U.N. refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said Saturday that conditions inside Syria still present obstacles to any large scale return of refugees, despite increasing levels of security and "constructive" discussions.
Grandi was in Lebanon following a visit to Syria that included meetings with officials, refugees and returnees in both countries.
Among other issues, Grandi told reporters Saturday that UNHCR is still having difficulty getting permission to access some of the areas refugees have returned to in Syria to see the conditions of the returnees, including in areas of the Damascus countryside. He said he had given a "very strong message" to Syrian authorities that the refugee agency should have access to all areas where returnees are living.
"I think it is very important that in areas of return organizations like mine, UNHCR, which have experience in this matter, are present and they can observe the return and have access to the returnees and help them to address some of the problems that they face," he said. "Without that presence, there is an element of confidence that is missing."
He also said UNHCR had identified some cases in which returnees who had been promised a six-month "grace period" before they would be required to join the Syrian army were, in fact, conscripted sooner. The Syrian government has generally promised this grace period to military-age male refugees who have returned from Lebanon in the groups organized by Lebanon's General Security.
"There have been a few cases where this, in our opinion, has not been respected," Grandi said. "Very few, and we have reported to the government – this is the agreement, that we report and they look into the matter. The limitation ... is that in order to do this, we need to be present where refugees are going back. In some places we are, so we can raise this issue. In some places, we're not, so we cannot raise this issue and my request is that we are present where refugees return."
While in Syria, Grandi said he had visited Damascus, Homs and Hama, and had met some refugees who had returned from Lebanon.
"Those I saw, their conditions were pretty hard, but they're pretty hard in some of the settlements here as well," he said. "It's pretty tough, because they lived in damaged houses, there are no jobs – this job issue is very big – and so it's difficult. But those that I met and that my colleagues have met ... generally say, 'Ok we made this choice, we have decided to come back, and we prefer to have hardship here rather than in a place where we're not at home.'"
Grandi said the agency is "not blocking any returns," but continues to insist that returns should be voluntary. This terminology has been a point of contention with Lebanese officials. The policy statement adopted by Lebanon's Cabinet, for instance, advocates for "safe return" but deliberately does not include the word "voluntary."
"For UNHCR, this is a very important principle that people have to choose to go back themselves, they have to agree to go back," Grandi said. But regardless of semantics, he said, "I hear very clearly the message from the Lebanese authorities that nobody will be forced to go back."
The UNHCR chief was preparing to travel to an international donor conference in Brussels to appeal for funds for the Syrian crisis response, both inside Syria and in the neighboring refugee-hosting countries. Prime Minister Saad Hariri will also be present at the conference. Grandi said he hopes that donor fatigue will not set in at this juncture, as the trickle of returns to Syria is starting to grow, but substantial refugee populations remain in neighboring countries.
"This is always a difficult moment when you have to step up work in the country of origin, which is Syria, but you have to continue at the same levels, if not more, to support the countries hosting the refugees," he said.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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