Europe must share refugee burden with Turkey: UNHCR chief

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee chief called on Monday for European countries to help Turkey by taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees as EU leaders in Brussels said they needed more time to consider a Turkish proposal on the migrant crisis.

Life jackets are displayed for sale at a clothing shop on a main street in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, March 7, 2016. Many migrants pass through Izmir before attempting to cross the sea into Greece. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey offered the European Union greater help at a summit on Monday to stem a flood of migrants into Europe but raised the stakes by demanding more money, accelerated membership talks and faster visa-free travel for its citizens in return.

“In the joint action plan, the most important thing is to help Turkey bear the burden, responsibility by taking people ... not in the thousands or tens of thousands but in the hundreds of thousands,” Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said.

The European Union had failed to implement a series of “fairly good decisions” taken in 2015, including an agreement to relocate refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU states.

“If they had been implemented six or 12 months ago it would probably have made this whole flow more manageable,” he told an event the Geneva Graduate Institute. “I am very concerned what the Council is debating and will conclude tonight.”

This was “essentially still a refugee flow”, dominated by Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans fleeing conflict, he said.

Grandi decried “a dangerous trend” along the Western Balkan migration route, where some authorities are excluding some nationalities, such as Afghans, without a fair individual hearing of their asylum claims, he said.

“It’s all Syrians in, all Afghans out. We refuse that position, which may well prevail,” he said.

Turkey is hosting more than two million Syrian refugees - the most of any country worldwide, providing protection and assistance and allowing some to work, Grandi said.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the annual conference that he had thought on taking up the post in 2012 that his agency “would never put our foot again on the European continent”. But the ICRC now works on the Mediterranean’s northern rim helping migrants.

“It is picking up the pieces of unilateral decisions of countries which don’t care about the consequences on people or in humanitarian terms,” he said.

Editing by Louise Ireland