Rich countries urged to take 5 percent of Syrian refugees: TRFN

Syrian children wait to carry customers' goods using wheelbarrows, in front of the Tazweed Center at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, December 7, 2014. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rich countries should agree to take at least 5 percent of all Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, aid agencies said as pressure mounts ahead of a major conference on the crisis. At least 3.2 million people have fled Syria since the civil conflict erupted in 2011, putting neighboring countries under colossal strain. Syrian refugees across the Middle East, some in exile for a fourth winter, face freezing temperatures, hunger and increasing hostility from locals as governments struggle to cope. Tuesday's conference in Geneva comes amid concern that the biggest host countries, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have started restricting access to people fleeing the war. "European countries must share responsibility," said Ana Fontal, spokeswoman for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). "It's difficult to continue saying you shouldn't close borders if we don't do more to bring refugees here." The U.N refugee agency (UNHCR) is calling on countries to make pledges toward resettling 130,000 refugees affected by "the worst humanitarian crisis of our time". It is prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with medical needs, torture survivors and women and girls at risk. "Offering resettlement can mean the difference between life and death," said Fontal. "EU countries must seize the opportunity to express greater solidarity and significantly increase their role in providing protection." The 5 percent demand - which represents 160,000 refugees - is backed by many aid and refugee groups including Oxfam, Save the Children, Refugee Council and Amnesty International. Last week Amnesty strongly criticized Gulf countries for their "shameful" failure to resettle a single Syrian refugee. PITIFUL The UNHCR says offers made since 2013 bring it nearly halfway toward its goal of 130,000 places. Germany alone has pledged to take 30,000 Syrians. "We want countries to follow the example of Germany and come up with ambitious numbers," said Fontal. Campaigners have been particularly critical of Britain which had accepted just 90 Syrians for resettlement by September. Refugee Council's Anna Musgrave said the number was pitiful. "It's barely enough to fill a double decker bus. It's really quite shocking." Last month a coalition of charities called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to offer 10,000 places to Syrians. Ahead of the Geneva conference, a handful of European countries have indicated plans to accept more Syrians in 2015. Norway could take up to 1,500, France 500 and the Netherlands 250. Belgium said it would resettle 150 refugees from Syria and Iraq, with a focus on religious minorities. Britain, which has no figure for 2015, said it expected to relocate several hundred vulnerable Syrians over three years. (Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ros Russell)