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In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for Syria, addresses the opening session of a two-day international conference on the return of refugees, in Damascus, on Nov. 11, 2020.

The Associated Press

The Canadian government said it is “concerned” about Syria and Russia’s attempt to organize an international conference on the return of refugees to Syria, saying Canada will not be attending the event.

The two-day conference was scheduled to begin Wednesday, even as civilians continue to die in the Syrian Civil War. Last week, children were killed during heavy shelling in Idlib province, including a four-year-old girl on her way to school.

More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), seeking safety in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other countries. More than six million people are displaced within the country.

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“Serious violations of law, including the killing of civilians, are still taking place in Syria. We are concerned by Russia and Syria’s attempt to organize an international conference on refugee returns in Damascus,” said John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

Mr. Babcock said Canada supports safe, voluntary and dignified refugee returns, adding that such conditions do not exist in Syria. “This conference does not aim to address the underlying causes of Syrian displacement. Host countries should not be pressured to return refugees to Syria before the appropriate conditions are met,” he said.

In a video call with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syrians who fled the war should return home to help rebuild the country now that parts of it are safe. The call was carried by Syrian state media, and Mr. Putin’s comments were translated into Arabic.

Russia has backed Mr. Assad’s side in the war since 2015. Syrian opposition and rebel forces have maintained control over Idlib province, while Kurdish-led fighters control eastern parts of the country.

Mr. Putin said in the call with Mr. Assad that “international terrorism” has been almost wiped out, so civilians should start to return. The two leaders have long referred to opposition forces and rebel groups as “terrorists.”

Mr. Assad has been urging Syrians to return to the war-torn country for the past few years. In the spring of 2019, refugees living near the border between Lebanon and Syria told The Globe and Mail that they had watched thousands of fellow Syrians return home in convoys. The Lebanese government has also urged Syrians to return home, with politicians becoming increasingly hostile to refugees.

It is an agonizing decision for Syrians who are tired of living in makeshift shelters in dire conditions but are fearful of returning only to face possible imprisonment or torture.

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The European Union said it would not take part in the conference either. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it premature and said in a statement to The Associated Press that EU members believe “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.”

No one should be forced to go back, and conditions inside Syria do not lend themselves to large-scale voluntary return, he said. Conscription, indiscriminate detention, disappearances, torture and discrimination are some of the many obstacles preventing Syrians from returning safely, Mr. Borrell added.

Mr. Assad said Tuesday in remarks carried by the state news agency SANA that a solution to the refugee situation 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.” He added that countries were trying to politicize the issue by keeping refugees out of Syria to pressure his government.

Syrian Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister Ayman Sousan said Russia, China, Lebanon, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Oman were among the countries that agreed to participate in the conference and that the United Nations would observe.

Mr. Sousan said Turkey was the only country not invited, asserting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government supports terrorist organizations in Syria, according to SANA.

Turkey is hosting the largest number of the world’s registered refugees – 3.6 million, according to the UNHCR.

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With reports from The Associated Press

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