WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has directed the U.S. government to accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next fiscal year, a sixfold increase over the number admitted this year, White House press secretary Josh Earnest announced Thursday.

The new figure, which Earnest described as an “ambitious goal,” reflected the growing pressure the administration faces to develop a more robust response to the humanitarian crisis that has grown out of armed conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. Tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries are making desperate attempts to reach the continent, resulting in a widescale loss of life.

Earnest also urged nations in Europe and the Middle East — including some that don’t typically welcome asylum seekers — to “ramp up” their willingness to take in Syrian refugees.

The administration’s response comes a day after a top European Union official proposed spreading about 160,000 refugees across nearly two dozen EU countries.

The United States has lagged behind several European countries in its refugee aid efforts, largely because of time-consuming screening procedures to block Islamist militants and criminals from entering the United States under the guise of being legitimate refugees.

Almost 1,600 Syrian refugees have arrived in the United States since the conflict began in 2011, according to State Department figures.

Many of the Syrians so far have ended up moving to Michigan and California, where there are sizable Arabic-speaking communities and where they often already have family, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which helps resettle a quarter of all refugees to this country.

MAINE LIKELY TO SEE FEW REFUGEES

When asylum seekers accepted for resettlement first arrive in the United States, most go to orientation programs run by a coalition of faith-based and refugee nonprofit groups. These groups receive federal funds to help welcome the arriving refugees and determine the best place in the country for them to relocate, find housing, learn some English and start looking for jobs.

Maine has not had any Syrian refugees arrive in the last year, and only one Syrian refugee settled here the year before, according to Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services, which contracts with the State Department to provide resettlement services to refugees in Maine.

“We get so many calls from the community, from church groups, who are really willing to help,” said Tarlan Ahmadov, director of Refugee & Immigration Services. “They think that it is really important” to help the Syrian refugees.

Ahmadov noted that Catholic Charities does not sponsor anyone directly, but works with refugees that already have been cleared through the State Department.

Relatively few refugees are located in Maine due to the state’s small population, but the numbers have gradually increased in recent years, he said. In the last two years, Catholic Charities has helped between 350 and 400 refugees each year in the state. Five years ago, the group only worked with about 200 to 250 refugees a year.

If 10,000 Syrian refugees came to the United States next year, Maine could get up to 50 of them, Ahmadov said.

As refugees, they will be eligible for Medicaid and become permanent residents authorized to work in the country. After a year, they are eligible for a green card, and five years after that, they can become U.S. citizens.

“We want them to be able to transition to self-sufficiency,” Appleby said. “The idea of the program is to stay. They could return, but most of them will stay. Then they’ll try to petition for families to join them if they can.”

RISKS OF CRISES UNDERESTIMATED

As U.S. and EU officials scrambled to fashion a response to the massive influx of refugees, former administration officials and foreign affairs experts said the current predicament underscored how leaders in both regions had failed to adequately assess the risks posed by the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq.

Europeans leaders have struggled to unite over a plan, with some countries such as Germany welcoming refugees and others such as Hungary staunchly resisting. In the United States, the administration has faced pressure from some lawmakers to do more.

Julie Smith, who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden from April 2012 to June 2013, said the administration repeatedly looked at how to cope with instability in the region but did not anticipate this chain of events.

“It was hard for us in 2011, 2012 to look this far out and imagine how bad this could actually get,” she said. “There were many points in this crisis where it looked like (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) would fall and the rebels would win the day. We allowed that optimism to color our policy” decisions.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed some openness to the admission of additional refugees, even as a few of them have faulted the administration for not doing more to address the root crisis in Syria.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va., both members of the Foreign Relations Committee, supported the number released Thursday.

“That’s showing we’re playing our role with the international community,” Kaine said. “But there needs to be a conversation … about what the upstream strategy is to halt the flow of these refugees from a pretty horrible situation.”

Like many Republicans, Texas Sen. John Cornyn called the refugee crisis a result of Obama’s failure to properly deal with the Syrian civil war. He suggested that proposals to raise the existing U.S. cap on refugee resettlements amounted to “a Band-Aid on a bullet hole … an inconsequential patch.”

Press Herald Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher contributed to this report.