David Cameron bowed to mounting public and political pressure on Friday, saying Britain would accept thousands more Syrian refugees. But he stopped short of signing up to any EU-wide plan to take in more of the migrants who are already in Europe.
Under his announcement, Britain will expand its offer to resettle Syrians directly from refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — though not from European countries such as Greece, Italy and Hungary.
Speaking in Madrid, the UK prime minister, said, however, that “there isn´t a number of people we can take that will bring this crisis to an end”.
Downing Street had been under mounting pressure to offer to take in more refugees to Britain after a week in which it was accused at home and abroad of shirking its moral duties. The publication of the haunting pictures of a Syrian refugee child drowned off a beach in Turkey intensified public concern.
Mr Cameron’s shift was welcomed by the UN’s refugee agency but it was criticised from both sides of the heated debate on Britain’s response.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and a candidate for Labour leader, said Mr Cameron still “needs to show leadership” and should take around 10,000 refugees, including some of those who are already in Europe.
Nigel Farage, leader of UK Independence party, said Britain should not accept any more Syrian refugees. Mr Farage, speaking in central London, said the “stampede” of incomers had been caused by “pull factors” such as European countries offering generous benefits.
Underlining the urgent need for a response, hundreds of refugees stranded in Hungary started to walk from Budapest’s central railway station to the border with Austria.
As Mr Cameron met his Portuguese and Spanish counterparts in successive meetings in Lisbon and Madrid, EU foreign ministers in Brussels failed to agree over whether to back the joint proposal by France and Germany for a permanent, binding quota system for handling refugees.
“If we have learnt anything from the last three, four weeks it’s that we won’t overcome this crisis if we keep pointing fingers at each other,” Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. said.
But the UK prime minister insisted he would not participate in any EU plan to redistribute the hundreds of thousands of refugees already on European soil. “We are not part of Schengen, so we won´t take part,” he said.
The UK has so far resettled 216 Syrians, with a further 5,000 who have travelled through their own means having been granted asylum by the UK between the start of the crisis in early 2011 and the second quarter of 2015.
Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Tory defence minister, urged Mr Cameron to “hold firm” with his tough approach to taking large numbers of refugees.
“I can understand why the Germans are taking so many . . . but it is a big mistake, it is over the top, and all it will do is encourage others to come and chance their arm,” he said.
Speaking in Lisbon, Mr Cameron said the UK plan would be “kept under review” with more details expected to be announced by ministers next week.
Mr Cameron insisted Europe must combine “providing refuge for those in need while working on a long-term solution to the Syria crisis”.
He added: “That means bringing to an end the conflicts that are driving so many to flee, including the bloodbath that has engulfed Syria.”
For his part, Mr Farage warned that thousands of jihadis from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, could enter the UK under cover of any refugee resettlement programme.
“When Isis say they will use the migrant crisis to flood Europe with 500,000 of their own jihadis, we’d better listen,” he said. “What if even 5,000 or just 500 of them come here?”
Speaking at the launch of Ukip’s campaign for Britain to leave the EU, Mr Farage also said many of the incomers were economic migrants and that nothing should be done to encourage them to make the journey.
“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.
“If the EU wants to help genuine refugees, they need to establish offshore centres and process people correctly, rather than inviting what has now turned into a headlong rush.”