Syrian refugees risk being driven home despite violence

BEIRUT - Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees may be pressured to return to their war-ravaged homeland this year, despite continuing violence, leading aid agencies said on Monday.

They said misleading rhetoric in refugee-hosting countries was creating the false impression that the country was safe for people to return to, even though it remained highly dangerous.

With the conflict now approaching its eighth year, more than 6 million people are uprooted within Syria and more than 5 million are refugees in neighboring countries - mostly in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan - and also throughout Europe.

Tensions have simmered both in the region and Europe as host nations struggle to cope with the social and financial burden of the refugee crisis, with many of the arrivals coming from Syria.

The aid agencies said deteriorating conditions in these countries and limited options for Syrians to resettle elsewhere could drive many to return home despite the dangers.

"The majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced live under terrible conditions and want to return home," said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

"(But) currently, even in certain so-called de-escalation areas, we've seen bloodshed, targeting of hospitals and schools, and death," he said in a statement.

About 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, the report said.

But for every refugee or displaced person who returned to Syria last year, three were forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing violence, the agencies said in a joint statement.

"If this continues there will be more vulnerability, more people slipping into poverty, and an increase of negative ways of coping like child labor and child marriage," Joelle Bassoul, spokeswoman for Care International, said by phone from Beirut.

"Inside and outside Syria living conditions are going to deteriorate," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said last week that Lebanon would not force refugees to return to Syria, but called for more international help in dealing with the crisis.

More than a million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon since the war broke out in 2011 and now account for about a quarter of the country's population of 6 million.

The aid agencies, which also included Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, Danish Refugee Council and International Rescue Committee, also said that Syria's shattered infrastructure could not support an influx of returnees.

Half of the country's health facilities and a third of its schools are out of action amid the conflict, the groups said.

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