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An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Hannah Boland
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A top European Union official appealed to the EU's 28 member states on Monday to step up their efforts to resettle Syrian refugees, saying Europe must offer a legal alternative to migrants who risk their life to reach the continent by sea.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said Syria's neighbours were hosting three million refugees displaced by the country's three-year-old civil war but Europe had accepted fewer than 100,000.
"That's not a lot of people. Today around half of the (EU) countries have said that they would engage in resettlement from Syria. I think all 28 (EU member states) should," she said.
If all EU countries resettled as many as the two EU countries that take most Syrian refugees, Sweden and Germany, did, "we could at least help 150,000 resettled refugees," she said.
Malmstrom was speaking at a news conference to release the annual report of an EU agency, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which said the number of people applying for asylum in the EU rose 30 percent to 435,760 in 2013, the highest figure since the EU began collecting data in 2008.
In the first five months of this year, there was a further 19 percent rise in the number of applications for asylum compared with the same period of last year, EASO said.
Asylum applicants from Syria more than doubled last year to 50,495 while the second highest number of asylum applicants was from Russia, with more than 41,000 applicants.
Most of the Russian asylum applicants are from the republics of the northern Caucasus, where the EASO report said the human rights situation continued to be worrying.
Thousands of desperate refugees from the Middle East and Africa, including many from Syria, make a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean each year to reach Europe, mainly via Italy, which has been urging its European partners to do more to help it cope.
The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, says around 500 migrants have died so far this year in the Mediterranean.
"People do embark on rickety vessels on very dangerous travels because there are very few if any legal ways to get to Europe. One way ... to come to Europe in a safe way would be through increased resettlement. We must increase this," Malmstrom said.
The EASO also said there had been a significant rise in the number of Ukrainian citizens applying for asylum in western Europe since March, when Russia occupied and then annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.
In the last 20 years, the average number of applications was roughly 100 per month, but between March and May, more than 2,000 applications were made, the agency said.
For the most part, these people had not travelled from Ukraine to apply for asylum, but were already working in the EU, the agency's executive director, Robert Visser, said.
(Writing by Adrian Croft; editing by Andrew Roche)