Government urged to accept refugees

Labour has called on the Government to take in hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting which has ravaged the Middle Eastern state for almost three years.

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A Syrian Orthodox Christian boy plays on the terrace of the Saint Afram Syrian Orthodox church, in Amman, Jordan (AP)

Labour has called on the Government to take in hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting which has ravaged the Middle Eastern state for almost three years.

The United Nations has called on the international community to offer not only humanitarian aid for refugees, but also resettlement opportunities outside the country, and Labour is urging the Government to accept 400-500 Syrians, including torture victims, women and girls at high risk and people with family links to the UK.

But ministers insist that Britain can best help by providing funds to assist those affected by the long-running civil war both inside Syria and in neighbouring states like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

The Home Office said Britain's £500 million of official aid to Syria was the UK's largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis, almost equalling the total given by the other 27 EU countries combined. Some £217 million is being spent inside Syria and £236 million in neighbouring countries.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that Britain should join some 16 nations, including the USA, France and Germany, which have agreed to allow a total of more than 10,000 Syrians to move to their countries.

Ms Cooper told The Independent: "We should be rightly proud of our humanitarian aid effort and the generosity of the British people. But we should also do our part, alongside other countries within the UN's programme, to provide a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees fleeing this murderous conflict.

"The British Government cannot turn its back on these people. It is our moral duty to respond to the UN's call for help for Syrian refugees - just as our country has helped those fleeing persecution for hundreds of years."

Australia is understood to be planning to take in 500 Syrians for permanent resettlement and Sweden 400, while Germany will allow 5,000 temporary "humanitarian admissions" and France 500. The US has not set an upper limit.

The Refugee Council said only about 0.1% of Syrians displaced by the fighting have found refuge in the UK, and is urging people to send a message to Prime Minister David Cameron that "we must play our part in providing a safe haven for the most vulnerable fleeing the war".

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has said: "It is not only financial, economic, and technical support... which is needed.

"It also includes receiving through resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification or similar mechanisms, refugees who are today in the neighbouring countries but who can find a solution outside the region."

Immigration minister Mark Harper insisted that the Government is "committed to playing a leading part in the international relief effort".

In a letter to the Labour MP Meg Hillier, Mr Harper said the UK was contributing £400,000 to a £10.5 million European Union regional development and protection programme.

"I believe such initiatives should be our focus, rather than the resettlement or providing 'humanitarian evacuation' to displaced Syrians - initiatives which provide only limited relief to the neighbouring countries given the overall scale of the crisis they are facing," he wrote.

"I do not oppose other states choosing to offer humanitarian admission or resettlement to displaced Syrians. However, in my view, this should not be the focus of activity at present and is not the best way for the UK to make a difference."