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French, German envoys write that fear stops Syria refugee returns

BEIRUT (Reuters) - German and French diplomats on Friday blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for “a climate of fear and injustice” which they said was the main barrier to millions of refugees going home.

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The fate of more than 5 million Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan is one of the most urgent questions following Assad’s recovery of more than half of the country.

Writing in Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star newspaper on Friday, the eighth anniversary of the war, the French and German envoys to Lebanon said refugees wanted to go back, but could not do so with abuses still taking place in Syria.

The pair cited surveys by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR saying that while 83 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon wanted to go home eventually, only 5 percent of them planned to do so in the next year.

“Arrest, torture and killings continue to this very day. Detention by the Syrian security agencies is so arbitrary that no refugee can ultimately be sure of a safe return,” wrote French envoy Bruno Foucher and German envoy Georg Birgelen.

Refugees “know that structural injustices await them: from seized property to utility fees for years spent abroad, from punitive penalties for expired personal documents to a biased justice system that will not defend their rights,” they added.

The Syrian government has denied accusations of systematic abuses including extrajudicial arrest, torture, summary killings and theft of property.

Last week the UNHCR said it should have a bigger presence inside Syria to observe and help refugees returning from abroad. “Without that, there is an element of confidence that is missing in the return of the people,” the agency’s head Filippo Grandi said.

The European Union this week hosted a meeting for international donors to back UNHCR efforts to support refugees and their host countries.

Syria’s foreign ministry on Friday criticized the European Union for not inviting it to the conference. The EU has put sanctions on the Syrian government, accusing it of war crimes and repression, which it denies.

In Lebanon, where the more than 1 million refugees represent about a quarter of the population, leading politicians have called for their swift return to Syria.

Last year, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil accused the UNHCR of hindering returns by asking refugees about potential problems they might face if they went back to Syria.

Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky