Last updated: 13 October, 2013

Syrian exodus reaches Europe’s doorstep

The shipwreck off Malta that claimed the lives of more than 30 migrants revealed yet another facet of Syria's humanitarian nightmare -- the largest displacement of people in decades.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 some seven million people — nearly a third of the population — have been displaced, with two million of them fleeing across the border, according to UN figures.

Many have poured into countries with sectarian conflicts mirroring those in Syria, raising fears of a spillover of violence, particularly in deeply divided Lebanon and increasingly volatile Iraq.

Lebanon, with a population of just 4.4 million, has accepted the largest number of refugees — 760,000, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — but the government says there may be as many as 1.3 million, including those not officially registered.

Some 540,000 refugees have fled to Jordan, adding a major burden to its already overstretched water and power supplies. Some 120,000 refugees live in the sprawling Zaatari camp alone.

Another 500,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey, and 190,000 have escaped to Iraq despite a recent surge of violence there to levels not seen since 2008, when it was emerging from its own bloody sectarian conflict.

Some 47,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Europe, leading to calls from several nations for a unified EU response which has yet to materialise

Since the start of the year, Syrians have filed some 13,000 requests for asylum, including 4,700 in Sweden, 4,500 in Germany and 700 in France, according to EU figures.

Last month, Sweden became the first nation in Europe to grant residency to all Syrian asylum seekers who manage to make their way to its shores, with the exception of suspected war criminals.

According to its migration board, nearly 11,000 Syrians have obtained asylum in Sweden since 2012 and the figure is expected to rise sharply.

Germany announced earlier this year that it was ready to take in another 5,000 Syrians seeking refuge, bringing to about 18,000 the number of Syrian refugees accepted since the start of the conflict.

An increasing number of Syrians are travelling to Europe along the oft-used but treacherous sea route to the Italian island of Lampedusa, near where the migrant boat capsized Friday.

The UN refugee agency said after interviewing survivors that 300-400 migrants — mainly from Syria and the Palestinian territories — were on board the vessel, which left from the Libyan port city of Zwara.

Rescuers pulled 200 survivors from the water, while Maltese authorities said more than 30 people had died.

Since January, some 4,600 Syrians have arrived in Italy by sea, including 3,000 in the month of August alone.