[LONDON] Britain will admit a limited number of child refugees who have travelled alone from Syria to Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday, in a U-turn on the politically-charged issue of migration.
The government's change of heart is a victory for Alf Dubs, an 83-year-old member of Britain's House of Lords who argued that the country should be more compassionate, citing his own story of fleeing the Nazis as a child in 1939.
Around 95,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in Europe last year, a fourfold increase on 2014, according to figures published by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism last month.
Mr Cameron said lone Syrian children who had registered in Greece, Italy or France before March 20 - when the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to curb new arrivals - would be considered.
"We are going to do more for children who were already registered in Europe before the EU-Turkey deal," Mr Cameron said in the House of Commons.
"But we must stick to the principle that we shouldn't be encouraging people to make that perilous journey."
Mr Cameron's announcement was seen as a bid to head off probable defeat in a parliamentary vote next week on a legislative amendment tabled by Mr Dubs, of the main opposition Labour party.
The peer - who came to Britain from Prague aged six in a scheme known as the Kindertransport, in which hundreds of Jewish children were rescued - told AFP he was "delighted".
"When you use the word immigrants and refugees, it's not always popular with some people. I'm very sad about that, but certainly when we talk about child refugees, people responded," Mr Dubs said.
"As a country, we have a good humanitarian tradition which has been somewhat lacking in the recent past and I think the public felt we should be doing this."
The government has not said how many children will be allowed to come to Britain, saying it needs to talk to local authorities about how many they can cope with.
A senior Downing Street source speaking anonymously to reporters said it would be "more than just tens".
Britain has not joined EU schemes for the relocation and resettlement of migrants from Syria, where a five-year conflict has left around 270,000 people dead.
Mr Cameron's government believes it is best to offer help to refugees who have fled to camps in neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon rather than encouraging them to take the risk of travelling to Europe.
It is sending aid worth £2.3 billion (S$4.48 billion) and said last year it would take 20,000 refugees from camps in the region over five years.
It also said last month it would take in up to 3,000 children and their families who had escaped conflicts in the Middle East and north Africa by 2020 ahead of a previous vote on Mr Dubs's proposals.
Lliana Bird, co-founder of charity Help Refugees - which works mainly in Calais, northern France, and Greece - welcomed Mr Cameron's announcement but said Britain should help "as much as it can".
Ms Bird had recently returned from the Idomeni camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia and called camp conditions in Europe "shocking".
"There are children being forced to live outside in the forest, facing illness, incredibly vulnerable to traffickers, to sexual exploitation," she said.
Nando Sigona, a migration expert at Birmingham University, said part of the reason for Mr Cameron's reluctance to do more was Britain's closely-fought referendum on EU membership on June 23.
"They want to avoid the attack that we're part of the EU and being invaded by refugees," he said.