Syrian refugee return must be voluntary, UN tells US, Moscow

Syrian refugee return must be voluntary, UN tells US, Moscow
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Syrian refugees ride a truck carrying their personal belongings at a Lebanese army checkpoint in Wadi Hmeid in the Bekaa valley, after leaving the village of Arsal to return to their homes in Syria's Qalamoun region on July 23, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / -

United Nations: Any return of Syrian refugees from countries across the region must be conducted on a strictly voluntary basis, the United Nations stressed Monday, after Moscow unveiled plans to cooperate with Washington on the issue. Russia’s defense ministry said Friday that working together on the safe return of Syrian refugees was one of the points of agreement reached between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at their inaugural summit in Helsinki.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the issue had featured in the presidents’ talks, with any return to be carried out “at the right time” through a “voluntary mechanism.” Asked about the prospect, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters he was “not aware that we have been involved in those direct talks.”

He went on to stress: “As a matter of principle, the return of people to their home should always be voluntary and done in dignity and in safety.

“It is up to people to… no one should be forced to return.”

Russian ministry official General Mikhail Mizintsev said Friday that “specific proposals” on Syrian refugee return had been sent to the American side following the July 16 summit.

Washington and Moscow back opposing sides in the Syrian war, with Russia’s intervention in 2015 on the side of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict.

Dujarric separately said the UN had not been involved in the transfer of more than 400 people — opposition-linked White Helmet rescue workers and their families — out of southwestern Syria, as government forces bore down on them.

He said the group is now under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, ahead of their resettlement in Western nations, including Britain, Canada, France and Germany.

“UNHCR appreciates the generosity of the Jordanian government and people for temporarily hosting them,” Dujarric said.

Several hundred Syrian rescuers remain trapped in the country’s south with no escape from approaching regime troops, two of them said Monday, after the secret evacuation that saved many of their colleagues.

AFP