The decision is based on an assessment by the Danish Immigration Service’s Refugee Appeals Board (Flygtningenævnet) that low conflict level in Syrian capital Damascus and its surrounding province means it is safe enough for people who fled from that area to return.
Syrian refugees who live in Denmark, and have been informed by the government they must leave the country, have provided their personal testimonies to The Local. You can read their stories below.
The Refugee Appeals Board has concluded that conditions in the Syrian capital Damascus and the surrounding district, Rif Dimashq, were safe enough that there is no longer an automatic basis for asylum to be given to refugees from that area. That followed an earlier, similar assessment relating to Damascus alone.
Based on that conclusion, the board has now begun withdrawing asylum status from some Syrian refugees in Denmark, following review of their cases.
“We have clearly said to the Syrian refugees that their residence permits are temporary. They can be withdrawn if there is no longer any need for protection,” immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye said in February.
Denmark is the first European country to deem the Damascus area safe for return and subsequently revoke the protection status of Syrians from the area.
Dozens of Syrians – reported to total 94 so far – have already received notifications from authorities that they must leave Denmark within weeks. Others have had their status extended or otherwise updated, enabling them to stay.
If they do not leave voluntarily, persons who no longer have asylum status are required to stay at so-called ‘departure centres’, also known as expulsion centres, where they are not free to come and go as they please.
The centres themselves have been strongly criticised in the past for exerting a form of coercion on rejected asylum seekers to leave. Denmark cannot deport persons to Syria because it does not have an arrangement in place to do so with the Bashar al-Assad regime.
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According to the Danish authorities’ assessments, conditions in Damascus and its surrounds are now stable enough that refugees are not considered to be endangered by simply being there. Reasoning for this includes reduced fighting and significantly fewer checkpoints where persons could be detained.
That means that refugees will no longer be granted asylum because of the general conditions in the area and must have an individual motive for seeking asylum. In other words, there must be a direct threat of, for example, political persecution or arrest if an individual has refused military service.
Although the UN’s Refugee Convention allows for the asylum status of refugees to be revoked if their homelands again become safe, the international body has said it does not believe this applies presently in Syria, as newspaper Dagbladet Information reported last month.
The Refugee Appeals Board judgement that Damascus and the surrounding area are safe for return is, however, not based on information from the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR or the EU.
In its judgement, the board cites an October 2020 report produced under the auspices of the Danish Immigration Service. That report can be downloaded (in English) via this link.
According to the text of the report itself, it is “based on information from written sources as well as information obtained through Skype meetings and email correspondences” and not on a physical visit to the area.
The previous report, published in 2019, was developed on the ground in Syria in collaboration with organisations including the Danish Refugee Council. That is not the case for the more recent report.
As such, critics have questioned the relative quality of the October 2020 report compared to the previous one, which drew upon physical visits to Damascus and locally-conducted interviews and observations. That report did not result in the Appeals Board being able to deem the Damascus are to be safe for return but did find the security situation in Damascus itself had improved.
The chairperson of the Refugee Appeals Board, Henrik Bloch Andersen, defended the decision in an interview with newspaper Berlingske on Friday.
Andersen reiterated the board’s position that refugees from the area in question are safe to return home if they are not individually persecuted.
“I have also followed the debate a little, and although it has been presented as if asylum in Denmark is a free buffet, that is not the case,” he said to the newspaper.
“The Refugee Appeals Board is here to assess whether there is a real risk for the persons who may return to their country of origin, and if that is not the case, we cannot grant asylum,” he said.
The government’s spokesperson for immigration Rasmus Stoklund has noted that 137 Syrians returned to their homelands from Denmark on their own initiative last year.
“So to draw a one-sided image of it not being at all possible to stay in the Damascus area I think is a bit of an easy option,” he told Information.
Charlotte Slente, the secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, told The Local the humanitarian organisation opposes Denmark’s decision to withdraw the asylum status of people from Damascus.
“The Danish Refugee Council disagrees with the decision to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to be returned to – as the situation is now. The absence of fighting in some areas of Syria does not mean that people can safely go back,” Slente said in a written comment.
