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UNHCR Chief Questions EU Refugee Strategy in Turkey

  • Reuters

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres meets with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (not pictured) in Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, Oct. 12, 2015.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres meets with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (not pictured) in Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, Oct. 12, 2015.

The U.N. refugee agency chief questioned on Monday the European Union's strategy of building more camps in Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, saying it would be more effective if host countries allowed refugees to work.

The EU has pledged at least 1 billion euros ($1.14 billion) for Syrian refugees mostly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and says it is willing to give Ankara funds so that Syrians can apply for asylum in Europe directly from camps on Turkish soil.

More than 2 million Syrians are in Turkey, which has some of the best equipped refugee camps ever built with facilities including schooling, healthcare and social services.

Yet only about 300,000 are sheltered in camps and many new arrivals are reluctant to move into them, fearing they will be trapped and unable to work or forge a new life for years.

"The overwhelming majority of Syrians are not living in camps, they are with the society," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news conference in Athens, when asked to comment on the EU's approach.

"An effective solidarity with the host countries, allowing for those countries also to provide refugees with the right to work and with the possibility of self-reliance, would be a very important contribution to reduce the flow [into Europe]."

The former Portuguese prime minister said authorities should be prepared for an increase in the numbers fleeing Syria due to an intensification of the war there, but it was impossible to forecast the dimension of the problem.

"We should be prepared for the situation to become more serious than what it is today," Guterres said after inspecting strained reception facilities in Greece, an entry point into the EU for over 400,000 migrants and refugees this year.

He also told Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras he was impressed by the solidarity shown to refugees by Greek people and said they deserved stronger European financial and practical support.

He urged the EU to take in more refugees directly from camps in Jordan and Turkey as part of resettlement programs as a way to stop them from risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in overcrowded rubber dinghies.

The UNHCR says more than 3,000 have died this year trying to cross from Turkey. Several thousand more have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Italy from North Africa. Greece says its coastguard has rescued more than 70,000 people at sea in the last seven months.

"We need to strongly increase resettlement from Turkey ... We need to substantially increase the number of opportunities for people to come to Europe legally," Guterres said.

"It's impossible not to be shocked when we see those boats which are manufactured just for this crossing, very fragile. I have never seen boats as fragile as those I have seen in Lesbos, [which] are destroyed immediately afterwards. This is horrible."

($1 = 0.8797 euros)

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