LONDON : European Union leaders should “hang their heads in shame” at their failure to provide safe haven for Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal conflict, Amnesty International said on Friday.

In a damning report, the human rights group says EU member states have offered places for just 12,340 people over the next year - well below the 30,000 sought by the UN and a tiny fraction of the millions who have fled Syria.

As winter storms brought fresh misery to the hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltering in tents in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, the group urged the EU to ease some of the pressure on Syria’s neighbours. “The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives,” said Secretary General Salil Shetty.

“The number of those it’s prepared to resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame.”

Amnesty also condemned the bloc for making it so difficult to enter the EU legally, and for leaving those who do make it languishing in squalid detention centres for weeks on end.

“The EU must open its borders, provide safe passage and halt these deplorable human rights violations,” Shetty said.

Syria’s neighbours have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for other countries to provide 30,000 places by the end of 2014.

Only half of these places have been pledged so far, and of the 12,340 offered by EU nations, the vast majority - 10,000 - are from one country, Germany.

Eighteen EU member states have offered no places, including Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron has been vocal in his calls for international action to stem the crisis.

In September, two British refugee campaign groups wrote to Cameron urging him to establish a resettlement programme.

But a government spokesman said Friday it had no plans to resettle or provide temporary protection to Syrians, saying it was focused on providing humanitarian aid to the region.

“We are one of the highest international donors to the Syrian relief effort - our £500 million ($800 million, 600 million euros) pledged so far is more than the other EU member states combined,” the spokesman for the interior ministry said.

Hundreds of people die each year trying to reach Europe by sea in overcrowded, leaky boats, while those that try their luck on land can be poorly treated and are often turned back.

In Bulgaria, where an estimated 5,000 refugees arrived between January and November, Amnesty said it had found refugees “living in squalid conditions in containers, a dilapidated building and in tents”.

“It is deplorable that many of those that who have risked life and limb to get here, are either forced back or detained in truly squalid conditions with insufficient food, water or medical care,” said Shetty.

Refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Greece reported being met by gun-wielding, hooded coastguard officials who stripped them of their belongings before sending them back.

“They put all the men lying on the boat; they stepped on us and hit us with their weapons for three hours,” explained one man picked up by the Greek coastguard near the island of Samos in October.

“Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish waters and left us in the middle of the sea.”

Just 55,000 Syrian refugees have managed to claim asylum in the EU, a fraction of the estimated 2.3 million who have fled the country, Amnesty said.

About 126,000 people are thought to have died since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a crackdown following a series of pro-democracy protests in March 2011.