Denmark: What may happen to Syrian refugees who refuse to return?

Denmark welcomed thousands of refugees as the war took hold. Now it’s urging many to return to ‘safe’ areas.

In this image from September 9, 2015, police grab a refugee as hundreds walk on a motorway near Padborg in Denmark [File: Martin Lehmann/AP Photo/POLFOTO]

Copenhagen, Denmark – Ten years after the war in Syria broke out, Denmark is telling many Syrian refugees who sought safety in the European country to return.

Around 500 Syrians have been thrust into a position of uncertainty and fear as Denmark prepares to cancel temporary residence permits of refugees who hail from Damascus and Rif Damascus, areas now declared “safe” by Danish authorities.

It is the only European country to have reached such a conclusion.

“I remember a lot of bad things from Syria. People died in front of me,” Sageda Salem, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee living in the southern Danish city of Odense, told Al Jazeera.

As Danish authorities reassess the residence permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees from those “safe” areas, painful memories are coming back to Sageda, who arrived in Denmark in 2016 with her mother and four sisters.

“I felt stressed, scared and sad when I read the letter from the authorities stating that my permit will be reassessed. Now I don’t even know if I should continue my studies or just leave them be.”

Many refugees are expected to refuse to return to war-torn Syria, a decision that could see them forced into deportation facilities, or “departure centres”. Some will inevitably try and flee to other European countries to seek asylum elsewhere.

‘A gigantic paradox’

Mattias Tesfaye, the Danish minister of immigration and integration, refused Al Jazeera’s request for an interview but sent a written statement.

“The decision to reassess these residence permits was based on a conclusion on the general security situation in Damascus, from the Danish Refugee Appeals Board,” the statement said.

“The conclusion of the board is that the general security situation in the area in and around Damascus has improved to such an extent that the need for protection for persons who are not individually persecuted … has ceased to exist.”

But Denmark’s controversial decision has been met with domestic and international criticism.

“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 [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s security forces in retaliation for fleeing,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the UN Security Council in March.

UNHCR, the European Union and numerous human rights organisations have also condemned any move that pressures Syrian refugees to repatriate.

Around 32,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Denmark since 2011 [File: Martin Lehmann/AP Photo/POLFOTO]

Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, a professor in migration studies at the University of Copenhagen, told Al Jazeera that the government’s position is a “gigantic paradox”.

“Denmark doesn’t formally recognise the Assad regime. On one hand the government says: ‘This man is a brutal dictator who has killed and persecuted large parts of his own population.’ On the other hand they want to send back people who fled from that very same regime.”

On Monday, eight of the 12 experts quoted by the Danish Immigration Service in a report which declared Damascus and Rif Damascus as safe areas condemned the conclusion in a joint statement, published by Human Rights Watch.

“This decision used our testimonies to the Danish Immigration Service for a country of origin (COI) report on Damascus, but we do not recognise our views in subsequent government conclusions or policies, and neither do we consider that Denmark’s Syrian refugee policy fully reflects the real conditions on the ground,” the statement said.

Syria’s war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced swathes of the population.

Around 32,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Denmark since 2011. Five thousand received asylum and temporary residence permits because of the dangerous security situation in the Middle Eastern country – and not because they were individually persecuted.

Syrians from Damascus and Rif Damascus who were granted this temporary protection status will now be reevaluated.

The decision goes back to December 2019, when the Refugee Appeals Board argued that Damascus was safe enough for people who were not individually persecuted by al-Assad’s government.

In February 2021, this security assessment was applied to Rif Damascus as well.

“Many of the people affected by this decision are vulnerable refugees: families, women and children. They fled the war and couldn’t prove they were persecuted by the regime as individuals, so they only received temporary protection status,” Martin Lemberg-Pedersen said.

“People have settled here, some have finished an education and they have built a life here. And now many will lose all their rights and be forced into so-called departure positions.”

Other countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom have also stipulated that the general security landscape in Damascus has improved significantly, but none have reached the decision that Syrians can safely return after years of exile abroad.

People carry a banner reading ‘#Refugees Welcome in solidarity’ during a demonstration march in Aarhus, Denmark, September 12, 2015 [File: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters]

Denmark does not have official diplomatic relations with Syria and cannot forcefully repatriate people if they refuse to leave voluntarily.

Most will end up in one of Denmark’s “departure centres”, where conditions have been decried by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT).

“The deportation centres are like open prisons. You can’t work, you literally don’t have any money, you can’t study and you aren’t allowed to cook your own food,” said Michala Bendixen, founder of the activist group Refugees Welcome.

“There are no activities at all. They are purposely designed to be as depressing as possible so that people give up and leave Denmark.”

Radwan Jomaa, a husband and father of three children, has already lost his residence permit.

He said going back to Syria is not an option as he is wanted by the government for his opposition activities. He is now waiting for the verdict on his appeal.

“If we lose the appeal case, I will have to live with my family in this place (the detention centre) that is said to be worse than prison. Going back to Damascus means death for us,” Jomaa told Al Jazeera.

Sageda Salem is also preparing to fight for her right to continue life in Denmark, as she waits for the immigration authorities’ decision.

“I will do anything in my power to fight for my right to stay here, because I will never in my life go back to Syria,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera