Ban Ki-moon - UN.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI

Wealthy countries should resettle nearly half a million Syrians to ease the strain on Middle Eastern host countries, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday at a UN Syrian refugee conference in Geneva.

"We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity," Ban said.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) convened the meeting of more than 90 countries at the Swiss UN seat, aiming to win new pledges for resettlement, family reunification programmes, as well as work and study visas.

Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and North African countries have taken in 4.8 million Syrians - the vast majority of those who have fled the five-year war in their country.

This task has placed great burdens on state budgets and public services, representatives from these host countries said.

In Lebanon, one in three inhabitants is a Syrian refugee, Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas pointed out.

"Lebanon is on fragile ground and is taking on heavy burdens. If Lebanon itself fails and is crushed under this burden, it might itself be a source of concern for the [UN] high commissioner for refugees," he said.

UN High Commissioner Filippo Grandi stressed that the 480,000 spots requested by UNHCR are separate from usual asylum procedures. They are aimed especially at vulnerable groups including women, children and people with medical needs.

"Opening safe and regular pathways for admission can never be a substitute for countries' fundamental responsibilities under international law towards people seeking asylum on their territory," Grandi said.

So far, wealthy countries have pledged 178,000 of the 480,000 resettlement spots that are needed for Syrians in the coming three years, according to the UNHCR.

Canada has taken in 26,000 Syrians under a resettlement scheme that involves the engagement of businesses, host communities and Canadian families.

"It is quite simply the right thing to do," Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum said.

Ban said countries should not demonize refugees but should see the opportunities that the people could bring to their new host countries.

"Today, they are refugees. Tomorrow, they can be students and professors, scientists and researchers, workers and caregivers," he said.

The European Union has recently agreed with Turkey to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers from that country, in return for refugees that are to be returned from Greece to Turkey.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos acknowledged shortcomings in the bloc's resettlement system and willingness to host additional refugees.

"We must step up delivery and foster political will," he said.

Resettlement would help to prevent refugees from resorting to dangerous trips across the Mediterranean, he added.

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