Syria Insight: Fears for Syrian refugees in Denmark after government classifies Damascus as 'safe area'

Syria Insight: Fears for Syrian refugees in Denmark after government classifies Damascus as 'safe area'
The Danish government has revoked the residencies of dozens of Syrian refugees, the first European country to do so, as part of new anti-immigration legislation.
8 min read
08 April, 2021
Dozens of Syrian refugees in Denmark have had their residencies revoked [Getty]
Last month, the Danish government revoked the residencies of dozens of Syrians after declaring that Damascus was "safe" to return to, raising fears of the repatriation of refugees to Syria.

With the threat of deportation hanging over 94 Syrians, activists in Denmark have taken to social media to highlight their stories in a bid to halt the measure targeting refugees.

They include Faeza Satouf, a 25-year-old Syrian nursing student whose studies will end if she loses her residency rights.

Not safe

Dozens of refugees who previously worked or studied look set to be uprooted from their homes and sent to grim holding centres that inhabit the confines of Danish cities ahead of their potential deportation.

Although free to leave the centres during the daytime, they will have to return at night and report to police several times a week.

Activists warned that nobody is safe in Assad's Syria. Old men have been enlisted into the army and security services have disappeared dozens of returnees despite assurances of safety.

Syrians who fled the Assad regime understand the grave dangers returnees face if they are returned to Damascus and urged Copenhagen – which does not operate an embassy in the Syrian capital due to the dangers - to reconsider their decision.

"My dad, Ali Mustafa, is one of at least 130,000 Syrians who are documented as forcibly disappeared by Assad's regime in Syria," Wafa Mustafa, a Berlin-based Syrian activist told The New Arab.

"We have all the Caesar's photos (a former regime prison photographer) of the inhumane conditions inside Assad's cells. Photos of bodies scarred by torture and starvation, all documented by a state apparatus of terror designed to silence opposition."

Mustafa said the spread of Covid-19 in the regime's overcrowded detention centres makes the dangers for returnees even more acute.

"All states which welcomed refugees must stop any forced return. We all know civilians will not be returning home, they will be returning to Assad's torture dungeons."

Flummoxed lives

Eva Singer, head of the Danish Refugee Council's Asylum and Refugee Rights Division, hopes that the absence of relations between the Syrian authorities and Demark will stall deportations, but the future still looks bleak for those affected by the law.

"Once the authorities withdraw their residence permits, they will end up in limbo at the deportation centre, indefinitely basically, without work permits, and without the normal rights of people with residence permits in Denmark," Singer told The New Arab.

"Denmark should continue to provide protection to Syrian refugees and provide them with the necessary stability to be able to integrate, study and work, instead of making these decisions that cannot be implemented."

She says that the residence permits should not have been withdrawn in the first place, since the situation in Damascus is still not sufficiently safe for refugees to be returned there against their own will.

"We are very concerned by the change in practice and hope it will be changed again," Singer told The New Arab.

"It is a strange position for the Danish authorities to take as neither UNHCR nor any other country deem Damascus as being safe."

It is one of the many frustrations for refugees in Denmark, where a system of "temporariness" leaves refugees - including children - with few guarantees about their future in the country.

Denmark should continue to provide protection to Syrian refugees and provide them with the necessary stability to be able to integrate, study and work
- Eva Singer, head of the Danish Refugee Council's Asylum and Refugee Rights Division

"It means they have to renew their residencies every year and only have temporary protection status so if the security situation improves - even slightly and for a short period - in their home countries then they could be returned," said Singer.

"The temporary protection status also means they have no right to family reunification for the first three years."

Fears of Assad

Nasser El-Sahli, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed's correspondent in Copenhagen, said that some Syrians did not voice the real reasons they fled Syria during their asylum process in Denmark due to fears the information they gave might find its way back to the Syrian regime and endanger their families.

"The fear is still with them about Assad even if they are far away. They don't talk openly about Syria even in case their neighbours or friends are collaborating with the Assad regime," he told The New Arab.

"Some didn't tell authorities they were fleeing the [regime] bombings and security services when they came to Denmark when giving their reasons for seeking asylum," said Al-Sahli.

