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Minister: Syria ready to repatriate refugees from Lebanon

FILE - Syrian children play soccer near their tented homes at a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, July 7, 2022. A Syrian Cabinet minister said Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, that Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon can start returning home, where he said they will get all the help they need from authorities. Tiny Lebanon is home to 1 million Syrian refugees who fled war in their country after the conflict began in March 2011. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian Cabinet minister said Monday that Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon can start returning home, where he said they will get all the help they need from authorities.

Tiny Lebanon is home to 1 million Syrian refugees who fled war in their country after the conflict began in March 2011. The large number of refugees in the small Mediterranean nation makes it one of the highest per capita host countries of refugees in the world.

Minister of Local Administration Hussein Makhlouf made his comments during a meeting in Syria’s capital Damascus with Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker minister of the displaced.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and rights groups oppose involuntary repatriation to Syria and say the practice risks endangering the returning refugees.

“The doors are open for the return of Syrian refugees,” Makhlouf said, adding that the state is ready to assist returnees and give them all that they need.

Makhlouf said that includes shelters for those whose homes were destroyed during the conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the pre-war population of 23 million.

More than 5 million Syrians are refugees, most of them in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Few Syrian refugees have returned home since President Bashar Assad’s forces got much of the country under their control over the past few years with the help of allies Russia and Iran.

The calls for the return of Syrian refugees to their country have increased in Lebanon since the small nation’s economic meltdown began. The downturn has left three-quarters of Lebanese living in poverty. For Syrians, living conditions have become worse since the economic crisis began in October 2019.

Over the past year, hundreds of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have migrated from Lebanon by boats to Europe seeking better living conditions.

Charafeddine told The Associated Press last month that Lebanon hopes to start repatriating 15,000 Syrian refugees every month in the near future.