The pressure on David Cameron to allow hundreds of Syrian refugees to come to Britain is increasing, with 55 members of the House of Lords urging him to sign up to a United Nations programme.
In an open letter published in The Independent, a cross-party alliance of peers urges the Prime Minister to “heed the call” for Britain to accept its share of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees. It calls for “a co-ordinated resettlement programme in the UK” and describes the UNHCR scheme as a “moral imperative” and the only “durable solution”.
Mr Cameron said on Thursday he is “open-minded” about accepting some refugees but remains reluctant to join the UNHCR programme. He is expected to give some more ground in an attempt to head off an embarrassing defeat in the Commons next Wednesday. Labour has called a debate on the issue and is confident of attracting the support of Liberal Democrat MPs after Nick Clegg backed Labour’s call for Britain to take about 500 refugees. Some Tory backbenchers may also vote with Labour.
Labour has drafted a consensual motion in an attempt to attract as much cross-party support as possible. It welcomes the Government’s £600m of aid to Syria but expresses concern about “the plight of the most vulnerable refugees who will find it hardest to cope in the camps in the region, including victims of torture and children without families” and urges and Britain to join the UNHCR resettlement programme.
On Thursday night Mr Cameron insisted Britain is “fulfilling our moral obligation” to the Syrian people and argued that Western countries could not solve their “moral conscience” by accepting small numbers of refugees. He told the BBC: “Let’s not pretend that some sort of international quota system, with countries taking a few hundred people, is going to solve this problem. It is not.”
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The peers who have signed the new letter include Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader; Baroness (Shirley) Williams, the former Cabinet minister and Lib Dem leader in the Lords; the Rt Rev Lord (Rowan) Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury; Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker and Tory peers Baroness (Elizabeth) Berridge and Baroness (Gloria) Hooper.
Lady Berridge said:“While being strong on immigration, we should not lose sight of the importance of asylum and helping some of the most vulnerable people in an awful situation that we must remember has been going on for three years. Hopefully we are reaching a tipping point where more of my Conservative colleagues will agree with this.”
Lord Ashdown accused the Prime Minister of putting the “baleful hand of politics” above his “proper and decent instincts” to help those in plight. He said: “It is frankly shaming that Britain is so far down the league table of Western nations compared to commit to resettlement. I have a strong suspicion that this is not to do with a humanitarian need, but far more to do with the political imperative of the Tories trying to make sure the public understand their hard-line on immigration.”
Lord Ashdown added: “The Prime Minister has sought to hide from his moral obligation by simply diverting attention to the money.”
Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, which co-ordinated the letter, said: “We’re heartened by the growing political consensus that resettlement is the right thing to do. The countries neighbouring Syria have not had the luxury of choice about the numbers of refugees they offer safe haven to. The UK must stand alongside these countries and pledge to accept our fair share.”
So far 18 nations have signed up to the UNHCR scheme to resettle the most vulnerable refugees, such as children, vulnerable adults and victims of sexual abuse, with Germany alone agreeing to accept 10,000.
Vincent Cochtel, director of the UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, said “from the perspective of the refugee it would make a hell of a difference”. He said: “The big picture is there are 2.4m Syrian refugees. When you zoom down and take a country like Turkey, it has taken 700,000 refugees, while the 47 countries that make up the rest of Europe have only taken 70,000 refugees. That gives you an idea of the scale of the problem.”
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