(Reuters) – Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday Britain would take more Syrian child refugees who had made it to Europe, in a move to quell a rebellion in his party before a referendum on EU membership.
Cameron has said children fleeing the conflict in Syria are “relatively safe” once they reach Europe and that the government does not want to encourage more Syrians, including unaccompanied children, to attempt the hazardous journey to the West.
But after several Conservative Party members signalled they would vote against a government immigration bill, Cameron told parliament he would talk to humanitarian groups and local councils about taking more children from the war zone.
“We are going to do more for children who are already registered in Europe before the EU-Turkey deal,” he said, referring to a March 20 agreement to send back migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey if they do not apply for asylum there or if their application is rejected.
“But the principle we should try to cling to is that we shouldn’t do anything that encourages people to make the perilous journey.”
The Home Office (Interior Ministry) has said up to 3,000 Syrian and other child refugees from camps in the Middle East and North Africa are to be resettled in Britain over the next four years.
Cameron’s spokesman said the change in the prime minister’s stance was “to ensure there is support across the House on this”, after several MPs expressed support for an attempt by a member of the House of Lords to force the government to take in more child refugees.
With the ruling Conservatives deeply divided over whether to stay in the European Union in a referendum on June 23, Cameron is keen to reduce friction in his own party and in parliament, especially over migration.
Growing fear over high levels of migration has spurred support for the “Out” campaign and Cameron, who is campaigning to keep Britain in the 28-member bloc, is keen to underline that Britain will not overstretch itself by taking in more refugees.
His spokesman said the government would be talking to local councils to make sure the necessary support exists to take in more children. Until that was done, he could give no further detail on numbers.