The European Union has stated its refusal to attend and participate in a conference on the return of refugees this week, due to it being hosted by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
The conference, which begins today and is due to last two days in the Syrian capital Damascus, has been widely criticised by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union.
In a statement, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell revealed: "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."
The view of Borrell and the foreign ministers of EU nations is that the political situation within Syria is not yet settled or safe, and that the return of refugees would be premature. "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."
Since the Syrian military recaptured much of the country – with military assistance from Russia – and pushed back the opposition to the north-west province of Idlib while reconciling other opposition groups in the south, the issue of rebuilding the war-torn country and returning refugees has been highly debated.
To facilitate such a return, the regime has been setting up 'reconciliation courts' across its territory and has guaranteed the safe return and settlement of refugees. There has emerged much evidence, however, that those refugees who did return to their areas under control of the regime were again subject to arrest, detention and torture by the security services.
"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" are what the refugees face upon such a return, the EU foreign minister said.
It has thus been deemed by many to be unsafe to return to the country, which is still undergoing conflict between regime and opposition forces in some areas while remaining under the threat of regime detention in others.
Borrell said: "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."
President Al-Assad himself, speaking in a video call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ahead of the conference, stressed that the return of Syrians "is a number one priority in the coming stage." He claimed that "the Syrian government is not just ready, but also eager, for the results of the conference so that we can see the largest number of refugees return in the coming few months."