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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Syrian government calls on refugees to return home

The rare appeal reflects the government's growing confidence after more than seven years of war

Hamidi with his daughter Aya (7) and youngest son Mohamad (4), outside their shelter. Hamidi (34), his wife Noufa (37) and their six children fled their home in the countryside near Aleppo, Syria in 2013, fearing for their lives. Sebastian Rich / UNHCR/
Hamidi with his daughter Aya (7) and youngest son Mohamad (4), outside their shelter. Hamidi (34), his wife Noufa (37) and their six children fled their home in the countryside near Aleppo, Syria in 2013, fearing for their lives. Sebastian Rich / UNHCR/

The Syrian government on Tuesday called on refugees to return, saying it has successfully cleared large areas of "terrorists".

The rare appeal reflects the government's growing confidence after more than seven years of war. While officials usually appeal to Syrians abroad to return during television appearances and interviews, this is the first formal appeal broadcast on official media.

Syrian government forces, with crucial support from Russia and Iran, recently retook large areas near the capital, Damascus, and are waging a new offensive in the south that UN officials say has displaced more than 270,000 people.

The UN Security Council scheduled closed consultations for Thursday on the offensive and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the southwest at the request of Sweden and Kuwait.

The government currently controls over 61 per cent of Syria, compared to early 2017, when it held just 17 per cent, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the conflict.

The government refers to all rebels as "terrorists".

Over 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country. The Foreign Ministry says many internally displaced have already returned home, urging refugees to do same.

Many Syrians are unable to return because their homes were destroyed in the fighting, or because they fear military conscription or retribution from government forces.

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Also on Tuesday, a senior UN official visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that government forces recaptured in May. The Yarmouk camp, a built-up residential area once home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians, was held by Islamic State group and other insurgents for years, and saw heavy fighting.

"The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones," said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The camp, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now lies in ruins. Krahenbuhl, on a three-day visit, also met with displaced Palestinian refugees in areas around Damascus. They expressed "anxieties" about the prospects of their return and reconstruction, he said.

Mr Krahenbuhl said US funding cuts had created "the largest ever funding shortfall in UNRWA's history". The agency has a deficit of $446 million, he said, and has since mobilized to raise $200m through other donors. He said the priority is to keep schools around Syria open for Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA provides basic services to Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel and their descendants, who now number around 5 million and are scattered across the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.