UN refugee agency urges EU to overhaul policy on Syrian refugees, better help Greece, Italy



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ATHENS, Greece — The U.N. refugee agency on Wednesday said it was urging the European Union to overhaul its policy toward Syrian refugees, warning the number of fatal accidents at sea could rise further as winter approaches.

U.N. officials, presenting their proposals in Athens, said more than 3,000 asylum seekers had died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. They urged the EU to provide ports for reception and to process asylum applications across member states.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, also urged the 28-nation bloc to provide emergency financial assistance to Greece, Italy and Malta to deal with the soaring number of illegal sea crossings.

"With the best will in the world, the number of people coming is too large for authorities to deal with," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of UNHCR's office in Greece.

"There must be legal asylum options, with so-called humanitarian visas, and work programs for refugees."

Greece is a major transit point for illegal immigration in Europe with dozens of islands near Turkey's coast. Syrian asylum seekers reaching Greece are often crammed into temporary shelters in school buildings and churches.

Authorities expect a three-fold increase in illegal immigration this year, compared with 2013, with nearly two-thirds of the illegal traffic now coming from Syria.

UNHCR said should be given to helping Greece's newly-created Primary Reception Centers — aimed at fast tracking asylum applications and run under a civilian authority from the Public Order Ministry.

The authority's director, Panagiotis Nikas, said local officials weren't always happy to see him.

"There is a certain level of hypocrisy out there, an attitude of 'not in my backyard,'" he said.

"The mayor of one island — I won't say which one — recently told me that if I set foot in his town, he'd have me thrown into the sea."

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