle 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees; torture victims, for example, and orphaned children.

The Government had hoped that money would be enough. Certainly Britain’s £600m contribution is to be commended. But the assertion that our best assistance could be provided thus, and only thus, was never convincing. With so many in such desperate need, there is no either/or. Nor are the numbers anything to baulk at. With 18 countries already signed up, the burden on any one of them will be far from onerous. Britain is now set to welcome 500 at most.

Amid the satisfaction that a shameful dodging of our responsibilities has been averted, a single wrinkle remains. The Prime Minister, wary of setting a precedent binding the country to undesirable future commitments, wants our involvement to be independent of the UN. He is wrong. The risk – if there is one – is worth taking. As a world power, we have an obligation to participate. The notion of a global humanitarian effort with the UK at one remove is one with which we cannot be comfortable. Britain’s economic and military might may be waning, but we can still set a standard for common humanity.

Such considerations are secondary, however. The decision to open our doors is the right one, no matter how reluctantly it was reached and what institutional caveats attend it. That it took so much to persuade our Government to see beyond its own concerns is to be lamented. But at least we got there eventually.