UN refugee summit hears call to confront 'race-baiting bigots'
People react after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos along with other migrants and refugees, on November 17, 2015 (AFP)

The UN rights chief on Monday made a rousing appeal to confront the world's "race-baiting bigots" at the first-ever summit on refugees and slammed the United Nations for failing to end the war in Syria.

World governments pledged at the summit to scale up efforts to confront the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, adopting a political declaration that human rights groups have criticized as almost meaningless.

"This should not be a comfortable summit," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told the gathering at the UN General Assembly.

"The bitter truth is, this summit was called because we have been largely failing. Failing the long-suffering people of Syria, in not ending the war in its infancy," said the UN high commissioner for human rights.

In a toughly-worded speech that drew loud applause from the hall, Zeid took aim at "bigots and deceivers" and pointedly said "some of them may well be in this hall this morning."

"The defenders of what is right and good are being outflanked, in too many countries, by race-baiting bigots, who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit, at the expense of those most vulnerable," he said.

The rights chief spoke of "an epidemic of amnesia" among leaders "who seem to have forgotten the two world wars" and warned that the darkest chapters of history could return to be played out again.

The summit kicked off a week of high-level diplomacy as world leaders are set to address the annual General Assembly meeting, which this year will be dominated by the conflict in Syria.

- Syria casts long shadow -

A record-breaking 65 million people are on the move worldwide, fleeing wars such as the carnage in Syria, repression and poverty, including 21 million refugees competing for too few resettlement opportunities.

Now in its sixth year, the war in Syria has driven nearly nine million people from their homes while an additional four million have fled to neighboring countries or are making the perilous journey to Europe.

A ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and the United States was under threat after rebel-held Aleppo came under renewed attack while the US-led coalition killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in a strike that Washington says was unintentional.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a global campaign against xenophobia, saying it would seek to "turn fear into hope."

"We must change the way we talk about refugees and migrants," said Ban.

The UN campaign against xenophobia comes at a time when welcoming migrants and refugees has become a divisive issue in Europe and the United States.

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama will host a second summit at which some 40 countries will make new offers of aid, either by taking in more refugees or supporting access to education and jobs.

During negotiations leading up to the summit, a proposal by Ban to resettle 10 percent of the global refugee population was dropped from the non-binding draft declaration.

Amnesty International has labeled the summit a "missed opportunity" to come up with a global plan while Human Rights Watch has called out countries like Brazil, Japan and South Korea that have taken in a only handful of refugees, or no refugees at all, in the case of Russia.

Only eight countries currently host more than half the world's refugees: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda.

Six of the world's richest countries -- the United States, China, Japan, Britain, Germany and France -- hosted only 1.8 million refugees last year, just seven percent of the world total, according to research by the British charity Oxfam.