EU declines to take part in Russia-backed event on returning refugees to Syria

The European Union said on Tuesday that it will not take part in an international conference this week on the return of refugees to Syria, insisting that the first priority should be to make it safe for people to go back to the conflict-ravaged country, news wires reported.

The two-day conference, organized by Russia and set to begin on Wednesday, has been criticized by UN and US officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that large parts of Syria are relatively peaceful and it’s time for the millions of Syrians who fled to go home and help rebuild.

But EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the conference is premature. “The EU and its member states will not attend this conference,” Borrell said in a statement. He said the 27-nation bloc believes “that the priority at present is real action to create conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas of origin.”

Syria’s nine-year war has killed about a half-million people, wounded more than a million and forced about 5.6m to flee abroad as refugees, mostly to neighboring countries. Another 6 million of Syria’s prewar population of 23m are internally displaced.

A UN-facilitated political process has been stuck for months, and many Western countries blame Damascus for blocking progress. Many Syrians and Western countries see current conditions in Syria as not ripe for the mass return of refugees. “Conditions inside Syria at present do not lend themselves to the promotion of large-scale voluntary return, in conditions of safety and dignity in line with international law,” Borrell said. He pointed out that many obstacles still hinder any safe returns, “in particular forced conscription, indiscriminate detention, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence, discrimination in access to housing, land and property as well as poor or inexistent basic services.”

On Monday, Syrian Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister Ayman Sousan, said an invitation to the conference was sent to all the countries except Turkey, AP reported. He blamed Ankara as supporter of terrorist organizations in Syria. Sousan said China, Russia, Iran, Lebanon, UAE, Pakistan and the Sultanate of Oman were among the states that agreed to take part in the conference, while the UN will participate as an observer.

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