The Tories' immigration target means the door is still closed to too many Syrian refugees

The UK will accept just 500 refugees from the country, compared to the 10,000 taken by Germany.

Far later than it should have done, the coalition has announced that it will accept some refugees from Syria (as the NS urged it to do in a recent leader) ahead of today's Labour-tabled debate on the subject. Nick Clegg said last night: 

I am pleased to be able to announce that the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. The coalition government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria.

The £600m we have provided makes us the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in the world. But as the conflict continues to force millions of Syrians from their homes, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can.

We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help.

He added: "Britain has a long and proud tradition of provided refuge at times of crisis. This coalition government will ensure it lives on." 

Indeed; so what took ministers so long? The most likely explanation appears to be the Tories' dogmatic target (which is not officially coalition policy) to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year by the end of this parliament. The Independent reports that David Cameron "overruled objections" from Theresa May, who is determined to do everything possible to meet the pledge, in order to allow the door to be opened to refugees. "He realised that, although we are the good guys and the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria in the world, we were in danger of looking like the villains," one source is quoted as saying. 

But while, as Ming Campbell said on the Today programme this morning, we shouldn't make "the best the enemy of the good", it is clear that the net migration target is still preventing ministers from going as far as they should (Germany has accepted 10,000). One reasonable solution proposed by May's shadow Yvette Cooper is for the Tories to exclude refugees from the target. She said last night: 

[M]inisters need to confirm that these will be additional places and will not be at the expense of help for other refugees. Finally it would be helpful for the Home Secretary to explain why ministers resisted for so long and to look urgently at removing refugees from the government’s net migration target. Immigration policy is very different from Britain’s long tradition of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and the two things should not be confused.

The dreadful conflict in Syria has caused a humanitarian crisis. As well as helping all those we can in the region, it is right that we also do our bit to provide the most desperate refugees with a place of safety.

Cooper also rightly urged ministers to reconsider their decision not to participate in the UN programme. 

The Government still needs to explain how the programme will work and whether they are signing up to the UNHCR programme or trying to run a parallel programme of their own. Given the considerable flexibility in the UN programme for countries to set their own priorities, numbers and security checks, the benefits of not running parallel bureaucracy and the value of being able to encourage other countries to follow suit, the Government would be best to sign up with the UN.

Ministers proudly point to the £600m of aid that Britain has provided, making it the second largest bilateral donor of aid in the world. But as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has said: "It is not only financial, econo­mic and technical support to these [neighbouring] states 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."

But when one hears Tory MPs such as Brooks Newmark, who indulged in shameless scaremongering on Today this morning by claiming that the UK has been asked to take "30,000 refugees" (the total number the UN has asked western countries to accept) and who moaned that Britain always does "the heavy lifting" (in fact, it is developing countries that accept the most refugees), it becomes clear why Cameron's hands are tied. 

A Syrian refugee child looks out from a shelter in Hatay, Turkey, on January 20, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here