(Refiles to fix spelling of UNHCR official to Volker Turk)
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Europe needs to step up efforts to grant asylum to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria in order to help shoulder the burden on its neighbouring countries, the United Nations refugee protection chief says.
Most of the almost 2.3 million Syrian refugees live in host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, and their resources are stretched to the limit, said Volker Turk, director of international protection at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
UNHCR has proposed that Western countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees through resettlement or humanitarian admission programmes by the end of 2014. So far, 16 Western countries, including European Union (EU) states, have pledged to resettle 10,240 refugees.
"It's a sign of solidarity with the neighbouring countries," Turk told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview last week. "But we need more. This is only the beginning of much higher numbers of resettlements and humanitarian admissions that we need in the future for the Syria crisis."
Resources in host communities are being depleted by the influx of refugees, Turk said.
"Look at Lebanon: It's a population of 4 million, and you have almost 25 percent of the population now who are refugees. That's a very difficult situation… One needs to look very carefully at the needs of the host communities because there is a saturation point."
Europe's refugee rules, known as the Dublin regulations, have come under scrutiny, in particular after nearly 400 African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa two months ago.
Drafted a decade ago, the strict regulations establish which country a migrant can apply to for refugee status. In most cases, asylum must be sought in the country where a person enters the EU, putting the burden on border countries like Italy and Greece.
Increasingly, Syrian refugees are embarking on perilous boat journeys across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. About a quarter of the 30,100 migrants that had reached Italy by early October this year were Syrians, according to UNHCR data.
"I think there will have to be some radical rethinking in Europe about how one can ensure better admission of Syrians who seek to move on, either for employment, study or unification purposes," Turk said. "We need to modify these criteria."
The European Commission has started to sketch a plan to help refugees arriving in Mediterranean countries. An EU task force has dedicated 50 million euros ($68 million) to improving the quality and capacity of member states' asylum systems. Measures include better cooperation in the fight against human trafficking and more efficient processing of asylum applications.
EU URGES MEMBERS TO DO MORE
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström last week called on all member states to take in refugees who had been registered with UNHCR.
"This is the single most efficient short-term measure that member states can do to help prevent these very vulnerable people from taking the dangerous route over the Mediterranean," Malmstrom said last week when she presented the plan.
Out of the 28-member European Union, 11 countries so far have pledged to take in refugees under the UNHCR proposals, with Germany accounting for 5,000, the biggest number.
Last year, 4,500 people were resettled through the UNHCR programme in the EU. By comparison, the United States took in 50,000 people in 2012 and has committed to take in an open-ended number under the current programme.
Turk said women and children, who make up about 70 percent of all Syrian refugees, were at the centre of UNHCR's resettlement and humanitarian admission efforts.
"Jordan and Lebanon alone have about 70,000 female-headed households, so you can imagine what this means for women to be the sole breadwinners of their families in such a situation," Turk said.
"There are a lot of fractured families, a lot of family separation, a lot of issues of livelihoods and need for massive assistance - not just for the refugee communities but also for the host communities."