Poll shows most Europeans sympathize with Syrian refugees, 'have not lost their hearts'

September 15, 2016 7:08 PM EDT

Migrants walk in the night along the highway towards the border with Austria, some 22 km of Budapest, Hungary, September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

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By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than three quarters of Europeans sympathize with Syrian refugees coming to their countries, a poll found on Friday, challenging reports of growing anti-immigration sentiment across the continent.

Ireland topped the poll of European countries that are most supportive of Syrian refugees with 87 percent of people interviewed there showing sympathy for them, while Slovakia ranked bottom.

The Ipsos MORI survey also showed that less than a third of the roughly 12,000 people polled across 12 EU countries believe refugees are a risk to national security despite a number of recent attacks involving migrants.

"These findings show that Europeans have not lost their hearts," said David Miliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organization which commissioned the poll.

The survey comes as Europe grapples with its worst migration crisis since World War Two. More than one million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere reached Europe last year.

Syrians made up 28 percent of the 2015 arrivals, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

Of the people polled, 30 percent said one of their top three concerns was that refugees posed a security threat.

The survey was published as anti-immigration parties make gains in several EU countries.

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that her liberal migrant policy contributed to a humiliating state election rout on Sept. 4, where her Christian Democrats (CDU) finished third behind the surging anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Nationalist, anti-immigration parties are also leading opinion polls in France and the Netherlands ahead of general elections next year.

"At a time when toxic rhetoric has found its way into the political mainstream, there is a clear call here for governments to combine compassion with competence in responding to the refugee crisis," Miliband said in a statement.

"The refugee crisis is a human tragedy but it does not need to become a political disaster".

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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