By Oliver Griffin
BUENOS AIRES, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Argentina unveiled plans on Friday to grant 1,000 university scholarships to Syrian refugees over the next five years after facing criticism from human rights groups for stalling on a commitment last year to take in 3,000 refugees.
President Mauricio Macri said last year that he intended to allow more than 3,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the country but so far only hundreds have arrived.
But at the World Economic Forum for Latin America in Buenos Aires on Friday, Argentina's Minister of Education Esteban Bullrich said the government was now opening its doors to 1,000 students for their benefit and the benefit of Argentina.
This is on top of the commitment to take in 3,000 Syrians.
"We want to be open to the world. We need to help solving problems that the world is facing. Syria is a world problem today," Bullrich told a news conference.
"This programme will help Argentina to become a better country and our society to become a better society."
He said Argentina would also introduce a new humanitarian visa to provide refugees with a pathway to permanent residency.
The scholarships stem from a collaboration between the Argentine government and Blue Rose Compass, a U.S. non-government organisation that works with gifted refugees to find them education and jobs.
Lorna Solis, founder and CEO of Blue Rose Compass, said the apparent nerve gas attack on Syria this week showed that the world more than ever needed to help refugees with schemes like scholarships.
Five million Syrians have fled into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the European Union to escape the conflict among rebels, Islamist militants, government troops and foreign backers.
"I hope other countries follow suit," Solis told the news conference.
"It is a catastrophe and lack of humanity that we are seeing this seven years in. These scholarships come at a very poignant time ... This is an incredible gift and true leadership from Argentina."
The United Nations has appealed for $8 billion this year to deal with one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with millions of people displaced inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Solis said the scholarships will be awarded to Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan with the first placements at universities in Buenos Aires before being extended to other cities in Argentina.
Over the next four months a group of 20 students will be selected and vetted by Blue Rose Compass and the Argentine government, with further groups of 196 students over the next five years.
The refugees, aged between 17 and 32, will be offered intensive courses in Spanish and the opportunity to live with fellow university students to help them assimilate. Girls travelling alone will be able to live with host families.
The scholarships are part of the wider program in Argentina to take in 3,000 Syrian refugees and provide them with the means to get jobs and homes.
"We want them to come here and feel that they can stay. We want them to live here and make us more complete," Bullrich said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)