David Cameron bows to public opinion with pledge to take 'thousands' of extra refugees - but is the promise a diversion?

Prime Minister promises to take in 'thousands' fleeing civil war, but not everyone is convinced by his apparent U-turn

Alistair Dawber
Friday 04 September 2015 19:55

David Cameron has pledged that the UK will take “thousands” of extra refugees from Syria, accepting Britain has a moral responsibility to act after previously suggesting that “taking more and more” would not help.

Speaking during a trip to Spain and Portugal, the Prime Minister also announced that the UK would spend an extra £100million supporting refugee camps in countries bordering Syria, where four million are currently living.

But he indicated that he would hold back from calling a parliamentary vote to bomb Isis in Syria, in an extension from the current missions in Iraq, despite its rise worsening the humanitarian situation in the country.

Mr Cameron said he would “only pursue going further on this issue if there is genuine consensus in the UK,” suggesting that a victory in the Labour Party leadership election for Jeremy Corbyn, who opposes military action in Syria, could curtail any such move.

The additional refugees to be taken in by the UK will come from refugee camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries – with Mr Cameron at pains to say that those making the hazardous journey by boat to Europe would not find their way to Britain. Accepting these people would only encourage more to make the dangerous trip, he said.

“Britain will act with her head and her heart,” said Mr Cameron. “For those economic migrants seeking a better life, we will continue to work to break the link between getting on a boat and getting settlement in Europe, discouraging those who don’t have a genuine claim from embarking on these perilous and sometimes lethal journeys.

“For those genuine refugees fleeing civil war, we will act with compassion and continue to provide sanctuary.”

Stung by criticism this week over what has been characterised as the UK’s mean spirited approach to the crisis – especially after photographs showing the body of Aylan al-Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach – Mr Cameron was eager to point out that the UK is the EU’s highest single donor to camps hosting Syrians in the Middle East.

“There isn’t a number of people that we can take that will bring this crisis to end,” Mr Cameron said. “As a father you can’t help being moved by these terrible pictures.”

A spokesman for No 10 declined to elaborate on the final number that would be welcomed to Britain, saying only that the Government would consult with groups working in the camps, such as the UNHCR and the Red Cross, to determine the number of those in need. A clearer picture of how many thousands of Syrians will be allowed to the UK, and where and how they will be settled, will emerge next week.

Earlier in the day, a UNHCR spokesman had said the UK was preparing to accept a further 4,000 displaced people. The group later retracted that, saying that the final number had not been finalised.

The extra money promised by the UK will be divided by between the refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria, and projects inside the war-torn country.

“Today I can announce that we will provide a further £100m, taking our total contribution to over £1bn [over four years]. That is the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis,” Mr Cameron told reporters in Madrid, alongside the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

“£60m of this additional funding will go to help Syrians still in Syria. The rest will go to neighbouring countries, to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now account for one quarter of the population.”

Mr Cameron has come under acute pressure this week to alter the UK’s stance on refugees, after Germany and a number of other countries said that they will take in more people fleeing persecution from both Syrian troops and Isis. A petition organised by The Independent to urge the Government to accept more refugees had by early last night more than 285,000 signatures.

Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, was among those who criticised the Prime Minister’s new plan, describing it as a “diversion strategy.”

“Not a single person who is currently fleeing from the battlefield of Syria will be helped by this plan,” he told Radio 4’s The World at One.

“Not a single person who is suffering the misery of trying get into Europe will have that misery relieved by this plan.”

Ukip leader Nigel Farage blamed the EU for the crisis. “The EU has got this wrong. Anybody that comes, from whatever background and virtually for whatever reason, can claim to be a refugee,” he said. Mr Farage also predicted that Isis militants could end up being given safe passage to Europe. “We must not allow our compassion to imperil our safety,” he said. “The EU’s compassion… could be a very real threat to our safety.”

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