Denmark has become the first European country to revoke the residency permits of Syrian refugees, claiming that Damascus and its surrounding provinces are no longer dangerous enough to justify offering refugees the right to remain in Denmark. The Danish authorities are relying on a Country of Origin Report that was published in February 2019 to justify the decision. That report found that the security situation in some parts of war-torn Syria had "improved significantly".
As a result, the status of about 500 people in Denmark originally from Damascus and Rif Damascus has been re-evaluated. If their appeals fail, they will either have to return to Damascus voluntarily or be placed in return centres indefinitely.
"I think the main issue is the signal it sends," said Zenia Yonus, who holds a PhD in Modern Syrian History. "That the Al-Assad regime is still in power and that the Danish government is actually accepting that it is still there. Of course, it puts a lot of distress and anxiety on the Syrians who live here [in Denmark] and that is a big problem as well."
In 2021, Sweden granted citizenship to over 27,000 Syrian refugees and remains one of the most welcoming European nations for asylum seekers and migrants. However, Sweden seems to be on the same track as Denmark and has revoked some residence permits of Syrian refugees, including some who are wanted by the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
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Human rights organisations disagree with the decision to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to return to. "Even if Denmark doesn't actively pick up the Syrians and return them to Syria, this idea of putting enough pressure on them, so it is considered a coercive return, would also be in violation of Denmark's legal obligations," explained Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The fact that Denmark deems it safe to send Syrians back to live under a regime with which it does not have diplomatic ties could leave refugees who are denied temporary residence permits or who are refused renewal of their permit stuck in detention centres for years, since Denmark cannot deport anyone to Syria for the time being.
Suzan Jlalati is a Syrian refugee living in Copenhagen with her two children. In March 2021 her residence permit was rejected, a decision against which she has since appealed. "I don't understand why they say that Damascus is safe," she said. "All the people here have stories and they escaped from the regime there. They don't have a guarantee for us, they don't have an embassy there, no ambassador there. I hope, that the government here hears us and knows that it is not safe for us to go with our children."
In October 2021 a report by HRW revealed that, "While levels of violence have reduced significantly, over 11.1 million people in Syria still require humanitarian aid. A decade of war beset by violations, including crimes against humanity, has decimated the country's infrastructure, with homes and schools destroyed, lack of clean water and sanitation, and most of the population unable to make ends meet."
The report also pointed out that Syrian refugees who returned to Syria voluntarily between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan "have faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, including torture, extra-judicial killings and kidnappings."
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Sending refugees back to Syria is a move accompanied by infinite risks. Anyone who has fled or has opposed the government in Syria could be perceived as disloyal or seen as suspicious, leading to punishment or arbitrary detention. Moreover, deteriorating socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in and around Damascus have resulted in new and worsening security risks that are not conducive to a safe, dignified and voluntary return.
In recent years, Denmark has rolled out some of the harshest anti-immigrant policies in Europe, including a so-called jewellery bill that allows the government to take certain assets from asylum seekers to contribute to the cost of their accommodation. In 2018, the government struck a deal to move unwanted migrants to a remote uninhabited island, which was once used for contagious animals. The plan was later scrapped.
A law brought into effect in 2019 aims to change the social and ethnic make-up of 15 low-income housing estates across the country, which the government deems "hard ghettos". Under its terms, housing associations will be forced to sell or redevelop 40 per cent of housing stock in these areas. Current residents will be offered the option of being rehomed, ministers have said, but those who refuse will be moved by force.
In June 2021 Denmark passed a law enabling it to process asylum seekers outside Europe. The law will allow Copenhagen to move refugees from Danish soil to asylum centres in a partner country for case reviews. It has yet to reach an agreement with a partner country, but in April last year Immigration and Integration Minister, Mattias Tesfaye, landed in Rwanda for an unannounced visit to the central African state. He signed diplomatic agreements on asylum and political matters while he was there. Sweden announced in June 2021 that it is also negotiating "partner countries" for asylum seekers.
Having declared Damascus safe, the Danish government has informed more than 200 Syrian refugees that they will not receive an extension of their residence permits. This ignores the UNHCR's protection assessment from 2021 which stated that "changes in the situation in Syria, including relative security improvements in parts of the region, are not fundamental, stable and sustainable in justifying the end of refugee status."
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After the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced the zero asylum seekers policy, it seems that the message has spread: according to the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration Affairs, the number of asylum seekers in 2020 was the lowest since 2015, when more than 21,000 people applied for asylum in Denmark. That number was down to 1,515 in 2020.
In the discussion about returning refugees, it might come as a surprise to many that refugees only made up 1-2 per cent of all foreigners who were granted a residence permit in Denmark in recent years. The municipalities only received 489 new refugees in 2020.
Denmark has set a dangerous precedent within the European Union by removing the "temporary protection" status of people from Damascus and the Damascus countryside. It leaves the fate of millions of Syrian refugees all over the world in question.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.