LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Friday that Britain will take in thousands more Syrians amid growing calls for the government to show greater moral leadership in the refugee crisis engulfing Europe.
Cameron said Britain will expand its existing resettlement program, which has already brought a few hundred of the region’s most vulnerable refugees to the United Kingdom.
“Given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of people, today I can announce that we will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees,” Cameron said Friday at a news conference in Portugal.
He said Britain had a “moral responsibility” to help refugees. But he also clarified that those selected will come directly from U.N. refugee camps on the Syrian border and not from mainland Europe, which is struggling to cope with a crush of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Cameron said further details would be announced next week.
There has been huge discrepancy within Europe over how countries are handling the migration crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers pour into the region this year. Since January, more than 2,600 have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Only 216 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Britain under a government program since March 2014, and nearly 5,000 have been granted asylum after making it to the country on their own since 2011 — much smaller numbers than those in European countries such as Germany and Sweden.
Meanwhile, Ireland announced Friday that it would take in at least 1,800 refugees, triple the number proposed earlier this summer.
At a separate news conference in Madrid, Cameron said Britain would increase humanitarian aid to victims of the Syrian conflict by $152 million, bringing the nation’s total contribution to more than $1.5 billion. “That is the U.K.’s largest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
It’s a major shift in tone for Cameron, who on Wednesday said the answer to the crisis was not simply taking in more refugees.
But over the past few days, he has faced mounting pressure, at home and abroad, to do more. Calls for urgent action escalated after the widespread publication of photographs of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. He drowned, along with his mother and 5-year-old brother, while fleeing Syria with his family. Their funerals were held Friday in the northern Syrian town of Kobani.
A petition for Britain to accept more asylum-seekers has gathered more than 390,000 signatures and may be considered for debate in Parliament.