Denmark has become the first European country to deny the renewal of temporary residency permits of around 189 Syrian refugees, provoking international concern amid claims that parts of the war-torn country are now safe to return to, such as Damascus. Acting as another link in a long chain of anti-immigration policies and sentiments held by the state, the government is taking action all in the pursuit of achieving the “zero asylum seekers” objective, as set out by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
Denmark has seldom been seen as welcoming of refugees, a stance that has only intensified in recent years. Despite being part of Europe, the Nordic state sees itself as far removed from the European refugee “problem”, having generally some of the toughest policies on immigration on the continent. Authorities had the goal of reducing refugee and asylum seeker presence with a tough focus on dissuasion through measures such as social welfare cuts. The government even worked with Lebanese and Turkish newspapers to promote Denmark’s rhetoric of deterrence through publishing ads that painted Denmark as a bad place for asylum seekers and refugees.
With the decision made to no longer continue hosting certain Syrian refugees, immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye stated that Denmark was always honest and upfront about its message that Syrians were never supposed to settle there permanently. Nevertheless, the justification has not convinced international organisations who have condemned the decision as factless and putting many in danger. The existence of the secret police throughout Syrian territory, for example, has been cited as a grave risk and contradicting the idea that many areas of the country are safe.
The risk to life by returning to Syria is a grave issue as is the blunt and abrupt halt to integration to those integrating and integrated. Many Syrian refugees in Denmark have put in the time and effort to learn Danish, to study, and to find jobs that contribute to society. They have established relationships as well as a home that was once a foreign country. Being forced to return to Syria where they no longer have a life is detrimental. Once forced to move from their home to seek protection abroad and finding themselves in a situation where they are forced to leave their home again and return with nothing in a country that may not even want them. For refugees who have returned to their home country, the problem of conflict with those who stayed is significant. In Iraq, for instance, those who returned to their home country in 2008 and 2009 were forced to flee again following conflict with community members, as found by the United States Institute of Peace in their 2009 report “Land, Property, and the Challenge of Return for Iraq’s Displaced”.
Many do want to go back when things are safe and will go back voluntarily. But the key is when it is safe, it is also important to leave the choice to individuals. As is the case for young people, many see themselves as Danish, and it is unjust to put them through the trauma of returning when they have nothing to go back to, particularly when returning would put them in danger. Denmark does not cooperate with the Syrian regime of ruler Bashar Assad, deportations cannot, therefore, be enforced. Yet, the message is clear that those without valid permits are no longer welcome, and either they leave the country or will be detained in deportation camps, which host conditions bad enough to eventually encourage detainees to leave of their own accord.