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Eight EU members say Syria should be reassessed for voluntary refugee returns

Cyprus’ interior minister Konstantinos Ioannou, second left, with his counterparts Austria’s Gerhard Karner, left, Czech’s Vít Rakusan, right, and Greece’s minister of immigration and asylum Dimitris Kairides, second right in Cyprus (Petros Karadjias/AP)
Cyprus’ interior minister Konstantinos Ioannou, second left, with his counterparts Austria’s Gerhard Karner, left, Czech’s Vít Rakusan, right, and Greece’s minister of immigration and asylum Dimitris Kairides, second right in Cyprus (Petros Karadjias/AP)

The governments of eight European Union member states said on Friday the situation in Syria should be re-evaluated to allow for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees back to their homeland.

In a joint statement, officials from Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland said they agree on a reassessment that would lead to “more effective ways of handling” Syrian refugees trying to reach European Union countries.

The eight countries, which held talks during a summit meeting in the Cypriot capital, said the situation in Syria has “considerably evolved” even though complete political stability has not been achieved.

Cyprus has in recent months seen an upsurge of Syrian refugees reaching the island nation primarily from Lebanon aboard rickety boats.

Earlier this month, the EU announced a billion euro (£0.84 billion) aid package for Lebanon aimed at boosting border controls to halt the flow of asylum seekers and migrants to Cyprus and Italy.

The eight countries said the EU should further boost support for Lebanon to “mitigate the risk of even greater flows from Lebanon to the EU”.

“Decisions as to who has the right to cross a member state’s borders, should be taken by the government of the relevant member state and not by criminal networks engaged in migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings,” the joint statement said.

The Syria re-evaluation call comes a day after 15 EU member countries publicly called for the bloc to boost partnerships with countries along migratory routes to support the local population in hopes of heading off attempts to reach EU countries.

A Cypriot official said that any re-evaluation of conditions within Syria would not necessarily mean that Syrian refugees would be deported back to their country.

Instead, Syrian refugees hailing from areas redesignated as safe would lose any allowances, benefits and the right to work, creating a disincentive to others to come to Cyprus.

The official was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly about details of the proposal.

The countries said that while they “fully embrace” the need to support Syrian refugees in line with international law, they hoped their talks could open a wider debate within the 27-member bloc on the process of granting the migrants international protection.

“What European citizens want from us … are solutions, practical, realistic solutions that can be implemented,” said Greek migration minister Dimitris Kairidis.

Cypriot interior minister Constantinos Ioannou said the United Nations’ refugee agency has already “established lines of communication” with Syrian authorities regarding possible voluntary returns in line with international law.

The Cypriot minister said returns would initially be on a voluntary basis, but that could develop into forced returns at a later stage.

Much more needs to be done for that to happen because the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not recognised by the EU, he said.

In Lebanon, where anti-refugee sentiment has been surging recently, more than 300 Syrian refugees returned to Syria in a convoy earlier this week.

Lebanese officials have long urged the international community to either resettle the refugees in other countries or help them return to Syria.