Canadian Minister: It’s Still Not Safe For Syrian Refugees To Return Home

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria is not yet safe for millions of refugees to begin returning home, a Canadian minister warned during a visit to Lebanon Wednesday. He spoke days after Lebanese officials announced a plan to begin returning 15,000 Syrian refugees to their war-torn country each month.

The remarks by Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s international development minister, followed his tour of the region that also took him to Jordan, where he visited Syrian refugees living in tent settlements.

More than 5 million Syrians fled their country when the conflict began 11 years ago, and most of them now live in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon, which has taken in 1 million Syrians, is facing an unprecedented economic collapse and financial crisis, and is eager to see the refugees return.

On Monday, Syrian Local Administration Minister Hussein Makhlouf said that Syrian refugees in Lebanon can start to return home and promised that they will get all the help they need from the authorities.

However, the UN refugee agency and rights groups oppose involuntary repatriation to Syria, saying the practice risks endangering returning refugees. Human rights groups have said that some Syrian refugees who returned home were detained.

Sajjan echoed those concerns on Wednesday.

“It’s very, very important to make sure that there is an absolutely safe environment that they can return to,” Sajjan said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Clearly at this point, based on our assessments, Syria is not a safe place for people to return.”

“These are very proud people, who want to come home. They don’t want to live in these conditions,” Sajjan said, adding that any return would have to be a “voluntary situation.”

In recent years, Canada has resettled tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, some of them from Lebanon and Jordan. Sajjan, a former defense minister and member of the military who served in Afghanistan, said he saw firsthand the effects and “horrors of war, which drives people away.”

“Nobody wants to leave their houses, but they have to,” he added.

He said that Canada will continue to look for ways, with multinational partners, to provide appropriate direct support for the Lebanese people and “also for vulnerable Syrian refugees.”

Calls for the return of Syrian refugees have increased in Lebanon since its economic recession began in late 2019, leaving three-quarters of Lebanese living in poverty. For Syrians, living conditions have gotten much worse.

Sajjan said that during his talks with Lebanese leaders, he urged them to “act as quickly as possible” to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout program.

He stressed that the IMF’s demands on Lebanon are “all legitimate things to ask for, given the way the economic crisis has unfolded.”

Before any agreement with the IMF, Lebanon has yet to draft a law on combating money laundering and a law on capital controls.

The Lebanon crisis was further exacerbated by the massive August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Sajjan expressed his hope that the investigation into the explosion will resume soon. The internal investigation has been stalled since December, due to legal challenges filed by some politicians against the judge leading the investigation after he filed charges against them.

“I think the impact of the explosion … has shocked the world,” Sajjan said. “We are hopeful that the current investigation can move forward in a transparent manner.”


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