“We have numerous reports about arbitrary detentions and severe human rights abuse of the civilian population. And we believe it is a strange position for the Danish authorities to take as neither UNHCR nor any other country deem Damascus as being safe,” she added.
The Local has received testimonies from several Syrian refugees who have been informed their asylum status has been revoked and they must therefore leave Denmark.
“I am writing on behalf of my family.
Unfortunately, my mother received a denial of her residency from the Department of Immigration [Immigration Service, ed.] on March 25th. A denial that also applies to my two little sisters who are only 10 and 11 years old.
The Danish Immigration Service doesn’t take into consideration the current and real situation in Syria and the conditions for children and women in the country. They also aren’t considering the reasons that led us to flee from the country.
My family cannot support a tyrant who does not value freedom and an equal life for all. It is the main reason that we fled, and at the same time, it is a clear signal to the government that we do not sympathise with the regime.
In addition, my mother’s two sons have fled a regime, a military one, (because) they do not want to fight for a dictator (and) have to raise weapons and execute people who do not support the government.
If my mother is sent back she will be held accountable for her sons’ escape from the military. She also told the Danish Immigration Service this in her interview.
My mother risks going to jail, being tortured as she would have to pay for my family escaping.
My two sisters, aged 10 and 11, speak fluent Danish and do well in school. They do not know how to read or write in Arabic, which means that their future is extremely uncertain in Syria. In Denmark, they will be able to get an education and contribute to Danish society and continue to support and help our mother.”
“I want to share my story publicly.
My name is Rasha, a single mother with two children who fled to Denmark because of the war in Syria and because I was at danger of being arrested in Syria. I had no security there due to the very bad and dangerous conditions of the war.
I have proven myself as a good citizen in Denmark and learned the language and worked for two years in two jobs to secure my children’s life and future.
Now I cannot bear the feeling that authorities in the country where I asked for safety will put me in danger of the country I fled from. I am so grateful and have proved my good relationship and gratitude for Denmark. I am searching for security.”
“On March 31st I got a message from the Immigration Service that my family and I may not stay in Denmark anymore just because they think that Damascus is safe.
I will be drafted into the military in Syria with a brutal government that cannot be trusted and that has killed so many people.
I came to Denmark when I was 13 years old and since then I have worked to continue with (my) education and I finish high school in June 2022. I have planned to help contribute to Denmark, as it has helped me complete my education, but I was so shocked to find out that I cannot stay here in Denmark.
I have only bad memories of Syria and bad experiences. I have the memories I experienced in the war. Here in Denmark I have memories from growing up here, I have friends and a life here.
How can I imagine having to try to forget that I have been here for six years and how much I have done here in Denmark?
Denmark has become a big part of us and it has also become our home, especially because we came as children. We will try everything we can. We will not give up. We love Denmark and Danes. Our life means nothing outside of being here.”
Asmaa and Omar Al Natour
Asmaa Al Natour and Omar Al Natour are from Daraa, Syria, where the first protests against the Assad regime broke out ten years ago. She was a school teacher, he was employed by the Ministry of Agriculture and from the beginning they distanced themselves from the violence and oppression.
When the family’s home was bombed, they fled to the Yarmouk camp south of Damascus. This means that Danish authorities deem they can be returned to the Syrian capital when they actually come from a different city.
Asmaa and Omar are both wanted by the Syrian regime for their criticism of the system. Their eldest son was drafted into Assad’s army and had to flee before the rest of the family. It was only a matter of time before the youngest was also drafted.
Their escape was horrific: three days on foot through the Algerian desert, assaulted and robbed of almost everything in Libya, a crowded boat to Europe. They were eventually reunited with their sons in Denmark.
Their asylum status was revoked in February on the grounds that Danish authorities consider it safe for them to return to Damascus. Only Asmaa and Omar will lose their residencies — their sons can stay in Denmark because they would be drafted into the military if they returned.
Although Asmaa and Omar could also be persecuted because of this, they are not deemed to be directly threatened. They say they will be arrested as soon as they set foot on Syrian soil.
They will also have to say goodbye to their sons. Maybe forever: their sons cannot travel to Syria, and Syrians do not get visitor visas to Denmark.
Testimonies provided to/translated by Alysia Grapek