The U.N. said Tuesday that Syria's neighbors, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, are hosting the majority of the Syrian refugees, while dealing with their own economic and social challenges. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, however, said it has verified only around 37,000 refugees who have voluntarily returned to Syria in 2018.
The agency also said that over the last eight years around one million Syrian children were born in the region and registered as refugees. "It is critical that the international community continues to recognize the plight of Syrian refugees and provides vital support to host governments and (U.N. agencies and NGO) partners to help shoulder this massive burden, while waiting for voluntary return in safety and dignity" said Amin Awad, the U.N. refugee agency director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Awad said the U.N. is projecting that up to 250,000 refugees could be returning to Syria next year if obstacles to their return are removed. Those obstacles include safety concerns for those who have fled government areas or military conscriptions, availability of services and other issues.
Russia, which has waged a military campaign in 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has pushed for the repatriation of refugees. Russian and Syrian officials have accused Western governments of blocking the return of refugees and reconstruction aid to Syria.
The U.S. and other European nations have said return of refugees must be voluntary, saying it is too early in the course of the war to encourage refugees to go home. Some say an inclusive political process is a prerequisite for reconstruction funding.
The repatriations demonstrate that "the war is over and the country's restoration is proceeding at full pace," said Russian Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, who added that over 177,000 internally displaced people have also returned to their homes in 2018.
The conflict, which began with a peaceful uprising against Assad in 2011, has displaced half of Syria's 23 million people, including an estimated 5.6 million refugees living in neighboring countries. Mizintsev also criticized the U.S. for failing to ensure delivery of aid to a desert camp for displaced Syrians in Tanf in southern Syria, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
"It's the last bulwark of evil, injustice and horror for simple Syrians created by the U.S.," Mizintsev said. "The U.S. has illegally occupied the territory so it bears full responsibility for conditions in the camp."
The Syrian government and Russia have blamed U.S. troops stationed near the Rukban camp near the border with Jordan for failing to provide security for aid shipments, allegations the U.S. has denied. Jordan closed the border over security concerns. Residents of the nearly 50,000-people camp complain of major shortages. One resident said water, which comes from a well in Jordan, has not reached the camp for days because of a malfunction.
Last month, the U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent organized a desperately needed aid delivery to Rukban. Mizintsev said Russia and Syria would support another aid convoy to the camp. In their appeal for funds Tuesday, the U.N. agencies and partners said they aim in their new plan— Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan to target nine million people across the five host countries in 2019, including up to 3.9 million vulnerable residents of the host communities. The programs include protection issues for refugees, getting more children to schools and improving basic services and national capacities to respond to the crisis.
Awad of the UNHCR said 70 to 80 percent of the refugees are living below the poverty line in the host countries. The Russian general also assailed the U.S. for the failure to solve humanitarian problems in the northern city of Raqqa, once the capital of the Islamic State group's self-styled caliphate. A U.S.-backed offensive drove IS out of Raqqa a year ago, but Mizintsev pointed to the failure to clear Raqqa of mines and restore its electricity and water supplies.
El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut.