29 January 2014
Last updated at 00:18 ET
Some of the “most vulnerable” Syrian refugees will be temporarily resettled in the UK, Deputy PM Nick Clegg says.
He said girls and women who had been victims of or were at risk of sexual violence, torture victims, and elderly and disabled people would get priority.
This meant the coalition was ensuring the Britain’s “long and proud tradition of providing refuge” lives on, he said.
The government expects the number of refugees accepted to be in the hundreds but has not set a specific target.
The UK’s resettlement programme is to be separate from the ongoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees scheme which has seen Germany commit to admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Home Secretary Theresa May is expected to spell out more details of the government’s plan to MPs later.
During exchanges in the Commons on Monday, the government faced criticism from MPs of all political parties for declining to participate in the UN-led scheme.
The deputy prime minister’s announcement pre-empted a Labour-led debate on the issue, where the government was facing the prospect of a Commons defeat over its refusal to sign up to the UNHCR initiative.
PM David Cameron has previously said almost half of Syria’s nine million people were “displaced or at risk of displacement”
Mr Clegg said: “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.
“The UN High Commission for Refugees – which backs our new resettlement programme – has said the highest priority should go to women and girls who have experienced or are at risk of sexual violence; the elderly; survivors of torture and individuals with disabilities, so that’s who we’ll target.
“Sadly we cannot provide safety for everyone who needs it, but we can reach out to some of those who need it most.
“On top of that, we’ll continue to support the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva, because only a political resolution between the Assad regime and Syrian opposition will provide a permanent end to the suffering.”
‘Matter for humanity’
Mr Clegg added that the refugees would not be allowed to resettle in the UK permanently.
He said: “They will be here for a certain period of time and what we of course want and I suspect they will want as well… is to return eventually to Syria, when as I think everybody hopes normality finally is restored to the country.”
The UNHCR said it would help the UK identify the most vulnerable people.
Ms Cooper had been pressing the government to participate in the UN programme
Its UK representative, Roland Schilling, said the UK move was “an encouraging and important step, reaffirming the UK’s commitment and contribution to international relief efforts”.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government’s move meant that “compassion and common sense have won through”.
“Vulnerable Syrian refugees, torture victims, abandoned children and those struggling to cope or survive in the camps desperately need sanctuary and Britain has a moral obligation to help.”
She added: “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.”
Earlier she had argued that it was wrong to suggest the government could not both send aid and resettle refugees.
The Refugee Council’s Maurice Wren welcomed the UK’s decision, but said it had been a “long time coming”.
He described the conflict in Syria as the “most grave humanitarian crisis of our time”.
Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: “This move is long overdue but of course it’s never too late to do the right thing.
“The government’s line on this has been shameful, with months of refusal and weak arguments.”