Denmark expands controversial Syrian refugee policy despite repeated judicial setbacks

Despite protest, Denmark expands draconian Syria refugee policy
11 min read

Hashim Daher Amam is a proud and independent 75-year-old man — and that might have been his undoing. He lives alone in a room in a shared flat but spends most of his time with his daughter-in-law and grandchildren who stay nearby.

With a smile and mock indignation, he emphasises, “I drive her and the grandchildren, not the other way around.” He does his own shopping and cooking, takes his medication for heart ailments, and cleans and dresses himself.

The effect of the Syrian septuagenarian’s independence, according to the Danish Immigration Service (DIS), is that Hashim does not “have a life worthy of protection” under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Without any “element of dependency… that goes beyond the normal emotional ties,” the DIS refused to extend Hashim’s residence permit this July, revoking his refugee protection and putting him in fear of being separated from his family and returning to Syria.

"I did not come here for the clean air. I came here to live a life of safety and dignity"

Hashim’s case is the norm rather than the exception in Denmark. The Scandinavian welfare state has not only persisted with a controversial asylum policy, it has expanded it, steadily increasing the number of Syrian regions it considers safe for return.

It did so even though a majority of individuals considered for revocation by the DIS ultimately retained their asylum status. It did so in contravention of the official position of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Syria and the EU parliament and despite contradictory findings by international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And perhaps most significantly, it did so while acknowledging that the conditions in these countries are still “serious, fragile and unpredictable.”

The cruel irony of such paradoxical measures is not lost on the Danish government — in fact, it is scripted into their law.

Besides leaving many Syrian refugees like Hashim and his family in a state of exhausting uncertainty, Denmark’s relentless pursuit is setting a dangerous precedent in the European Union.

“Many countries are seeking inspiration from the Danish Model for their own migration politics,” said Trine Otto Hansen, a senior legal advisor with the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Syrian refugees are no longer welcome [Getty Images]
Syrian refugees are no longer welcome [Getty Images]

Denmark’s anti-immigrant turn

When Hashim arrived in Denmark in January 2015 — after a 13-month journey that took him through Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Italy, and Germany — he did not expect it to become the country with the harshest asylum policies towards Syrian refugees.

“I had been through a lot, more than anyone can imagine,” Hashim said.

Four of his sons were arrested in 2012, one year after Syria broke into civil war and a year before he fled Yabrud, in Rif Damascus, where he had lived for three decades. He never saw or heard from them again.

Six years later, he learnt that all four had been executed by the Syrian regime in 2013. Hashim is certain that a similar fate awaits him if he returns to Syria.

“I did not come here for the clean air. I came here to live a life of safety and dignity.”

Danish immigration policy is governed by the Aliens Act, which was considered one of Europe’s most liberal legal frameworks when it was first passed in 1983.

In subsequent decades, however, Denmark turned increasingly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, particularly with the emergence of the Danish People’s Party and the September 11 terror attacks.

As politics turned anti-immigrant, so did policy — and unsurprisingly, a significant change came about amid the peak of the displacement of Syrian refugees.

In November 2014, Mette Frederiksen, the current prime minister of Denmark, who was then the minister of justice, introduced a bill that amended the Aliens Act to create a new category of “temporary protection” for refugees.

The new law stated that individuals facing a general threat, instead of a personal one, would receive only temporary protection — a practice that has no parallel in European asylum policies. In doing so, the Danish government effectively declared that fear of violence, war and arbitrary detentions were general threats.

The new provision marked the start of what Denmark dubs a “paradigm shift” in its asylum policy. In 2019, Denmark became the first — and, so far, only — European Union country to deem the Syrian capital of Damascus safe for return.

The following summer, it declared the surrounding region of Rif Damascus safe as well. Despite widespread condemnation, the DIS began revoking the protection awarded to Syrian refugees who, like Hashim, had fled these regions. This March, the DIS added Syria’s Latakia and Tartous provinces to the regions considered safe.

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Legislating uncertainty

“Denmark has taken a leading role in exploring ways to take the Refugee Convention and its application to the very absolute minimum bottom in Europe,” said Annika Lindberg, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg. Lindberg is involved in an ongoing research project at the Swiss university HES-SO that is studying Syrian refugee returns in Europe.

For the refugees, she added, the policy is “inducing this profound sense of being unwelcome and reminding them that their stay in Denmark is conditional and temporary.”

According to Lisa Marie Borrelli, an associate professor at HES-SO and a project manager of its Syria research project, it is possible that this uncertainty is “the deliberate effect” of the Danish refugee policy. “To create uncertainty and make them go back — it is quite a threatening, negative policy.”

Indeed, the Danish government has made strong efforts to discourage Syrian refugees. Between 2019 and May 2023, the DIS considered 2,155 cases of Syrian refugees for revocation of protection.

During this period, the total number of new Syrian asylum applications — not necessarily granted — was less than 2,000, indicating an aggressive push to revoke protection irrespective of the dwindling number of asylum seekers.

"The dangers of this immigration policy are neither restricted to Syrians nor to Denmark. In May this year, amid negotiations on a new immigration and asylum policy for the European Union, representatives of Europe’s conservative parties flocked to Denmark for inspiration"

The policy in practice

When the Immigration Service considers a new case for revocation, it starts a months-long process of fear and uncertainty during which many refugees even flee the country. It begins with a gruelling interview that lasts several hours, and which by many accounts resembles an interrogation designed to break an individual rather than assess the dangers of their return to Syria.

During his interview, Hashim was also told of the Danish government’s position about Syria being safe to return. “All your background information is a lie,” Hashim responded. “Nobody is responsible for guaranteeing that this information is honoured.”

