Britain will accept and resettle up to 20,000 refugees by 2020, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today.
Mr Cameron told the House of Commons that the UK would live up to its moral responsibility towards the people forced from their homes by the forces of president Bashar Assad and the Islamic State terror group.
He said that Britain would take in vulnerable refugees only from camps in the region, and not those who have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in their thousands over recent months.
Mr Cameron told MPs: “We are proposing that Britain should resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the rest of this Parliament.
“In doing so, we will continue to show the world that this country is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need.”
The European Commission is understood to be preparing to ask EU member states to take part in a mandatory scheme to resettle 160,000 migrants who have already arrived in the continent.
French president Francois Hollande has said France is ready to take in 24,000 people.
But Mr Cameron told MPs that because Britain is not part of the Schengen open border arrangements which cover many EU states, it was able to “decide its own approach”.
“We will continue with our approach of taking refugees from the camps and elsewhere in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon,” he said. “This provides refugees with a more direct and safe route to the UK, rather than risking the hazardous journey to Europe which has tragically cost so many lives.”
Refugees coming to Britain will be chosen under established UN procedures and will be granted five-year humanitarian protection visas, said Mr Cameron. The scope of criteria used to identify vulnerable refugees will be “significantly expanded”, recognising that children have been particularly badly affected.
“In most cases, the interests of children are best met in the region, where they can remain close to surviving family members,” said Mr Cameron. “But in cases where the advice of the UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees) is that their needs should be met by resettlement here in the UK, we will ensure that vulnerable children – including orphans – will be a priority.”
Mr Cameron also warned it was important to distinguish between economic migrants and those fleeing conflict.
His comments come as TV footage from Germany and Austria revealed that amongst the hundreds of Syrian refugees arriving in those countries are migrants from apparently peaceful parts of Eastern Europe, Africa and India.
“It is absolutely right that Britain should fulfil its moral responsibility to help those refugees just as we have done so proudly throughout our history”, Mr Cameron said.
“But in doing so we must use our head and our heart by pursuing a comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences. That means helping to stabilise countries where the refugees are coming from.”
Pressure to admit more Syrians has grown since the publication of photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and brother trying to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat.
Mr Cameron said Britain had done more than any other EU country to provide aid – now totalling £1 billion – to support refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries, and had moved quickly to provide Royal Navy ships for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
“Without Britain’s aid to these camps, the numbers attempting the dangerous journey to Europe would be very much higher,” he told MPs.
Mr Cameron said the full cost of supporting the Syrian refugees would be met for the first year from the Government’s aid budget.
He added: “We will now go much further in the Spending Review, significantly reshaping the way we use our aid budget to serve our national interest. We will invest even more in tackling the causes of the crisis in the Middle East and north Africa and will hold much larger sums in reserve to respond to acute humanitarian crises as they happen.”
Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement, but urged Mr Cameron to set out an “ambitious” timetable for completing the resettlement programme as soon as possible.
“This is a good step forward, but it’s far from job done,” said Mr Goldring. “With the terrible conflict in Syria showing no signs of ending, the Government should continue to review how many refugees the UK will resettle.”