UK government signals rethink on admitting refugees

Refugees board a local train heading to the Hungarian-Austrian border at the main train station in Budapest. Picture: AP
Refugees board a local train heading to the Hungarian-Austrian border at the main train station in Budapest. Picture: AP
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CHANCELLOR George Osborne has said that the number of asylum seekers allowed into the UK is under review as the Scottish Government has offered to take care of “at least” 1,000 as pressure grows on UK ministers to do more in the humanitarian crisis.

Following graphic images of dead refugees – including a Syrian toddler drowned at sea – there have been calls by Labour for an emergency debate while UK ministers have been severely criticised by the UN, church leaders, charities, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and even their own Conservative backbenchers for not taking in more people fleeing from war torn Syria, the Middle East and North Africa.

George Osborne, right, with David Cameron, has indicated that the UK will review the number of refugees coming into the UK. Picture: PA

George Osborne, right, with David Cameron, has indicated that the UK will review the number of refugees coming into the UK. Picture: PA

The UK has so far allowed in just 216 refugees this year.

By contrast, Germany has accepted 35,000 vulnerable Syrians through a UN programme, Canada more than 10,000, Australia 5,600 and Switzerland 3,500.

And amid growing anger at the government’s response Mr Osborne has insisted the number of refugees Britain takes is “under review”.

The Chancellor stressed that the UK had always accepted “genuine” asylum seekers, including 5,000 people fleeing conflict in Syria, and it would “keep on” doing so.

Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that taking in more people will not solve the issues, and the focus should be on bringing “peace and stability” to the war-ravaged areas they are fleeing.

Britain has opted out of EU arrangements that could have seen it allocated tens of thousands of asylum seekers being redistributed from Greece, Hungary and Italy.

But the tipping point for the government appeared to come when a number of Conservatives added their voices to those demanding a shift in policy, with Mr Cameron being warned that he faces a “test of humanity” and must honour the British tradition of offering sanctuary to those in need.

Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi, who sits on the Downing Street policy board, said the image was a source of “shame”.

The Stratford-on-Avon MP, an Iraqi immigrant who came to the UK with his family aged nine after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, wrote on Twitter: “We are nothing without compassion. Pic should make us all ashamed. We have failed in Syria. I am sorry little angel, RIP.”

Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, said: “I’ve spoken to many in west Kent who want us to do more and I agree with them. Our common humanity demands action at home and abroad.”

David Burrowes, Tory MP for Enfield Southgate, said: “We should be doing more to provide a voluntary solution for Syrian refugees.

“We are in the hundreds - I said then it is too little, too late - and we are still in that situation where other countries are accepting thousands.”

Labour is urging Mr Cameron to convene the Government’s Cobra emergency committee, gather EU leaders for a summit, and agree to a parliamentary debate on the issue.

Tory MP Nicola Blackwood posted on Twitter: “Britain has a proud history of giving sanctuary to those fleeing conflict & protecting the persecuted.

“We cannot be the generation that fails this test of humanity. We must do all we can.”

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has written to Mr Cameron, criticising his response and calling for a Cobra meeting and emergency EU summit.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who this week reignited her leadership bid with a speech demanding a change of heart, is also hosting a conference next week bringing together local authorities, charities and faith groups to discuss how to handle the situation.

A senior Labour source said: “David Cameron must stop dragging his feet.

“It is time for Britain to start living up to its international responsibilities and to its proud tradition of helping those who need it most.”

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she was “angry” at what she said was the “walk on by” approach of David Cameron’s government to the migrant crisis.

The First Minister’s remarks came after pictures of a drowned refugee boy increased pressure on Europe’s leaders to act over the crisis.

Ms Sturgeon said that she was “far from the only person reduced to tears” by the images ahead of a Scottish government backed summit tomorrow aimed at offering support to refugees.

However, Ms Sturgeon, speaking at Holyrood’s First Minister’s questions, said that the Conservative government had failed to offer enough support to those affected by the crisis.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said her party “stands with” Ms Sturgeon in her government’s efforts to help refugees.

Afterwards a spokesman for the First Minister said Ms Sturgeon backed Ms Cooper’s call for the UK to take 10,000 migrants.

He added: “If you take that 10,000 figure, I think the First Minister’s view would be that a proportionate figure and a pro rata figure for Scotland would be 1,000.

“The First Minister would regard that as an absolute minimum in terms of Scotland’s share.”

Religious figures have also called on the British government to do more to tackle the migrant crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees seek help in Europe.

Bishops described the situation as a “crisis for humanity” which all of Europe, including Britain, needs to do more to tackle.

Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, branded the crisis “embarrassing” and called on the government to follow the example of Germany, which has taken more people in.

Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott said he was shocked by the images of the drowned Syrian boy.

He said: “I don’t think any country, and that is not just us in England, I don’t think any country can somehow say we have done enough, or there is no more we can do.”

Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Britain has long prided itself in being a humanitarian country on the world stage and offering refuge to those who need it most.

“We remember this most famously during the Second World War and the Kindertransport rescue efforts.”

Speaking to reporters on a visit to a Nissan factory, Mr Osborne said photographs of the three-year-old boy who died alongside his older brother and mother when a boat capsized en route to Greece were “shocking”.

“I was very distressed when I saw it myself this morning, of that poor boy lying dead on the beach,” he said.

“We know there is not a simple answer to this crisis, and what you need to do is first of all tackle Isis and the criminal gangs who killed that boy.

“You have got to make sure the aid keeps coming - we have put £1 billion of overseas aid in to help these desperate people.

“And of course Britain has always been a home to real asylum seekers, genuine refugees. We have taken 5,000 people from the Syrian conflict, we will go on taking people and keep it under review.

“Britain has been playing a leading role and it will continue to do so.”