After the interview, the wait for a decision lasts months, and if refugees lose their protection, their case is automatically appealed to the Refugee Appeals Board, initiating another months-long process.

The revocation process is so long and stressful that many refugees suffer physical and psychological harm in the process, a 2022 report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights found. Many lose their jobs and have to stop their education, and several families are forced to separate.

Denmark expands draconian Syrian refugee policy despite protests
"Nobody goes to death on their own two feet" [Getty Images]

The revocation process appears all the more harsh when seen in the context of the few cases where refugee protection is ultimately revoked. Of the 2,155 cases till May 2023, the DIS refused to grant protection in only 413 of them. These numbers reduce further after the appeal stage.

Between June 2019 and December 2021, at the end of the interview and appeal processes, less than 8 percent of the cases—116 of 1,511 cases — ultimately ended in revocation, as per the DIHR report. Lindberg noted that as of March 2023, according to DIS data, the Refugee Appeals Board overturned over 77 percent of revocations — leaving far fewer, but not insignificant, 130 individuals without protection.

According to Lindberg, half of these cases were overturned because of “new circumstances” that were not presented during the interview. Hashim’s case is illustrative.

During the interview that lasted over six hours, Hashim told the Immigration Service that he had worked in Saudi Arabia, earned a lot of money, and had been a vocal supporter of the opposition. He said the Syrian regime believed that he used this money to fund rebel forces. He told them he participated in one demonstration and provided money to protesters.

He told them that, after he fled the country, the Syrian military forces had twice visited his wife, who still lives there, and inquired about him. All this according to Hashim, as recorded in a transcript of the interview, was the reason behind his sons’ arrest and execution, and his fear of return.


But the Immigration Service did not believe him. On 7 July, they declined to extend his residence permit, stating, “Whatever the reason your sons were detained by the military, we don’t believe it puts you in the authorities’ crosshairs now, more than 10 years later.”

It continued, “We cannot rely on your statement that you are wanted by the Syrian authorities, as we consider your statement to be unreliable.”

Hashim could not understand their reasons. “They keep saying that Damascus is safe, but I know that returnees from Lebanon are imprisoned, the country is full of killings and militias from Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran. If I go back, I will be welcomed at the airport by the military, they will torture me and kill me like they killed my sons.”

After over two months of living in existential fear, on 18 September, the Refugee Appeals Board granted Hashim protection again. But not because it disagreed with the Immigration Service. On all those points, the Refugee Appeals Board agreed that “there is no basis for extending the complainant’s residence permit.”

Hashim was able to secure protection because, like many other Syrian refugees in his position, he spoke to the media after his protection was revoked and was critical of the Syrian regime.

This coverage, the Appeals Board decided, made it “probable that, in the event of a return to Syria, he will appear as an active opponent of the regime and be at risk of being persecuted by the Syrian authorities.”

As Lindberg noted, the “new circumstances” ultimately saved Hashim. Hansen, the senior legal advisor with DIHR, said that this was one of the main reasons given by the DIS for the number of cases overturned.

“When the media has reported on an individual case, it is difficult for the Refugee Appeals Board to say ‘we don’t believe you’ — when it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Despite the minimal revocations, Denmark persists with its policy. Ultimately, Hansen noted, it is a political decision. “Of course, the DIS decides on cases, but it is a political decision to keep on having this category of temporary protection for refugees.

And it is a political decision to continue this method of determining revocation because it’s stated in the law, that if it’s possible to revoke, you should revoke.”

The ‘Danish Model’ as a source of inspiration

The dangers of this immigration policy are neither restricted to Syrians nor to Denmark. In May this year, amid negotiations on a new immigration and asylum policy for the European Union, representatives of Europe’s conservative parties flocked to Denmark for inspiration.

The Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson praised Denmark’s immigration policy, noting that Sweden was instituting a policy with many parallels. Frederiksen reported that she was “pleased that Denmark, after 20 years of strict immigration policies, can inspire others.”

The Austrian interior minister and integration minister have both similarly praised Denmark’s policy and urged the EU to adopt similar practices.

The Lebanese member of parliament Sami Gemayel has used Denmark to justify forced deportations, stating, “Countries that are leaders in human rights, such as Sweden and Denmark, are deporting Syrian refugees, so it is time for us to change the way we handle the issue.”

While neighbouring countries have started normalising relations with Bashar al-Assad, Denmark does not recognise the Syrian regime and as such cannot forcibly deport refugees back to Syria.

However, there are efforts to overcome this hurdle through secretive diplomatic negotiations such as readmission agreements. "We know that Danish officials are using other means of making Syrians leave Denmark; for instance, by forcibly deporting them to third countries such as Lebanon, in cases where it can be proven that they have legal residency there," Lindberg said.

Lebanon, in turn, has already begun mass forced deportations of refugees back to Syria, as has Turkey. Through such “backdoor policies and practices,” Lindberg observed, “government representatives from different countries in various ways seek to circumvent their state responsibilities under the Refugee Convention.”

Denmark, which opted out of the European Union’s common asylum policy, is now paving the way for other countries to adopt similarly restrictive immigration laws.

Hashim sometimes wonders whether it would have been better if Denmark never accepted Syrian refugees at all, rather than live in the uncertainty of its policies.

“The Danish government has no perspective,” he said. “I want to go back home. But nobody goes to their death on their own two feet.”

Arshu John is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at The Caravan. Prior to that, he was an advocate practising criminal law in Delhi

Follow him on Twitter: @ArshuJohn

María Elorza Saralegui is a freelance journalist and illustrator who reports on the environment and human rights issues

Follow her on Twitter: @mariaelorzas