Nearly 80 years ago, the UK took in 4,000 Basque children fleeing strife on the continent. Today, it must be possible for Britain to take in half as many of the desperate migrants who are arriving on the shores of Italy and Greece.

In 1937, in the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica, 4,000 Basque children were taken on board the steamship Habana to Southampton to escape the horrors of the Spanish civil war. Known as Los Ni??os, the children had initially been refused by the Baldwin government, which had adopted a policy of non-intervention during the war. But in the face of public sympathy over the massacre at Guernica and a campaign run by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, it relented. In accepting the Basque children, the government stuck – albeit reluctantly – to a British tradition of supporting refugees displaced by humanitarian crises – from the Huguenots who suffered religious persecution by Louis XIV in the 16th century to the Ugandan Asians who, accused of being 'bloodsuckers', were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972.

Today Britain faces another heartrending crisis. Since the beginning of 2015, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean has taken more than 1,750 lives. Instability and poverty in north Africa and the Middle East have forced migrants – particularly from Syria and Eritrea – to take flight to southern Europe, many making the hazardous journey over the Mediterranean to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy and Greece face unsustainable numbers of asylum-seekers arriving on their shores. The prime minister has said that the UK is not a country that would 'walk on by' in the face of a humanitarian tragedy. But so far government has done little to provide sanctuary for the displaced migrants at the centre of the crisis.

In May, the European Commission put forward a number of proposals for addressing the crisis. Some of the proposals were focussed on combatting the people smugglers exploiting the migrants desperate to travel to Europe. But the package also contained a (legally binding) decision on relocating 40,000 migrants in Italy and Spain to other member states and a (non-binding) recommendation on resettling a further 20,000 asylum-seekers currently not in Europe. If implemented, these programmes would employ a formula based on population size, GDP, unemployment rate and previous efforts to resettle refugees to distribute migrants across the EU. The resettlement scheme, according to the Commission, would allocate an estimated total of 2,309 migrants from Greece and Italy to the UK – a trivial number in the context of the UK's latest net migration estimate of 318,000 in 2014.

Yet these quota schemes have met with considerable resistance in a number of European countries. The UK has made clear that it intends to use its 'opt in' to avoid participating in the relocation programme, even if the scheme does get the qualified majority support in the European Council required for its implementation. International development secretary Justine Greening has stated that the UK will not accept the relocation quota scheme because it will act as a 'pull for more migrants' to make the perilous journey. Instead, she highlighted, it was necessary to look at the root causes of the migrants' decisions to risk the journey to Europe.

The government is right, of course, to adopt a holistic approach to the crisis – any serious response needs to address the deep levels of poverty, regional instability and violent conflict that are forcing people to leave their homes and make their way across the Mediterranean. But such efforts will do little to address the short-term needs of the migrants who have made – or who are about to make – the journey. And, given the current scale of the crisis, it is scarcely credible to think that allowing a small number of migrants to settle in the UK would have a seismic impact on the desperate decision-making of potential migrants in north Africa and the Middle East. A resettlement scheme, on the other hand, could relieve some of the challenges in the Mediterranean by providing a safer, more secure route to Europe for migrants in need.

A resettlement and relocation programme is of course not a silver bullet. Migrants seeking asylum will still risk their lives to make the journey to Europe; the deeper causes of the migration will not be solved overnight. There are also major logistical challenges for settling refugees – Britain could learn some lessons from Germany, which disperses refugees to areas with high levels of labour market demand. But an effort to resettle at least some refugees desperately in need is part of Britain's long and honourable history of doing its bit to alleviate suffering where it can. We found a way to do it in 1937; we can find a way of doing it again now.

Addendum, 17.06.15: Thanks to Jonathan Portes, who has rightly pointed out Britain's considerably more mixed record on its admission of Jews fleeing Nazism, as documented by historian Louise London in her study of British immigration policy towards Jewish refugees in the 1930s and '40s.