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Cameron rejects UK role in EC migrant redistribution plan

Published 09/09/2015

People sit on the ground at a refugee camp in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija (AP)
People sit on the ground at a refugee camp in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija (AP)

David Cameron has made clear that Britain will not participate in European Commission plans to redistribute 160,000 migrants around the continent from Italy, Greece and Hungary.

The Prime Minister said the UK would stick to its "own approach" after EC president Jean-Claude Juncker suggested that all EU states, rather than just members of the Schengen borderless zone, should agree to share the burden.

And he warned that focusing on migrants who have already reached Europe would merely encourage more to come.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, Mr Cameron said: " I think the British approach will be very clear, which is this must be a comprehensive approach.

"If all the focus is on redistributing quotas of refugees around Europe, that won't solve the problem, and it actually sends a message that it is a good idea to get on a boat and make that perilous journey.

"Of course Europe has to reach its own answers for those countries that are part of Schengen.

"Britain, which has its own borders and the ability to make our own sovereign decisions about this, our approach is to say yes, we are a humanitarian nation with a moral conscience.

"We will take 20,000 Syrians but we want a comprehensive approach that puts money into the camps that meets our aid commitments, that solves the problems in Syria, that has a return path to Africa that sees a new government in Libya. We have to address all these issues."

Mr Cameron insisted he had spoken to German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande in recent days and they were clear that Britain was "playing its role".

But he said more attention had to be paid to refugees still in the region around Syria. The "bigger reality" was that 11 million Syrians had been "pushed out of their homes, and just 3% had come to Europe".

"Those who have already arrived in Europe, they are at least safe," he said.

Responding to a suggestion from acting Labour leader Harriet Harman that the UK should be taking more than 4,000 Syrian refugees this year, Mr Cameron said there was "no limit".

"We have to use our head and our heart. We have committed to taking 20,000 people, I want us to get on with that," he said.

"There is no limit to the amount of people that could come in the first year, let's get on with it.

"But let's recognise we have to go to the camps, we have to find the people, we have to make sure they can be housed, we have to find schools for their children, we have to work with local councils and local voluntary bodies to make sure when these people come they get a warm welcome from Britain."

Mr Cameron also dismissed claims that child refugees would be automatically kicked out of the UK when they reached the age of 18, insisting the "assumption" was they would be granted leave to remain.

In his State of the EU address, Mr Juncker said that Europe was "sought worldwide as a place of refuge", and was seen by those fleeing Islamic State in the Middle East as "a place of hope, a haven of stability".

"This is something to be proud of, and not something to fear," he said. "We can build walls and fences ... But imagine for a second if it were you, your children in your arms, the world you know torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not go to sea in, no border you would not cross."

Mr Juncker urged member states to adopt the Commission's proposal to increase the relocation scheme from 40,000 to 160,000 migrants currently in Italy, Greece and Hungary at a summit of interior ministers later this month.

While the EU had donated large sums in aid to refugee camps in the region, Europe had "clearly under-delivered on common solidarity with regard to the refugees who have arrived on our territory".

"To me it is clear that the member states where most refugees first arrived - and at the moment these are Italy, Greece and Hungary - cannot be left alone to cope with this enormous challenge," he said.

"This is why the Commission proposed an emergency mechanism back in May to relocate initially 40,000 people seeking international protection from Italy and Greece. And this is why today we are proposing a second emergency mechanism to relocate a further 120,000 people from Italy, Greece and Hungary.

"This has to be done in a compulsory way."

The commission will be proposing a permanent mechanism to relocate refugees around the EU in future crises, to replace the so-called Dublin system, under which they are expected to claim asylum in the first country where they arrive.

Mr Juncker said the EU needed to "look into opening legal channels for migration" in order to make people-smuggling a less attractive route. The Commission is also drawing up a list of "safe" countries, whose nationals will not be entitled to claim asylum.

The president said he was "strongly in favour" of allowing refugees to work and earn money while applications are being processed, and urged member states to take measures to permit this.

The plans include a "temporary solidarity clause" under which any EU state unable to participate in relocation schemes would be required to make a payment of 0.002% of GDP a year - currently equivalent to about £4 billion for the UK

Downing Street said that ministers would need to "analyse" Mr Juncker's proposals before responding, but stressed that the UK was "not bound" by any EU programmes to relocate migrants already in Europe.

"The UK is already playing its part and in terms of a financial contribution to tackling the refugee crisis from Syria we are the leading donor nation in Europe," a spokesman said.

"We will need to look at the detail of the proposals when they are brought forward later.

"But in terms of any relocation, we've already been clear on our position that we are not bound by it and we are going to focus our efforts on resettlement."

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: "We will not take part in the quota system that's being proposed. We have made clear that because of our justice and home affairs opt-out, we will not take part in this quota allocation system.

"We have doubts about whether it is the best response. We are not convinced that simply reallocating the fit and able who get through what is a pretty brutal filter of making their way from Syria to Europe is the best way of providing a humanitarian response."

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