London: The UK government has struck a deal with the UN that will allow Britain to take in hundreds of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees without having to host a UN-imposed quota.

The compromise ends weeks of resistance by the government to becoming involved in the UN refugee programme. It comes before a Labour-tabled debate in the Commons on Wednesday designed to put pressure on the government to do more to take refugees from the battle-torn country.

In an agreement with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, the government has decided to provide refuge for some of those most traumatised by the crisis, such as vulnerable women and children.

Coalition sources said no more than about 500 refugees would be permitted entry, including family members, but their precise citizenship status had yet to be agreed, determining the right of other family members to come to the UK.

The Home Office has persistently resisted taking UN-supplied refugees, arguing that the British government is fulfilling its duties by leading the effort to supply aid to refugees in camps on the Syrian borders with Jordan and Turkey.

The home secretary, Theresa May, has been concerned that British involvement in the UN refugee programme would become an open-ended commitment that risked undermining the Tories’ commitment to reducing net migration to the UK to tens of thousands by 2015.

David Cameron moved subtly to change that target this week, telling the BBC’s Today programme on Monday that his government would get net migration down to “responsible levels” by the end of the parliament.

Cameron, representing in public the dominant view in the Home Office, has argued that it would let other countries off the hook over their failure to provide aid if the UK agreed to take a large number of refugees. The UK has already committed £600 million (Dh3.7 billion) in humanitarian aid making it the second largest bilateral donor.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said: “I am pleased to be able to announce today that the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

“The coalition government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria.

“The £600 million 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 UNHCR — 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; and 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 Al Assad regime and the Syrian opposition will provide a permanent end to the suffering.

“Britain has a long and proud tradition of provided refuge at times of crisis. This coalition government will ensure it lives on.”

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said on Tuesday that MPs from all parties backed UK financial support to Syria, but she argued it was wrong to say the government could not both send aid and resettle refugees.

A minority of refugees were “too vulnerable to come” to the UK to seek asylum, “or to survive, even, in the camps”, she said. “That is why it’s so important to provide that extra help — this is not an either/or.” She in effect believes the coalition deal struck by Clegg is accepting the UN scheme without formally participating in it.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd