Madrid – Britain promised Friday to take in thousands more Syrian refugees and give 100 million pounds in extra aid, as their plight raised pressure on European leaders, AFP reports. “Given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of the people, today I can announce that we will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees,” Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters on a visit to Lisbon.
Speaking later in Madrid, he said Britain will provide an extra 100 million pounds (137 million euros, $153 million) in humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis, bringing its total contribution to more than one billion pounds. But he declined to offer sanctuary for some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants, including many displaced Syrians, who have already reached Europe, some of them in perilous sea crossings.
Instead, he said Britain would select Syrians from UN refugee camps near the Syrian border. “I want to send the message out that the best way to get a new life is not to make this perilous journey,” he said at a news conference in Madrid alongside his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy. Britain, which lies outside the passport-free border Schengen zone shared by most of its European Union neighbours, faces pressure to accept a greater share of Syrian refugees.
Calls for action peaked this week after the publication of harrowing images of a three-year-old Syrian toddler who drowned as his family tried to reach Europe. “We want to work with NGOs to take them directly from refugee camps, rather than do anything that will encourage these desperately unsafe journeys that are leading to these appalling tragedies,” Cameron said, referring to those images.
He did not specify how many more refugees Britain would accept, saying only that more details would be announced next week and that the resettlement scheme would be kept “under review”. Cameron said the level of aid for Syrians was Britain’s biggest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis and greater than that of any other European country.
– ‘Moral action’ –
A petition to parliament urging Britain to accept more refugees has garnered more than 360,000 signatures. Campaign group Avaaz said that 2,000 Britons had volunteered to host refugee families. Britain has accepted 216 Syrian refugees under a special government scheme over the past year and around 5,000 Syrians have been granted asylum since the conflict there broke out in 2011 — far fewer than countries like France, Germany and Sweden.
More than four million Syrians have fled the war, many of them taking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, according to the United Nations. Britain has opted out of a quota system for relocating asylum seekers within the European Union despite growing calls in the EU for fairer distribution. On the streets of London, views on the issue varied.
“It’s disgusting that we have to get to a point where children are dying before we even recognise that we’re not acting morally. It’s horrific,” said 45-year-old shopper Victoria Buurman, bursting into tears. But Souvik Ghosh, a 26-year-old research student from India, said Britain should not take any more migrants. “Otherwise this country’s economic system will be overflowed,” he said.
All the contenders for the leadership of the main opposition Labour Party and even some MPs within Cameron’s party have urged Cameron to do more.
– Britain ‘doing less’ than neighbours –
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, saying he was “seriously concerned” by Cameron’s position. “At the moment the UK is doing much less than other European countries”. Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative on international migration, told the BBC that while some countries were “massively bearing the burden” of the migrant crisis, Britain was among those that “can do more”.
Rajoy has faced demands for Spain too to host more than the 2,739 asylum-seekers it has agreed to accept in 2015. He has said any change to the quotas should take into account Spain’s high unemployment rate. On Friday he reiterated his call for a common European asylum policy and called for action to address the “source of the problem”. The chief executive of the UK Refugee Council Maurice Wren welcomed Cameron’s announcement but said Britain should accept tens of thousands to make a difference to the crisis.