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David Cameron faces chorus of criticism over 'bunch of migrants' jibe

Published 27/01/2016

Jeremy Corbyn pictured visiting migrants in France
Jeremy Corbyn pictured visiting migrants in France

David Cameron has been condemned over his response to the refugee crisis in Europe after describing people in a camp in Calais as a "bunch of migrants".

The Refugee Council said Mr Cameron's comments were "disappointing" and called on him to show political leadership in response to the "desperate" situation.

Opposition MPs also lined up to criticise the Prime Minister, who made the "inflammatory" comments during a Commons clash with Jeremy Corbyn.

Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council's head of advocacy said: "When we are facing the greatest refugee crisis of our time, it is disappointing the Prime Minister is using flippant remarks to score political points.

"We have all seen the pictures of the desperate conditions people are living in across Europe, including just miles from the UK's border. The Prime Minister should be showing political leadership and work with other European countries to ensure that people can live in safety and dignity."

Former shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna said the comment was "shameful" and criticised the language as "inflammatory and unbecoming of his office".

Yvette Cooper, who is leading Labour's refugee task force, suggested the PM should use "much more statesmanship-like" language on such a "complex and sensitive" issue.

There was also criticism of the timing of the comment, as the country marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: " On Holocaust Memorial Day, the Prime Minister chose to refer to desperate refugees fleeing from war as a 'bunch of migrants', a statement which diminishes his office and our country.

"Whether Mr Cameron planned to use this phrase in advance or whether it was an off the cuff throw away remark it shows his true attitude towards those most in need."

Comedian David Baddiel also expressed concern, writing: "Not the right day #HolocaustMemorialDay for the bunch of migrants thing."

Mr Cameron made the comment at Prime Minister's Questions, in an attack on the actions of the Labour leadership.

He said: "They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais, they said they could all come to Britain."

After the Commons showdown a senior Labour source said: "The people we saw at Calais and Dunkirk over the weekend were families, kids, babies... to consider those people we saw as a 'bunch of migrants' demonstrates an attitude that is entirely unacceptable to a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep."

Business minister Anna Soubry said she would "not necessarily" have used the term "bunch of migrants", and she was "sure" the PM meant to say "group".

"I think what everybody forgets is that in the heat of things one says things that you might say in a conversation, by way of example, but you wouldn't necessarily say when it was analysed and picked apart," she told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

"On the one hand people say, 'Oh God, all politicians they sound the same, they sound like they've been schooled and they are trotting out the lines'.

"But actually when they don't, and actually use the language of ordinary people they get slammed and criticised.

"I will not criticise the PM on this one because I know that when you're standing at the despatch box ... and you have all the noise and the row around you it is very easy to use a word which on reflection may not be the best way.

"I am sure he meant to say a group, but we all use slang."

She added: "I would be amazed if that was a scripted line. I don't believe that for one moment. If anybody says that they are being silly and playing cheap politics."

Asked whether Mr Cameron thought his choice of words was acceptable, a senior Downing Street source said: "The Prime Minister thinks that the key thing here is to get the policies right, and I think that's what the people of Britain are concerned about.

"The policy we are proceeding with is to give nearly £1.2 billion to support people who have been forced from their homes by the Syrian conflict with shelter and food, and also to take refugees from the region rather than providing an incentive for people to make that dangerous journey."

Alex Salmond said he believes the Prime Minister deliberately made the comment to deflect attention away from other issues.

The former SNP leader and first minister gave his views on his new LBC radio show in response to a question from a caller.

Mr Salmond, who now speaks for his party on foreign affairs, said: "Cameron's got form on this. Previously he described people as a 'swarm'. I don't know if a 'bunch' is an improvement.

"A lot of people, including myself, have got a bit of a theory that Cameron does this when he's trying to deflect attention from other things, because he was in trouble on the Google tax deal today. So all of a sudden he comes out with this phrase.

"Now most stuff at Prime Minister's Questions is rehearsed, so my charge against David Cameron is not just he's describing people in pretty disgusting terms, but he's doing it deliberately.

"This isn't something off the cuff .... I think this is calculated and I think that makes it much worse."

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Corbyn condemned what he described as Mr Cameron's "inflammatory language" in the House.

"I have to say I found it shameful that you referred to the people in those camps as 'a bunch of migrants', escalating the tensions on such a serious issue," he wrote.

"It is clear that many are fleeing conflict and human rights abuses that you and I cannot begin to imagine.

"Such dismissive language and tone demeans people's suffering and demeans the office of Prime Minister."

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