The Assad regime organises a ‘premature’ refugee conference as conditions for repatriation continue to be alarming for many displaced Syrians.
The Syrian regime is holding a refugee conference in Damascus on November 11-12 under Russian advice, while the country remains one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The international community has largely avoided attending the meeting, describing the conference call as “premature” and citing unsuitable conditions for "large-scale voluntary returns" of Syrian refugees.
"A number of EU member states' foreign ministers and the High Representative have received an invitation to a conference on the theme of refugee returns, on 11-12 November, in Damascus. The EU and its member states will not attend this conference," said the EU via a statement.
Washington has already called the international community to boycott the Russia-led refugee conference.
“It is the strong belief of the US that this conference is counter-productive and it is totally inappropriate for any military organisation to manage refugee returns in Syria, Russia or otherwise,” said Richard Mills, Washington’s deputy ambassador to the UN, during an online meeting of the UN Security Council last month.
Mills refers to the Russian military presence in Syria, where Moscow backs the Assad regime against its opponents, with "any military organisation".
During a video call with the regime leader Bashar al Assad on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the conference saying that “international terrorism has been almost wiped out and return to civilian life should begin gradually,” in Syria.
But the US and its allies disagree with him.
“The US will not attend the conference. We strongly urge the UN and all others to forgo attendance as well at this conference that has been orchestrated by those responsible for the refugees fleeing in the first place,” Mills said, prior to the conference.
The civil war has led to massive deaths, reaching nearly 500,000, mostly at the hands of the Assad regime and has left half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million displaced. At least 5.6 million Syrians, who were forced to leave their country, are living in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Germany. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, with 3.6 million Syrians living across the country.
While the main subject of the conference is refugees, no prominent refugee representatives and advocates have appeared to be invited by conference organisers.
“What's missing from this upcoming conference in Damascus, discussing Syria refugee returns, is the voices of refugees themselves,” wrote Nadia Hardman, a researcher at the Human Rights Watch, and an expert on refugee issues, on Twitter.
“Returns must be safe, voluntary and fully informed. Anything less, looks like coercion,” Hardman added.
The EU statement has also urged the Assad regime to prioritise laying out political conditions for refugee returns prior to calling refugees to return to their own country.
Instead, the regime obliges prospective returnees to sign a “reconciliation agreement”, which is more an acceptance of all kinds of regime atrocities than a real reconciliation between Damascus and its opponents, most of whom were forced into exile.
The “agreement” refers to refugees “Syrians who left the country illegally”, which means they have violated the rules of the country. With the signing of the document, refugees literally admit they have done something illegal and wrong, possibly paving the way for future prosecutions against them.
While recent research shows that most Syrian refugees want to go back to their country, an overwhelming majority of them do not also want to sign such a document.
In Damascus, hundreds of returnees have faced arrests and forced disappearances, according to Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD).
In addition to that, the regime continues to hold tens of thousands of political detainees in its badly-conditioned prisons across the country, labeling opponents as betrayers.
"We reiterate therefore our urgent call on the regime and its sponsors to engage fully and in good faith in the work of the Constitutional Committee, as well as in all other issues mentioned in UNSC Resolution 2254, notably the release of detainees," said the EU statement.
On Friday, the EU imposed sanctions on eight ministers of the Syrian regime, who were appointed anew, banning their travels and freezing their assets.
Lebanon, one of the biggest refugee hosting countries, will attend the regime conference with a small delegation, according to its government sources.