GENEVA - A new U.N. refugee agency report finds some European countries are turning back Syrian asylum seekers and denying them a fair hearing to be granted international protection from war and persecution.
Based on the report's findings, the UNHCR officials are urging European countries to make sure Syrian refugees gain access to their territories, are allowed to lodge asylum claims and are provided with decent living conditions until their situation is resolved.
Nearly three million refugees have fled Syria since civil war broke out more than three years ago. Neighboring countries of refuge are buckling under the strain of caring for so many of the displaced, having reached regional saturation.
The refugee agency says one consequence of this is seen in the increasing numbers of Syrians who now are seeking safety in countries beyond the immediate region. UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says many Syrians are embarking on long and dangerous journeys to reach safety and in some cases to reunite with family members already in Europe.
Nevertheless, she notes, the numbers of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe remain small.
"In fact, they are miniscule," she said. "They represent only four percent of Syrian refugees. Just to put this into perspective, Europe has a population of 670 million people. [Compare] that to Lebanon, which has a population of 4.4 million people and has received 1.1 million refugees. That means that Lebanon has received 10 times as many refugees as all of Europe."
Since the conflict began in March 2011, UNHCR reports, some 123,600 Syrians have sought asylum in Europe. Most of these asylum seekers are concentrated in a few countries, with Sweden and Germany receiving more than half of all new Syrian asylum applications.
But Fleming says some countries, such as Bulgaria and Spain, have already closed their borders to hundreds of Syrian refugees.
"We also are disturbed by cases and claims of survivors of push-backs at sea in Greece that were turned around from Europe," she said. "There was one case in which survivors claim that their boat was being turned around by an official boat and in the process of being turned around, it capsized and many of the passengers died."
Fleming also says Russia sent 12 Syrian refugees back to their originating country.
The U.N. refugee agency says Europe has been very generous in contributing money for humanitarian assistance to millions of Syrian refugees. But that it is not being as generous in sharing the burden of caring for these refugees on their soil.
The UNHCR is urging countries across Europe to implement a comprehensive plan to assist those refugees who arrive and to help Syrian refugees find legal ways to reach Europe.