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Europe under pressure to encourage ‘voluntary’ return of Syrian refugees

Several dozen Lebanese protesters carrying banners hostile to Syrian presence in their country gathered on Monday in Brussels on the sidelines of a yearly meeting dedicated to the Syrian conflict as pressure grows on the EU to support the return of refugees.

The EU has for years said that conditions for a safe and dignified return for Syrians are not met under the government of President Bashar Al Assad, who is responsible for a brutal response to a popular uprising that started in 2011 and turned into a civil war.

Host countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, as well as some EU countries, argue the burden of Syrian refugees is too heavy to bear and are increasingly calling for the bloc to change its position and push for voluntary returns. Such calls are reiterated forcefully every year around the time of the Brussels conference to support Syria and the region.

“You can’t have the same discourse for 13 years. It’s spinning out of control,” said Lebanese MP Pierre Bou Assi, who organised Monday’s rally, pointing at rising anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon, which is also suffering from a severe financial crisis.

“The best solution is to stop all financial for Syrians in Lebanon for them to return to Syria,” Mr Bou Assi, a member of the Christian Lebanese Forces political party, told The National.

The crowd around him chanted slogans calling on the EU to “leave Lebanon alone”.

“You fight illegal immigration in your countries. We’re doing the same,” read a banner at the protest.

For years, Lebanese politicians have been making similar demands but little has been done as Mr Al Assad remains in power. The main UN – supervised peace process has been in deep freeze since 2017.

Meanwhile, forced returns of Syrian refugees by Lebanese authorities have increased, with human rights organisations warning of unlawful deportations and mistreatment before they are sent to Syria, where they risk forced military conscription and arbitrary arrests.

Syrian refugees are being abandoned. Host countries are being abandoned.

Jordan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ayman Safadi

A recent life imprisonment sentence by a Paris court against three senior officials, including an adviser to Mr Al Assad, for involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity, highlighted the pervasive use of torture in detention centres.

In the latest UN Syrian refugee perception survey, only about one per cent of respondents said they intended to go back to Syria in the next year. The top reason was the lack of employment and livelihood opportunities. More than 90 per cent of Syrians in Syria live under the poverty line, according to the UN.

As the conflict enters its fourteenth year, donations from countries supporting UN programmes for Syrian refugees have decreased amid other global conflicts, including in Ukraine. UN officials have warned this will further trigger departures from the EU.

‘More effective’ management of Syrian refugees

“We feel that refugees are being abandoned. Host countries are being abandoned,” said Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi, as he arrived for a series of meetings with EU officials in Brussels.

“Unless the international community shoulders its responsibility, there’ll be a decrease in services and more suffering for refugees,” he said.

“Refugee issues can only be solved by them going back to their country. We need to focus more on creating conditions conducive for their voluntary return.”

The EU showed a renewed interest in Syrian refugees in Lebanon after complaints by member state Cyprus after a recent increase in arrivals of Syrians by boat from Lebanon.

Estimated at 30,000, the total number of Syrians in Cyprus, which has a population of about 900,000 outside of the Turkish-controlled area of the Island, pales in comparison to Syria’s neighbouring countries.

At close to 780,000 according to the UN, the number of Syrians in Lebanon represents roughly a fifth of the local population. Local authorities believes figures are higher – closer to 2 million – due to unregistered Syrians. In total, more than 5 million Syrians live as refugees outside their home country.

Earlier this month, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced a one billion euro package for Lebanon. The exact details of the disbursement of the funds, intended to support basic services, border management, and the Lebanese army, remain unclear. Commission officials have said that it would not go to the Lebanese government but instead through third parties including UN agencies.

Cyprus has called for establishing “safe zones” in Syria and for “realistic measures to manage migration more effectively.” Nicosia invited earlier this month seven other EU countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Austria, to discuss “migration and Syria dynamics”.

In a speech in Beirut, Ms von der Leyen appeared to open the door to discussions on returns. “We will also look at how we can make the EU’s assistance more effective. This includes exploring how to work on a more structured approach to voluntary returns to Syria, in close co-operation with UNHCR,” she said.

Speaking ahead of the Syria donor conference, an EU official said that language on the conflict was unlikely to change anytime soon. “Again, we think the conditions for returns to Syria are not met,” they said. “It’s up to Syria to create conditions for return.”

Source: The National News