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David Cameron says Britain will accept just 'a few hundred' more Syrian refugees despite 4 million displaced by the war

PM announces 'modest expansion' of refugee scheme for displaced Syrians but Britain's record is embarrassing compared to fellow EU countries

Matt Dathan
Friday 19 June 2015 19:03 BST
A Syrian refugee reacts as he waits behind border fences to cross into Turkey at Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey
A Syrian refugee reacts as he waits behind border fences to cross into Turkey at Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey

David Cameron has announced he will “modestly expand” the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the UK by offering "a few hundred more" places, but charities said Britain’s commitment to the humanitarian crisis still “pales in comparison” to its European neighbours.

Britain lags embarrassingly behind its European neighbours in efforts to offer asylum to the 3.9 million Syrians who have fled the country since the civil war broke out four years ago, with the UK taking in just 1.5 per cent of the number accepted by Germany.

Last year the government committed to accepting up to 500 refugees from the war-torn country by the end of 2017 after The Independent supported a campaign to force the government to open its doors to the most vulnerable survivors.

However only 187 Syrians have been granted entry into the UK since Theresa May introduced the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme in January 2014. The Prime Minister said the UK would boost the number of places to resettle the most vulnerable, but Downing Street said the figure would not exceed 1,000.

This compares dismally with the number of Syrian refugees taken in by fellow European countries. Germany has offered 30,000 places to resettle Syrians, Sweden has committed to resettling 2,700, Switzerland has offered 3,500 places and Austria 1,500.

However the vast majority of the 3.9 million people who have fled Syria due to the conflict remain in the countries surrounding Syria, which have been overwhelmed by the crisis.

A staggering 98.3 per cent of Syrian refugees are stuck in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.

Humanitarian charities, while welcoming any boost in the number of asylum places, said the UK should be accepting thousands, not hundreds, of Syrian refugees.

Dr Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “This news, quite simply, will transform people’s lives. Each resettlement place Britain provides will be life changing, if not life-saving for some of the most desperate men, women and children on the planet.

“However, we are in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis in recent memory and this commitment still pales in comparison to pledges made by other European countries.

“Britain has a proud tradition of protecting and welcoming refugees: the Government must uphold this reputation by going the extra mile and offering a safe haven to thousands, not hundreds, of refugees from Syria who so desperately need it.”

The announcement follows a report by the UN earlier this week that 3.9 million people have fled Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011. A total of 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, according to the report.

Speaking at a security conference in Slovakia, where he called for Muslim communities to take more responsibility for countering radicalisation, Mr Cameron said: "Today I can announce that we will work with the United Nations to modestly expand this national scheme so that we provide resettlement for the most vulnerable fleeing Syria, those who cannot be adequately protected in neighbouring countries."

It is part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) scheme to resettle survivors of torture and violence, women and children who have fled the conflict and cannot be protected in the region.

Answering criticism of the UK’s refusal to sign up to the UNHCR call for Western governments to accept 100,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said:

“We’ve always been clear that we don’t agree with the principle of quotas being set; we think this is for countries to make their own decisions on and so this is a decision we have taken and where we will work with the UNHCR on it.”

The UK government has chosen to prioritise its humanitarian efforts on offering aid to the region in the form of food, medical care and water. It has donated a total of £800 million to Syria and its neighbours, with half of the sum going towards Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt to assist with the flood of refugees fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

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