Denmark, once renowned as a liberal society with respect for human rights, has taken one of the hardest lines on asylum and migration in recent years by becoming the first country in Europe to revoke residence permits for Syrian refugees.
A 12-year-old Syrian, Ghazal Sbinati, has spent eight years living and studying in Denmark.
She recently received a letter from the Danish Immigration Service telling her that if she did not leave voluntarily, she could be “forcibly sent to Syria”.
“I go to school and have many friends and I hope we stay in Denmark,” Sbinati told local broadcaster, DR.
The Danish Refugee Council has since objected to the policy, with a senior member branding it as “shocking”.
“When you address a letter directly to a child and write that they can be forcibly deported to Syria if they don’t go themselves, that’s a completely different way for an authority to be talking to a child and threatening them with what they’re at risk of. I think that’s shocking,” the Council’s Head of Asylum, Eva Singer, told Anadolu Agency.
Singer asserted that the letters should not be sent to children under any circumstances as “the children cannot act on them”.
“In any case, the letters are also sent to the parents, and that’s normal procedure once a decision is made,” she said, underlining that they should only be sent to adult guardians, and “should not be sent directly to children”.
Assem Swaif, who founded the human rights group, Finjan, which advocates for Syrian refugees in Denmark, told Anadolu Agency that his organisation had been contacted by many parents who complained that their children received deportation letters.
In one instance, he was contacted by a parent whose nine-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter both got mail threatening them with forced expulsion from the country.
Swaif’s advocacy group is working to raise awareness by informing the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and other organisations, such as Save the Children, about the issue so “we can protect those children”.
Sending letters to little boys and girls is “really, really insane and inhumane,” Swaif said.
The Nordic country has no repatriation agreement with Syria, meaning that it cannot force refugees whose immigration status has been revoked to leave.
Authorities, instead, place them at the so-called “departure centres”, dubbed “Danish camps”, in the hopes that this will intimidate them into leaving voluntarily.
Singer, the Refugee Council’s Asylum Chief, criticised the policy and language used in the letters forced deportation, arguing that the country’s Immigration Service “should not process these cases until they know whether they can forcibly be deported”.
Syrian refugees told to go home
Danish law ensures temporary status for refugees fleeing indiscriminate violence, rather than individual persecution.
This means that those with temporary protection risk losing their status as soon as there is any improvement in the conditions of the country from which they fled, even if the situation remains fragile and unpredictable.
Human rights organisations worry that such laws could encourage other European countries to focus on the decline in armed conflict when making their asylum policies.
Swaif told Anadolu Agency that Denmark needed to change its asylum law.
“People who seek asylum, they aren’t migrants, they’re people seeking protection. They need protection. They’re fleeing from dictatorship, from torture. So, we need to consider them as refugees, not as migrants,” he said.
Not all refugees are treated equally
Singer also pointed out that there were “big” changes and differences in the terms of different categories of refugees coming to Denmark, and how they are received.
“For example, if you look at the way the refugees from Ukraine have been received, there’s a special law granting them temporary protection, and that has been processed very, very fast,” she said.
For Syrian and other refugees, things are a lot more complicated as they must follow standard asylum procedures.
Singer thinks that one of the major issues in Denmark’s asylum policy is the emphasis on temporariness as individual refugees may have their residence permits withdrawn even if changes in their home country are “very, very small, even if they are only temporary.”
This, she said, is a problem in terms of the integration process for each individual, but also in the terms of assessment, which leads to “decisions which are very, very harsh, especially when you look at refugees coming from Syria.”
Denmark ‘endangering’ Syrian refugees
Singer accused the government of endangering Syrian refugees by stripping them of their residence permits, despite them risking abuse and persecution upon returning to Syria.
Earlier this year, the Immigration Service published a report saying that returning Syrians were at risk of persecution by authorities in the country gripped by civil conflict for over a decade, DR reported.
The report also said that Syrian authorities continued to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture, extort and kill returning refugees, echoing similar findings in a separate EU report released earlier this year.
However, according to Singer, immigration authorities are not taking this report into account when deciding to revoke refugee residence permits.
“It shows that the authorities are not taking it seriously enough,” said Singer.
Authorities are justifying their decision by saying that there had been a drop in military conflict in Syria.
Singer argued that, on their return, Syrians were seen as enemies as they have often left illegally amid the chaos of the violence.
That can increase the risk of “persecution when they are sent home by the Danish authorities,” she said.
Under the increasing pressure from Denmark, known to be the first to sign the UN Refugee Convention in 1951, many Syrians have left in search of refuge in other EU nations, some having even risked going back to their own war-torn country.
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