LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure on Thursday to take in more refugees after the image of a dead Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach raised the emotional temperature of the debate.
Cameron said on Wednesday that he did not think the answer was to take more and more refugees but to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, a response widely perceived as inadequate in the face of the unfolding tragedy.
“Mr Cameron, summer is over ... Now deal with the biggest crisis facing Europe since WW2,” read a headline on the front page of the Sun, Britain’s highest-selling newspaper, above the image of the lifeless boy being carried away.
The change of tone from a newspaper criticised by the United Nations rights chief in April after one of its columnists compared migrants to “cockroaches”, was a mark of the emotional impact of the images of human suffering across Europe.
Nicola Blackwood was among several members of parliament from Cameron’s Conservative Party who spoke out in favour of a more compassionate stance from the government.
“We cannot be the generation that fails this test of humanity. We must do all we can,” she tweeted.
Her colleague Nadhim Zahawi also took to Twitter to express his feelings about the dead Syrian boy: “Pic should make us all ashamed. We have failed in Syria. I am sorry little angel, RIP.”
Britain has granted asylum to about 5,000 Syrians who were able to reach the country by their own means since the start of the Syrian war. In addition, it has taken 216 people under a U.N.-backed relocation scheme for vulnerable Syrians. Several European countries have taken in Syrians in greater numbers.
As the outpouring of emotion over the dead toddler put the government on the defensive, Chancellor George Osborne appeared on television to express sympathy and defend what he called Britain’s “leading role” in responding to the crisis.
“I was very distressed when I saw it myself this morning, that poor boy lying dead on the beach,” Osborne said.
“What we need to do to help those desperate families is break up the criminal gangs who traffick in people and led to that boy’s death, beat ISIS which is the thing they’re fleeing, we’ve got to make sure the aid is going there to help those families.”
Osborne pointed to Britain’s contribution in aid to Syrians, which the government says is among the most generous.
Official figures from the Department for International Development (DfID) show that Britain has allocated 900 million pounds ($1.4 billion) since 2012 to U.N. agencies and NGOs helping Syrians, mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
But a growing chorus of critics said more could be done within Britain. The number of people signing a petition on parliament’s website calling for more refugees to be taken in was rising fast, from 85,000 early in the morning to 160,000 by lunchtime.
“The UK I know has always shouldered its burden in the world. DfID is doing life-saving work abroad but we can and must do more at home,” tweeted Ruth Davidson, a member of the Scottish parliament and leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
Yvette Cooper, one of four candidates to lead the opposition Labour Party, called for Britain to take in an additional 10,000 refugees, drawing support including from political opponents.
“The Prime Minister is right to point to the need to continue to tackle the causes; and Yvette Cooper and others are also right to call for the UK to take in more refugees,” wrote Conservative legislator Jeremy Lefroy on his blog.
“It is not either/or. We need to do both.”
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Additional reporting by Li-mei Hoang and Angus Berwick; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Anna Willard