More than 2.5 million people have fled Syria since March 2011, as civil war has engulfed their country. These people – around 10 per cent of the population – have mainly sought refuge in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. A further 6.5 million have been internally displaced.

Images of suffering in Syria and nearby refugee camps have become a constant presence in the daily news. But despite domestic and international campaigns to pressurise EU member states to accept Syrian refugees, the British government has remained steadfast, insisting that it is fulfilling its international duty by supplying £600m aid to refugees in Jordan and Turkey.

That changed this week, when the government announced that it had agreed to take in around 500 of the “most vulnerable” Syrian refugees. It is a compromise agreement that means the UK will avoid having to host a quota suggested by the UN. The 500 refugees will include family members, although their exact citizenship status is yet to be decided. It is expected that they will be granted temporary visas that will be reviewed after three years.

Most campaigners are welcoming this as a highly positive move after weeks of resistance from the Home Office. But it should be taken with a pinch of salt. As a point of comparison, Germany (the EU's leader in this field) is taking more than 10,000 refugees. The scale of the crisis is perhaps best understood by looking at other countries in the region. There are thought to be around 1.2 million Syrians in Lebanon– meaning that they equal around a quarter of the population. Turkey and Jordan are each home to at least half a million.

Against this backdrop, 500 is just a drop in the ocean. The reason for the government’s resistance is political. On coming to power in 2010, it committed to reducing net migration to the UK to tens of thousands by 2015 – a figure that is looking ever harder to reach. While David Cameron has toned that numerical commitment down to “responsible levels” of migration, the home secretary, Theresa May, is reportedly concerned about the impact that accepting Syrian refugees will have. Cameron and other Conservative politicians have argued that if the UK takes in too many refugees, it would allow other countries to shirk their responsibilities. This is a peculiar argument; clearly, the reluctance is more to do with the prevailing anti-immigration mood in Britain than with encouraging moral duty in other nations.

Yet, conversely, the government fears coming across as too hard-hearted. Earlier this month, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg defended the fact that Britain was not accepting refugees from Syria by pointing out that hundreds of individual Syrians had sought asylum in the UK since the outbreak of the crisis. These comments caused anger amongst many people working with these individuals, who did not feel that Clegg’s comments were a fair representation of the government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Moreover, those Syrians who have been able to reach the UK to claim asylum – at a rate of between 50 and 100 per month in the last year – tend to be the wealthiest and best connected.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians have already lost their lives trying to make it to Europe: in October alone, 650 died trying to cross the sea from North Africa, while reports proliferate of Greece pushing back migrants who try to reach its shores. The agreement to accept Syrian refugees into the UK– however limited in number – is a positive step. In conjunction with quotas from other European countries, it may start to allay some of this suffering. But with the number of people fleeing Syria only set to rise in the coming months, one must ask whether it is enough.