DAVID Cameron has promised that Britain will take thousands of extra refugees from camps on the border of war-torn Syria as the crisis threatening to overwhelm Europe grows.
Speaking on a trip to Portugal and Spain, Mr Cameron took on critics over the UK government’s response so far, saying that the UK had already agreed to take 5,000, although to date only 216 have been given shelter.
He also said that Britain had provided £900 million in aid for those fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, a sum he said that was more than any other European country had provided.
But he insisted the UK would meet its “moral responsibility” and take thousands more refugees. However, he did not put a final figure on that despite calls from Labour and the SNP for the UK to take in at least 10,000.
Mr Cameron also gave no indication that the UK would be willing to resettle any of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people who have made perilous Mediterranean crossings by boat to reach Europe over the past few months.
The issue has intensified this week with criticism from the United Nations, charities and religious leaders over the UK’s lack of willingness to take in refugees and heart-rending pictures of a Syrian child drowned with most of his family as they tried to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece in a dinghy.
The Prime Minister admitted that the image of the stricken boy had influenced him “as a father of young children”.
He said: “As a father and as a human being you cannot help but be moved by these terrible pictures, seeing the picture of that poor child on the beach in Turkey.
“Those images will remain with all of us for a very, very long time.
“But the question you have to ask not just as a father but as a Prime Minister is what are the actions we can take that will really make a difference. That is why, in taking additional refugees, because of course every one we take we can offer a new chance and a new life to, I think it is important we take them from Syrian refugee camps.
“I want to send the message out that the best way to get a new life is not to make this perilous journey.”
The shocking picture had also put the Prime Minister in a tough position with a long line of Tory backbench MPs joining Labour, the SNP, charities, religious leaders and the UN in condemning his government’s slow response.
And his assurances that the UK would take more did not give him respite from criticism.
Nicola Sturgeon insisted the UK can and must do more to help refugees and said that Scotland should accept 1,000 people as a “starting point” for further help.
The First Minister also criticised the UK government, accusing it of “struggling to show leadership in this refugee crisis”.
She said the crisis, sparked by hundreds of thousands fleeing from Syria to Europe, was the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.
People across the world have been shocked by images of desperate families seeking safety, with Ms Sturgeon admitting she had been reduced to tears by the picture of a drowned Syrian boy.
She said such images would “haunt our consciences and reputation for many generations to come if we don’t together and collectively act to help those in desperate need”.
While she accepted a long-term solution to problems in Syria must be found, she argued: “We cannot and we must not leave our fellow human beings to perish in the meantime.”
The SNP leader said: “We here in Scotland and across the UK can do more, and I believe we must do more.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, who was governor general of Kosovo in one of Europe’s last major humanitarian crises, condemned Mr Cameron’s hesitant response as “shameful”.
However, in his statement the Prime Minister came out fighting.
Mr Cameron said: “We have already accepted around 5,000 Syrians, and we’ve introduced a specific resettlement scheme alongside those we already have to help those Syrian refugees particularly at risk.
“As I said earlier this week, we will accept thousands more under these existing schemes, and we keep them under review. Given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of people, today I can announce that we will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees.
“We will continue with our approach of taking them from the refugee camps. This provides them with a more direct and safe route to the United Kingdom, rather than risking the hazardous journey which has tragically cost so many of their lives.”
Mr Cameron said details of the scheme would be announced next week, after discussions with NGOs and other partners, and Britain would act with “our head and our heart”.
The migration crisis was “the biggest challenge facing countries across Europe today”, he said. Among more than 220,000 people detected crossing the Mediterranean were individuals “from different countries under different circumstances”, including many Syrians fleeing the conflict in that country.
The PM said: “Britain has a moral responsibility to help refugees, as we have done throughout our history. We are already providing sanctuary and will continue to do so.
“As the second-largest bilateral donor to the crisis, we have provided over £900m in aid to help those affected in Syria and the region.”