He found that some of the translators during this process made it clear to the refugees they did not support the Syrian revolution while there might have been errors in translations during the interview process.

"Because of this some refugees said they were fleeing the war, or terrorism, or the Islamic State group and not due to the regime. They are now paying the price as the Danish government is saying there is no IS or fighting in Damascus, so it is a safe place to return to."

The Refugee Appeals Board, a quasi-judicial body that is independent of the government, is the only channel for Syrians to challenge the changes to their residency status.

Although the board takes a less hardline approach to immigration than the ministry of immigration it still supports the principle that Damascus is a "safe place" to return to.

Refugees, everywhere in the world and not just in Denmark, tend to be dehumanised in the media so that was the reason I wanted to share these stories
- Danish-American human rights activist Alysia Alexandra

The ministry's efforts to promote the idea that Syria is safe to return will allow the government to deny more refugees residency status and thus make it appear tough on immigration.

The rightwards shift on immigration in Denmark began soon after the Assad regime's assaults on opposition areas from 2011, which led to a mass exodus to Turkey and eventually to Europe as families fled for their lives.

After the successes of the far-right in 2015 elections, former Venstre Party Immigration Minister Inger Støjberg saw that Arabic-language advertisements were printed in Lebanese newspapers warning Syrian refugees they were not welcome in Denmark.

Other measures taken by the Danish government include the right to confiscate jewellery from asylum seekers and the so-called "ghettos law", which would limit the number of "non-western" residents in Danish cities.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has continued the right-wing immigration policies of her predecessors and said she hopes for "zero asylum seekers" in Denmark. By revoking the residencies of dozens of Syrians Frederiksen has sent another message to Danes of her hardline approch to immigration.

One Syrian resident in Denmark affected by this is 19-year-old writer and poet Rahima Abdullah.

"It makes me insecure as I won't be able to complete my education in Denmark. You also do not feel like going to school or learning Danish when you feel you have no future in Denmark," she told The New Arab.

"I have not been to school for a week and spend my time writing posts on newspaper sites about our situation to spread awareness about it."

Fighting back

There is little doubt that Denmark has become a more hostile places for refugees than it once was, although some Danes and refugees are fighting back.

A Facebook page called "Citizens Who Do Not Agree With The Government's Immigration Policy" has garnered more than 10,000 members with 100 new people joining every day.

"One member drafted a brief on our mission and vision, including excerpts of the laws and seven goals and that started the ball rolling," the group told The New Arab by email.

The three main aims of the group are for the repatriation of Danish residents in Kurdish-controlled camps in Syria, to halt the government's revoking of residency permits for refugees, and to repeal other recent anti-immigration policies.

It is strongly opposed to the designation of Damascus as a "safe area" and have spoken to media organisations, NGOs, and MPs about its implications for refugees.

Danish-American human rights activist Alysia Alexandra broadcast the stories of those affected by the law on her Twitter page this week, with her social media posts being shared by hundreds.

"Refugees, everywhere in the world and not just in Denmark, tend to be dehumanised in the media so that was the reason I wanted to share these stories," Alexandra told The New Arab.

"Each one of these 94 refugees is a person, they have families, they have lives and their stories shouldn't be overlooked."

Alexandra highlighted the death of 61-year-old Syrian refugee, Akram Bathish, who reportedly suffered a heart attack after being told his residency was cancelled. His tragic story is now being picked up by Danish media.

She also shared the story of 19-year-old Aya Abu Daher whose life in Denmark has been upturned after the government told the high-school student her residency would not be extended.

Campaigners include Abu Daher's school principal who has urged the government to reverse its decision and allow Abu Daher to continue her studies in Denmark.

The left-wing Socialist People's Party and the centrist Radicals are among the political parties opposing the government's policy, which threatens to undo Denmark's image as a progressive and compassionate nation.

"As a country that prides itself on its social democracy this really shatters this narrative. For many people it has shown that Denmark is not as open to immigrants as it thinks, that it is not a safe place for refugees," Alexandra said.

"This had to happen to see Denmark for what it is. You can celebrate Denmark for its accomplishments but this is not one of them."

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin