First Syrian refugees arrive under British resettlement plan

A protester holds on to the railings outside the Houses of Parliament in London during a demonstration to express solidarity with migrants. REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Britain on Tuesday welcomed the first of the 20,000 Syrian refugees that it has pledged to relocate from camps in countries neighbouring the war-torn nation, according to the government.

"Today, a number of people have arrived in the UK as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme," said a Home Office statement.

The government would not give details of how many refugees had arrived, or where in Britain they would be resettled.

Under the expanded scheme, the new arrivals will receive housing, access to medical care and education and will be granted five years' humanitarian protection.

After that period, they will be able to apply to stay in Britain.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced earlier this month that Britain would take 20,000 refugees from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over the next five years after coming under fire for an apparent reluctance to take measures to ease the crisis sweeping Europe.

Britain had accepted 216 Syrian refugees under the scheme before this month's announcement and has granted asylum to almost 5,000 Syrians since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011 - far fewer than countries like France, Germany and Sweden.

European Union ministers on Tuesday pushed through a deal to relocate 120,000 refugees, but faced fierce opposition from central and eastern states.

Britain is exempt from EU asylum and migration policy and Cameron had already made it clear that the country will not be involved in any quota system.

Cameron visited Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan last week, pledging increased aid which he said would help stem the migration crisis in Europe.

The surprise visits, which included talks with Lebanon's prime minister and the king of Jordan, came as Cameron appointed a minister to oversee the resettlement of the 20,000 refugees.

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