A group of people protest and carry a heart-shaped sign that says "Refugees welcome here."

Migration

Denmark revokes residency permits of some Syrian refugees

Under a new policy that deems certain parts of Syria safe to return, some Syrian refugees now face deportation and, in some cases, family separations. The European Union, the United States and numerous human rights groups have condemned the decision. 

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People attend a demonstration against the tightening of Denmark's migration policy and the deportation orders in Copenhagen, Denmark, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Ten years after the start of the Syrian civil war, Denmark has become the first European country to start revoking the residency permits of some refugees from the Damascus area.

Credit:

David Keyton/AP

Asmaa al-Natour had an inkling her residency status in Denmark would be revoked last November. She and her husband, Omar al-Natour, both from Syria, were called to a meeting with Danish immigration authorities.

During the interview, one official told her that Denmark now considered Damascus safe, and soon, her family would be able to return to Syria. Asmaa al-Natour was shaken.

A few weeks later, her husband had a stroke. She said she is certain his condition was brought on by stress. 

This past February, the couple received an email from the immigration authorities confirming their worst fears: Their temporary residency permits, which allowed them to live and work in Denmark, had been revoked. 

Under the new policy that deems certain parts of Syria safe to return, some Syrian refugees now face deportation and in some cases, family separations. 

Related: Fighting in Syria has subsided. But refugees in Lebanon still hesitate to return 

Making a life in Denmark

The Natours have lived in the town of Ringsted, Denmark, for six years. The family fled Syria in 2014, shortly after their home in Daraa province was bombed. 

Initially, they moved to Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, but after their eldest son got word he was being drafted into Assad’s army, the family prepared to flee. 

It took two months for the Natours to reach Denmark in a traumatic journey that brought them through Algeria, Libya and Europe. In Libya, the family said they were attacked and held by smugglers who took most of their money. By the time they reached Denmark, they had little left but said the Danes were welcoming. 

Related: Claims that Greece pushes back migrants to Turkey are rising

Gradually, the family built a life. Their two children went to school. Asmaa al-Natour was a secondary schoolteacher back in Syria, but her qualifications were not recognized in Denmark. 

Instead, the couple opened a small convenience store in Ringsted, and Asmaa al-Natour started studying for a Danish high school degree. If she passed the exams, she could go to university in Denmark and study pharmacy. 

That was her plan until the email in February from the immigration authorities. Now, the couple faces deportation, but their sons’ residency permits have not been revoked. 

Family separations 

Human Rights Watch said hundreds of Syrian families are also experiencing family separations. Syria researcher Sara Kayyali said there are many situations where a father and mother’s residency permits have been revoked but those of the children have not. 

“I mean, as you can imagine, it has serious consequences for the family unit as a whole. How would you send a 3-year-old child back without their parent?”

Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher, Human Rights Watch

Related: In Canada, Syrian refugee kids find belonging through hockey

The policy is tearing families apart, she said.

“I mean, as you can imagine, it has serious consequences for the family unit as a whole. How would you send a 3-year-old child back without their parent?”

The majority of Syrians affected by the new policy in Denmark appear to be women, the elderly and children. Younger Syrian men are less affected because the Danish government seems to recognize they will be at risk of conscription into the Syrian military or punishment for evading it. 

Danish immigration spokesperson Rasmus Stoklund said 137 Syrians returned home last year of their own accord. Denmark has offered Syrians around $30,000 each if they return voluntarily. 

Authorities have no right to deport Syrians back to Syria as Denmark doesn’t maintain any diplomatic ties with the Assad regime. Instead, authorities are sending Syrians to deportation centers in Denmark, which the Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee has described as among the worst on the continent. 

Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, an associate professor in migration studies at the University of Copenhagen, said the facilities are atrocious for a reason: to persuade asylum-seekers in camps to leave the country and return home. But Lemberg-Pedersen also said there is little evidence to prove it.

“There's no empirical data supporting the idea that people return home because of the conditions. But there's a lot of data to show that they break down and have severe psychosocial trauma because of the conditions in these camps."

Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, associate professor in migration studies, University of Copenhagen

“There's no empirical data supporting the idea that people return home because of the conditions. But there's a lot of data to show that they break down and have severe psychosocial trauma because of the conditions in these camps."

Denmark's increasingly hard-line stance on immigration 

Lemberg-Pedersen isn’t surprised by the Danish government’s policy shift on Syria. Although the ruling party, the Social Democrats, is left-leaning, it has adopted an increasingly hard-line approach to immigration. 

In 2016, the country passed the so-called jewelry bill that allows the government to take cash and valuables from asylum-seekers to cover their expenses. More recently, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said her government’s aim was to have zero asylum-seekers in Denmark. 

Lemberg-Pedersen said the government takes a hawkish approach to woo voters from the far-right. The new policy on Syria follows a report on the status of refugees released by the Danish Immigration Services. 

But 11 out of 12 experts cited in the document have since denounced its conclusions

Kayyali with Human Rights Watch is one of those quoted in the report. Kayyali said she told Danish authorities emphatically that she did not believe Damascus was safe.

“When I was interviewed, I thought I had made it very clear that there were still threats of arbitrary detention, mistreatment, serious violations of property rights, seriously catastrophic humanitarian conditions." 

Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher, Human Rights Watch

“When I was interviewed, I thought I had made it very clear that there were still threats of arbitrary detention, mistreatment, serious violations of property rights, seriously catastrophic humanitarian conditions. And all of that does not appear in the conclusions of the report,” she said. 

The European Union has condemned the Danish policy shift. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a United Nations Security Council meeting in March that “it’s not in the interest of the Syrian people to pressure Syrian refugees to return to Syria, including to regime-held areas, where many fear they will be arbitrarily detained, tortured, or even killed by Assad’s security forces in retaliation for fleeing.”

Front-line fighting is now limited to the north of the country but areas like Damascus, controlled by the Assad regime, are still unstable. 

Related: Thousands of children are stranded at a camp in northern Syria 

Lemberg-Pedersen said the government appears ambivalent to all the criticism.  

There are currently about 35,000 Syrians in Denmark, a low number in comparison to many other EU countries. 

The new rules affect Syrians from Damascus and the surrounding district of Rif Damascus, but there is concern that the rules will be expanded to other parts of the country. 

Will other EU countries follow?

Denmark was the first EU nation to make the change but human rights bodies worry that other countries will follow their lead. Right now, Denmark is the outlier, but Kayyali said other European countries need to be more vocal in condemning the Danish policy.

“The reality is that many European countries need to do more to protect Syrian refugees and other refugees. To be frank, they need to reject this kind of rhetoric that makes out that asylum-seekers are a threat,” she said.   

Last week, hundreds of Danish nationals joined Syrians in a protest outside Parliament buildings against the new ruling. Syrians are hoping that between domestic protests and international condemnation, authorities will be persuaded to retract it. 

Related: Exiled journalists in Germany find home with Amal magazine

Asmaa al-Natour said that for now, she is concentrating on one date: May 21. 

That's the day a Danish appeals court will decide whether to reverse the decision to revoke the Natours’ residency status. It’s the day when they’ll find out whether they can have a future in Denmark, she said. 

Either way, they are not going back to Syria, Asmaa al-Natour said. 

At least not willingly.

Additional reporting by The World's Omar Duwaji. 

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