UN urges Damascus to grant it full access to returnees

Beirut (AFP) –


The UN's refugee agency said Saturday it has urged Syria's government to allow it access to all parts of the war-torn country where externally displaced people have returned.

"It is very important that in areas of return, organisations like mine... are present," said Filippo Grandi, who heads the UN's refugee agency UNHCR.

"This is the very strong message that I have passed to the Syrian government," he told reporters in neighbouring Lebanon's capital Beirut, after earlier this week undertaking a three-day visit to Syria.

Organisations should be present so they "can observe the returns... have access to the returnees and help them address some of the problems that they face," he said.

With the war in Syria winding down, neighbouring Lebanon has been eager to encourage some of the 1.5 million Syrians it says it hosts to return.

Grandi visited the central provinces of Homs and Hama this week, he said, but access to the Damascus countryside is more difficult.

Tens of thousands have returned, according to the Lebanese authorities, but many more have been wary of crossing back over the border.

Without full access to the UN and other organisations, "there is an element of confidence that is missing" among potential returnees, Grandi said.

Going home is not attractive for many refugees living in camps in Lebanon, due to high unemployment and poor basic services, as well as continued clashes on several fronts.

But for young men above 18 years old, the chief fear is that they will be conscripted into President Bashar al-Assad's army.

Eager to welcome Syrians back, Damascus has said it will allow returnees a grace period of six months before they are drafted.

But "there's been a few cases where this, in our opinion, had not been respected... and we have reported" it to the government, Grandi said.

"In some places we are not (present), so we cannot raise this issue," he said.

Today, Assad's regime controls almost two-thirds of the country, after expelling rebels and jihadists from large swathes of territory with military support from Russia since 2015.

The multi-fronted war -- which enters its ninth year this month -- has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions at home and abroad.