Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images

British government faces growing calls to take in more refugees

More than 200,000 people sign petition forcing MPs to consider debate; UK has taken in just 5,000 Syrians fleeing war

The British government faced increased pressure Thursday to step up its response to Europe's refugee crisis, with more than 200,000 people signing a petition demanding that the U.K. accept more asylum seekers.

The move will force Parliament to consider a debate over the issue. Under British law, only 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a discussion.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been under attack for his stance throughout the crisis. On Thursday, the U.K.'s newspapers were dominated by pictures of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on Turkish beach  after he drowned, with his mother and brother, while trying to reach Europe by boat.

A headline in the Sun, the U.K.'s highest-selling newspaper, called on Cameron to “deal with the biggest crisis facing Europe since WW2." It marked a change of tone from the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, which came under attack from the United Nations rights chief in April when a columnist compared migrants to "cockroaches."

Despite an outpouring of emotion in print and on social media, Cameron maintains that the answer to Europe's refugee crisis is not taking in more asylum seekers, but addressing the root cause, the war in Syria. He was heavily criticized earlier for using the word "swarm" to describe those attempting to enter Europe.

Cameron appeared to soften his tone Thursday. In an interview with the BBC, he said he was "deeply moved" by the image of Aylan, adding that the U.K. would fulfill its "moral responsibilities" towards refugees.

"Britain has always been a home to real asylum seekers, genuine refugees," Cameron said.

Even some in within Cameron's Conservative party have called on him to increase the U.K.'s intake of refugees. "The U.K. I know has always shouldered its burden in the world,” said Ruth Davidson, the leader of the party in Scotland. “We can and must do more at home."

'Very distressed'

To date, Britain has granted asylum to about 5,000 Syrians who were able to reach the country by their own means since the start of the Syrian war. In addition, it has taken 216 people under a U.N.-backed relocation scheme for vulnerable Syrians. Several European countries have taken in Syrians in greater numbers.

As the outpouring of emotion over the dead toddler put the government on the defensive, Chancellor George Osborne appeared on television to express sympathy and defend what he called Britain's "leading role" in responding to the crisis.

"I was very distressed when I saw it myself this morning, that poor boy lying dead on the beach," Osborne said.

"What we need to do to help those desperate families is break up the criminal gangs who traffick in people and led to that boy's death, beat ISIS, which is the thing they're fleeing, we've got to make sure the aid is going there to help those families."

Osborne pointed to Britain's contribution in aid to Syrians, which the government says is among the most generous. Figures from the Department for International Development show that Britain has allocated 900 million pounds ($1.4 billion) since 2012 to U.N. agencies and NGOs helping Syrians, mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

But the numbers of people signing up the online petition and a planned march on Downing Street over the issue may put pressure on the government to do more. The number of people adding their name to the petition swelled to 207,874 as of Thursday midday.

Cameron's political opponents agree that Britain should accept more asylum seekers. Yvette Cooper, one of four candidates to lead the opposition Labour Party, called for Britain to take in an additional 10,000 refugees.

That position is gaining support. "The Prime Minister is right to point to the need to continue to tackle the causes; and Yvette Cooper and others are also right to call for the U.K. to take in more refugees," wrote Conservative legislator Jeremy Lefroy on his blog. "It is not either/or. We need to do both."

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter