When 19-year-old Aya Abu-Daher appealed to the Danish authorities on national television about her family’s plight, Denmark’s efforts to send refugees back to Syria came to the light. As of summer 2019, the Danish Immigration Service determined certain areas of Syria ‘safe’ to return to and proceeded to reject numerous applications for the renewal of a temporary residence permit. A total of 189 people have already been affected by this policy change, while another 500 cases are still under review.[1]

The Danish Immigration Service based its claims on a 2019 ‘country of origin’ report. Interviews with experts, research institutions, and human rights organizations outlined the situation in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has regained control over the capital Damascus and the surrounding areas, with active conflict having ceased almost everywhere but the north. Having assessed this, the Danish government concluded that the security in Syria had strengthened considerably since the war started in 2011, and refugees who had fled from these parts could now safely return.[2] The Danish Immigration Service then began to reject the extension of temporary residence permits of refugees from the ‘safe’ regions and detained around 50 people for deportation to Syria.[3]

But several of those who contributed to the 2019 report have since “strongly condemn[ed]” Denmark’s attempts to push out Syrian refugees. In a joint statement published by Human Rights Watch, they distanced themselves from the conclusions reached in the report and the new policy that flowed from this: “We are urging the Danish government to revise its conclusions on Damascus to better reflect the ongoing risks posed to potential returnees, and to amend its current refugee policies accordingly.”[4] Although fighting has eased in Damascus since May 2018, it is wrong to think a safe return is possible, the statement continues. They stress that “the majority of the refugees fled, and continue to fear, the government’s security apparatus, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, military conscription, and harassment and discrimination,” and Bashar al-Assad’s government has “yet to demonstrate any change in its conduct”. The signatories, thus, urge Denmark to suspend the rejection of temporary residence permits and to not force refugees from the Syrian capital, or anywhere else in Syria, to return.

Not all refugees from the Damascus area will see their permit revoked under the current policy, someone who can demonstrate a ‘threat against their person’ is exempt. Due to the authorities’ view of Syria as ‘safe’, the Danish Refugees Appeals Board found that “a temporary residence permit granted on the grounds of general circumstances has ceased to exist”, but people who will be “individually persecuted” upon return are allowed to remain in Denmark. This policy will primarily affect women and older people, as younger men face the fear of being drafted into the Syrian army and are likely punished if they refuse, an exception accepted by the Danish authorities. Denmark’s assumption that those who fled the conflict are no longer in need of protection is wrong, according to the Human Rights Watch joint statement: “The highly localized nature of the conflict has meant that just originating from a particular area of the capital could equate to protection risks for returning refugees, while authorities in Damascus have at their disposal a staggeringly broad range of laws, decrees, and articles to arrest and detain returning refugees for perceived crimes committed since leaving the country.” In an AP News article, 25-year-old Faeze Satouf recounts receiving an email informing her of the decision to revoke her temporary residence permit, meaning she would have to return to Syria. Although Satouf had been allowed to stay in Denmark on ‘grounds of general circumstances’, a threat against her father would likely see her in prison as soon as she arrived.[5] Faeze Satouf’s situation is not uncommon, many women and older refugees, who have since become part of Danish society, will have to leave their families and children behind to go back to a country some have left years ago.

Denmark’s policy is not without procedural faults either, critics say. Several refugees have been put in ‘detention centers’ following the cancellation of their permit, but are unable to be repatriated any time soon as there are currently no diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Damascus region. Some have likened these centers to a ‘prison’, where working, studying and access to healthcare are severely restricted.[6] Kenan Malik’s opinion piece for The Guardian questions Denmark’s contradicting motives: “Assad’s regime is, apparently, despotic enough for Copenhagen to abjure relations but not so bad that Syria is unsafe for returning refugees.”[7]

Revoking the temporary residence permits of Syrian refugees fits into the government’s growing anti-migration efforts. In 2019, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and her Social Democrat party entered a minority-led government backed by the ‘red bloc’, pushing out the right-wing parties. While the party appears left on economic matters, they have a strong stance on migration. Legislation targeting refugees’ valuables and “parallel societies” have been backed by the Social Democrats from the opposition. Since Frederiksen came into power nearly two years ago, the party further strengthened the “parallel” law, pledging that, in ten years, the residents of so-called “ghetto” areas will consist of a maximum of 30 percent “non-Westerners”.[8] According to the Social Democrats, these policies are in line with the population’s opinion on refugees and migration, however, data has revealed this is not necessarily the case.[9]

After Abu-Daher’s story gained traction, many-voiced criticism of Denmark’s actions. In response to the policy, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it “does not consider the recent improvements insecurity in parts of Syria to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees.”[10] A European Parliament resolution published in March detailed the current situation in Syria, 10 years after war broke out. It stressed that Syria is “not a safe country to return to” and the Member States should, thus, “refrain from shifting national policies towards depriving certain categories of Syrians of their protected status”.[11] National human rights organizations and the Danish Refugee Council also denounced Denmark’s treatment of refugees, pointing to the position of the UN and EU, while some Danes took to the street to protest. As Denmark is the first European country to revoke residency permits of Syrian refugees, many hope this will not become part of a larger trend.

It appears unlikely Denmark will give into the mounting national and international pressure any time soon. Talking to Agence France-Presse, Minister of Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye made it clear they will continue pushing out Syrian refugees: “The government’s policy is working and I won’t back down, it won’t happen. We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist.”[12]


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