The European Union said Tuesday that it will not take part in a 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 the Syrian Bashar Assad regime in Damascus and set to begin on Wednesday, has been criticized by United Nations and U.S. officials. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the conference is premature.
"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," 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."
Syria's nine-year war has killed about half a 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.
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."
The European Council announced in a written statement, "We reiterate therefore our urgent call on the regime and its sponsors to engage fully and in good faith in the work of the Constitutional Committee, as well as in all other issues mentioned in UNSC Resolution 2254, notably the release of detainees."