UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage wants the government to start admitting refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria into Britain.
Mr Farage, who has been at the forefront of the opposition to allowing migrants from Bulgaria and Romania unfettered access to the UK, said the position of those displaced by conflict was very different.
“I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think that this country should honour the spirit of the 1951 declaration on refugee status that was agreed,” he said.
“It was agreed with the UN and even through the European Court, which sadly has changed its role. But the original ideas of defining what a refugee is were good ones.
“I think, actually, there is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people in Syria fleeing literally in fear of their lives.”
The government has rejected calls to admit Syrian refugees, arguing that it is better to provide financial support to people in the region.
Mr Farage’s intervention came after the three main UK party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – last week issued a rare joint statement backing the United Nations’ £4 billion appeal for assistance.
There was support for Mr Farage from Tory MPs. Backbencher Mark Pritchard said there was backing across the political spectrum – including from the SNP, Labour and former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell – for the UK accepting some refugees, and predicted the government would eventually change its mind.
“This is about doing the right thing, abiding by our international obligations,” he said.
“Clearly, we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country, still an open-hearted, compassionate country, to do the right thing and allow some of these refugees into the UK.
“My view is the government will ultimately change its mind either willingly or unwillingly. There is real suffering going on and we need to do our bit along with rest of the international community over this Christmas period. The heart of the Christmas story is a refugee story.”
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, also supports the idea, although he said that it would have to be part of a wider international effort.
“It is not a bad idea but it will be incredibly complicated. It will need to involve the entire European Union, probably the US, probably Japan, maybe even Russia – pretty much the entire modern world will have to pick up the burden because we are talking possibly millions of people,” he told The World This Weekend.
However, another Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, dismissed the idea as “political tokenism” which would have little impact, given the vast scale of the refugee crisis.
A government spokesman said there were no plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the UK and that the policy remained to provide as much help as possible in the region.
Officials said that in the 12 months to the end of September, more than 1,100 Syrian nationals had been granted asylum in the UK.
The UK also operates a visa concession for Syrian nationals, which allows those who are in the country legally to extend their visa when it expires without being required to return home first.