Arab economic summit in Beirut urges Syrian refugee returns

14:06 | 21/01/2019 Cooperation

Arab states at an economic summit in Beirut called on world powers on Sunday (January 20) to step up efforts to enable Syrian refugees to return home.

arab economic summit in beirut urges syrian refugee returns
Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the Arab economic summit in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 20, 2019 - Photo: AFP

The United Nations says that 5.6 million Syrian refugees live in five neighboring countries - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq - and it is not yet safe for them to return.

Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, more than 1 million people have fled across the border to Lebanon, where aid agencies say most live in extreme poverty.

Lebanese officials have called for refugees to go home after Syria's President Bashar al-Assad reclaimed most of the country with Russian and Iranian help.

"We call on the international community to take its responsibility to curb the misery," Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said, reading a statement which the summit agreed.

It asked for a doubling of efforts "to strengthen favourable conditions for the displaced and refugees to return in line with international law".

Divisions among Arab states over Syria, and internal disputes in Lebanon, have overshadowed the summit even before it began, with several leaders staying away.

A key point of contention has been whether to bring Syria back into the Arab League, more than seven years after its membership was suspended.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has helped Assad's military defeat rebels and militants, wants rapprochement with Damascus. Its critics oppose this, insisting the United Nations must oversee any repatriations.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, had called earlier at the summit for safe refugee returns "without tying that to reaching a political solution".

He also proposed the creation of an Arab bank for reconstruction and development "to help all affected Arab states overcome adversity and contribute to their sustainable economic growth".

Under deals Hezbollah has helped to broker, tens of thousands of refugees have left Lebanon for Syria in the past year - a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the refugee crisis.

Rights groups have warned against forced returns while a Syrian peace deal remains elusive, and refugees often say they fear conscription into the army.

Lebanese leaders had hoped to reach a deal to form a new government before the summit after months of political gridlock. But talks have failed amid fears for the Lebanese economy.

Several hundred people protested in the streets of Beirut on Sunday, blaming politicians for growing economic troubles.

Theo NDO/Xinhua