BRUSSELS — The European Union said Tuesday that it will not take part in an international conference this week on the return of refugees to Syria, insisting that the first priority should be to make it safe for people to go back to the conflict-ravaged country.
The two-day conference, organized by Russia and set to begin on Wednesday, has been criticized by United Nations and U.S. officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that large parts of Syria are relatively peaceful and it's time for the millions of Syrians who fled to go home and help rebuild.
But EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the conference is premature.
"The EU and its member states will not attend this conference," Borrell said in a statement. He said the 27-nation bloc believes "that 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."
Well over 1 million refugees, most of them Syrians fleeing the conflict there, entered the EU in 2015, and thousands continued to enter in following years. However, the number arriving into the Greek islands from Turkey dropped to a relative trickle over the last year.
Syria's nine-year war has killed about a half-million people, wounded more than a million and forced about 5.6 million to flee abroad as refugees, mostly to neighboring countries. Another 6 million of Syria's prewar population of 23 million are internally displaced.
A U.N-facilitated political process has been stuck for months, and many Western countries blame Damascus for blocking progress. Many Syrians and Western countries see current conditions in Syria as not ripe for the mass return of refugees.
Borrell agreed, saying that no one should be forced to go back. "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."
He said many obstacles still hinder any safe returns, "in particular 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."
On Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the refugee issue is a Syrian one but that the solution depends "on how much integrity some countries that claim to defend human rights have, while at the same time they do not care about the difficult conditions that the refugees have lived through all these years."
Assad asserted that many countries were trying to politicize the issue and to keep the refugees out of Syria for the longest period possible to pressure his government. His comments were carried by the Syrian state news agency SANA and came after he received a senior Iranian foreign ministry official in Damascus.
Meanwhile, Syrian Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister Ayman Sousan said an invitation to the conference was sent to all the countries except Turkey.
"It is not possible to hope for anything positive from (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan's regime, the first supporter of terrorist organizations in Syria.," he said Monday, according to Syrian State news agency SANA.
Sousan said some countries have been under pressure to discourage them from participating in the conference. He didn't elaborate.
More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey since the start of the conflict.
Sousan said China, Russia, Iran, Lebanon, UAE, Pakistan and the Sultanate of Oman were among the states that agreed to take part in the conference, while the U.N. will participate as an observer.