Prime Minister David Cameron yielded to pressure over the migration crisis engulfing Europe and said Britain will take in “thousands more” refugees from Syria.
“We will continue with our approach of taking them from the refugee camps” in the Middle East, Cameron told reporters in Lisbon Friday during a visit to Portugal. “This provides them with a more direct and safe route to the United Kingdom, rather than risking the hazardous journey that has tragically cost so many of their lives.”
Cameron found himself under attack from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party, religious leaders and the political opposition after a photograph of a dead child washed up on a Turkish beach dominated British media on Thursday. He had previously said that “there isn’t a solution that’s simply about taking people.”
His pledge to resettle thousands more asylum seekers may fall short of the 10,000 demanded by some in the opposition Labour Party. Britain has granted asylum to more than 4,000 Syrian refugees since the start of a war that has caused 4 million to flee, according to research by the House of Commons Library.
“Britain will act with our head and our heart, providing refuge for those in need while working on long-term solutions to this crisis,” Cameron said. Further details of the program will be announced next week after discussions with nongovernmental organizations and other nations, he said.
At a later press conference in Madrid, the prime minister announced the U.K. will give an additional 100 million pounds ($152 million) to support camps for refugees on Syria’s borders, taking the total U.K. contribution to 1 billion pounds.
“That’s the U.K.’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis,” Cameron said. “We have done far more than any other European country to fund those refugee camps.”
International Development Secretary Justine Greening wouldn’t be drawn on refugee numbers when questioned by BBC Radio 4. Taking people already in Europe, such as those currently attempting to travel through Hungary to Germany, “simply fuels the people-smuggler business,” she said.
As leaders across the continent struggled to cope with its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande urged the European Union on Friday to agree on a redistribution plan for refugees and speed up processing in countries where they arrive. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed relocating another 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary. Britain has an opt-out from such plans.
Yvette Cooper, the home-affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party and a contender for its leadership, welcomed Cameron’s U-turn, which she attributed to the pressure that had built up during the week. By mid-afternoon Friday, more than 370,000 people had signed a petition demanding that Britain accept more asylum seekers, comfortably passing the 100,000 threshold at which Parliament must consider debating the issue.
“V. important that PM has changed mind,” Cooper posted on her Twitter feed. “Thanks to all who helped. Must keep pressure on to do more and help refugees in Europe as well as camps.”
The majority of national media highlighted the same image of the Syrian boy carried away by an emergency worker. British television has also had extensive coverage of events in Hungary, where the authorities have prevented thousands of refugees from traveling to Germany.
‘Kicking and Screaming’
“The prime minister has been forced kicking and screaming by public outrage at his inaction to do the compassionate thing,” Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron said in a statement. “But his words are not enough. This plan does nothing to help the desperate families I met in Calais,” where migrants have been attempting to reach Britain through the Channel Tunnel. “Nor does it help the refugees trapped in eastern European train stations or on Greek islands,” he said.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett called on the government to accept 240,000 refugees, or 12 percent of the 2 million people fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria, representing the U.K. share of Europe’s population.
By contrast, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage told reporters that the EU should copy Australia and make it clear to refugees that they wouldn’t get asylum if they attempted to cross the Mediterranean in boats. He also warned that terrorists could pose as refugees. “We must not allow our compassion to imperil our safety,” he said.
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said she wants to hear more details of Cameron’s latest proposals before passing judgment on them. She said Scotland should accept 1,000 refugees “as a starting point.”