White House

May forced to say she ‘does not agree’ with Trump’s refugee ban

Jim Pickard and George Parker

Theresa May has been forced to make a hasty U-turn over Donald Trump's ban on refugees from Muslim majority countries, issuing a midnight statement saying she did not agree with the policy.

The British prime minister said she would appeal to the US if the ban affected British citizens. "We do not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking," she said.

The US president signed an executive order on Friday banning the entry of refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. It has caused confusion and panic among travelers, with some turned back from US-bound flights.

The row over the issue threatens to overshadow what had been widely seen as a successful visit by Mrs May to Washington last week, where she sought to find common ground on foreign policy with the new US president.

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On Saturday, pressed by British journalists during a press conference in Ankara — on her way back from the US — she had refused to condemn Mr Trump's refugee ban. Apparently reluctant to damage her relationship with Mr Trump, the prime minister declined to answer a question on the subject three times.

After being heckled by British journalists to answer the question, Mrs May eventually said: "The United States is responsible for the United States' policy on refugees."

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This elicited a wave a criticism from other politicians including Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, who said the prime minister had demonstrated a "weak failure" by refusing to criticise the US president. "President Trump's executive order against refugees and Muslims should shock and appal us all."

"Theresa May should have stood up for Britain and our values by condemning his actions. It should sadden our country that she chose not to," he said. "After Trump's hideous actions and May's weak failure to condemn them, it's more important than ever for us to say to refugees seeking a place of safety, that they will always be welcome in Britain."

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks as President Donald Trump looks on in a joint press conference at the East Room of the White House January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative former cabinet minister, said it was "the moment we once again lost a little more moral authority", while Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP, called Mr Trump a "sickening piece of work".

Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, said he had been told by a US immigration lawyer that he would be affected by the ban because he was born in Iraq. "A sad, sad day to feel like a second-class citizen. Sad day for the USA," he said.

Binali Yildirim, Turkish prime minister, was openly critical of Mr Trump's refugee ban, saying his own country had done the "sacred and holy" thing by opening its doors to people fleeing for their lives from Syria. "You can't stop this issue by building walls," he said.

There was speculation that athletes including Sir Mo Farah, who was born in Somalia, could also be caught up by the ban. JK Rowling, one of Britain's most successful authors, compared Mrs May to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler before the second world war.

In a statement at 12.05am on Sunday, Mrs May's spokesman repeated the line that immigration in the US was a matter for Washington. But he added that the government would raise the issue with Washington if there was any impact on British citizens. "We are studying this new executive order to see what it means and what the legal effects are, and in particular what the consequences are for UK nationals."

Mr Trump's order, signed on Friday, halts all refugee admissions and has for 90 days prevented people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Syria. He said he needed it to make America safe from "radical Islamic terrorists".

His critics said the order did not cover Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 out of the 19 terrorists who carried out the September 11 atrocities.

A US judge has issued a temporary halt to the deportation of immigrants stranded at airports as a result of the order, amid estimates that up to 200 people have been detained at airports or in transit.

The prime minister's trip to the US and Turkey saw her cultivating relations with two of the world's most controversial politicians, Mr Trump and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Ankara she endorsed a £100m deal under which Britain's BAE Systems will help develop a new Turkish fighter jet.