By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on countries on Wednesday to re-settle nearly half a million Syrian refugees in the next three years, though only Italy, Sweden, and the United States immediately announced concrete plans to play a part.
Ban, at the start of a ministerial conference hosted by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Geneva, said: "This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity."
The United Nations is aiming to re-settle some 480,000 refugees, about 10 percent of those now in neighboring countries, by the end of 2018, but concedes it is battling to overcome widespread fear and political wrangling.
Ban urged countries to pledge new and additional legal pathways for admitting the refugees, such as resettlement or humanitarian admission, family reunions, as well as labor and study opportunities.
"Success at this high-level meeting today will drive momentum in the months ahead," Ban told reporters, pointing to a series of upcoming conferences.
Italy and Sweden were among a handful of countries to make new concrete pledges to resettle refugees, an annual increase of some 1,500 and 3,000 refugees respectively, but not all of them would be Syrians.
"Sweden has continued to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the war and persecution in Syria, as well as other parts of the world. Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country – the highest number per capita in all of Europe," said Sweden's justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, referring to commitments already announced by the Obama administration, said: "We have significantly increased the number of interviewing officials at our refugee processing centers in the region so that we can resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of September."
European Union Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said 4,555 refugees from Syria's neighbors had been resettled in 11 EU states in its first scheme for 22,504 people established last July.
"If we want to effectively close the backdoor to irregular and dangerous migration routes, we have to open a safe and legal window," he said.
The Russian Federation said it was doubling places for Syrians eligible for free university studies to 300.
"My country is working on strengthening the ceasefire and assisting the (Syrian) government in combating terrorist groups," Gennady Gatilov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, said.
Norway's state secretary Marit Berger Rosland pointed to a trend of some Syrian applicants giving up as their plans change.
"Norway and other resettlement states are now experiencing that a number of Syrians are withdrawing, either before they have been interviewed or even after they have been accepted for resettlement."
The five-year conflict has killed at least 250,000 people and driven nearly 5 million refugees abroad, mostly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
"These are people with death at their back and a wall in their face," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)