The number of Syrian refugees fleeing fighting in their country has reached 115,000 and aid agencies must develop a plan to deal with the growing humanitarian emergency, EU officials said on Monday (23 July).
"It's a horrible situation there, changing by the hour," Cecilia Malmström, European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs, told journalists following a meeting of aid officials in Cyprus.
Cyprus, which holds the rotating six month EU presidency, is the closest member state to Syria, separated by a 170-km stretch of sea.
European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers, meeting at an informal session, heard from United Nations aid agency UNHCR that 115,000 Syrians had already fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
In consultation with the EU, Cyprus has drafted contingency plans to assist in the evacuation of up to 200,000 people – EU passport holders and third-country nationals – as a worst case scenario, officials said.
Cypriot officials have stressed the contingency planning would only be to facilitate the repatriation of people fleeing violence, and not for admitting Syrian refugees.
'Regional protection programme'
Separately, Malmström said EU ministers had discussed what she said was establishing a "special version of a regional protection programme" which would focus on humanitarian assistance, return of displaced persons, integration and resettlement.
"This was an informal meeting, the first time in this context that we discussed the horrible situation in Syria, so it was more exploratory," she told a news conference.
"This is something we are looking at and we will come back to it because, unfortunately, the conflict is not likely to cease in the coming weeks," she said.
According to UNHCR assessments, 42,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey, between 30,000 and 34,000 each to Jordan and Lebanon and 8,000 to Iraq, Eleni Mavrou, Cyprus's Interior Minister, said.
EU tightens sanctions on Syria
The plans for refugee protection came as EU foreign ministers tightened an arms embargo on Syria and expanded other sanctions on Monday to try to hasten the end of the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels that is escalating towards civil war.
The new embargo rules require EU countries to search planes and ships, starting from Wednesday, if they suspect they are carrying arms, dual-use goods or equipment used for repression to Syria.
"These sanctions are important because they will allow ships to be examined to see what cargo they're carrying, and that will prevent, I hope, any arms reaching Syria," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
The EU decision sharpens differences with Russia, which has provided the Syrian government with weaponry and has blocked Western moves to get a UN Security Council resolution threatening Syria with sanctions.
The new sanctions include a ban on the Syrian national airline that will prevent the flag carrier landing at EU airports, although it will still be able to fly over EU countries and make emergency stops.
Ministers added 26 people, mostly military officials, to a list of those subject to EU travel bans and asset freezes. The bloc had already imposed sanctions on 49 organisations and 129 people in Syria.
Details of these measures were due to be made public on Tuesday (24 July).