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IMMIGRATION

Denmark criticised over plan to repatriate Syrians to ‘safe’ Damascus

Denmark is facing growing criticism for a decision last year to revoke residence permits for Syrian refugees, citing a  "safe" situation around Damascus, but the country is sticking to its position.

Denmark criticised over plan to repatriate Syrians to 'safe' Damascus
Social Democratic migration minister Mattias Tesfayein parliament. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The tough Danish stance is a new sign of the country now having one of Europe’s most restrictive migration policies.

“No other country in Europe has adopted such a policy,” Niels-Erik Hansen, a lawyer specialising in migration issues, told AFP.

In the last election in 2019, the Social Democrats, headed by Mette Frederiksen, adopted a restrictive line on immigration and managed to take power from the conservative government propped up by the far-right Danish People’s Party.

Widespread indifference toward the policy change in the Scandinavian country was upended in early April, after one of Hansen’s clients, a teenager about to graduate secondary school, pleaded for her case on Danish television.

Speaking in fluent Danish, 19-year-old Aya Abu-Daher moved viewers as she asked, holding back tears, what she had “done wrong.”

The “excellent student” according to the headmaster of her high school in Nyborg is campaigning for her family to be allowed to stay.

The young Syrian girl was recently told that her residence permit, which expired at the end of January, would not be renewed.

Like her, 189 Syrians have already had their residence permits revoked since the summer of 2020 after Copenhagen decided to re-examine the cases of around 500 Syrians from Damascus, under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

‘My mother risks going to jail’: Why is Denmark sending refugees back to Syria?

The revocations were on the grounds that “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

Some of the rejected applicants, who had originally been granted only a temporary permit, have been placed in a detention centre.

“Being in a return centre, you can’t work nor study and you get food three times a day. Basically they keep you there until you sign a paper saying that you’ll return voluntarily to Syria,” Hansen told AFP.

Under Danish immigration law, temporary residence permits are issued without an end date in cases of a “particularly serious situation in the country of origin characterised by arbitrary violence and attacks against civilians,” but can be revoked once conditions are deemed to have improved.

Some 35,500 Syrians currently live in Denmark, more than half of whom arrived in 2015, according to Statistics Denmark

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was concerned about Denmark’s decision, even with deportations currently suspended because of a lack of collaboration between Denmark and the Syrian regime after 
years of civil war.

UNHCR said it “does not consider that the recent improvements in security in parts of Syria to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees.”

Rights group Amnesty International has also denounced the “worrisome development.”

“Denmark keeps sending signals that they don’t want any asylum seekers in the country and scaring the ones who are here into returning to their home countries even when they are not safe,” Lisa Blinkenberg, a senior advisor for Amnesty in Denmark, told AFP.

“Not only is Denmark the worst place in Europe but the country also shows a lack of solidarity with other European countries refusing to take a share in the burden,” Hansen said.

But, despite criticism even from within parliament, the government is sticking to its guns.

“The government’s policy is working, and I won’t back down, it won’t happen,” Social Democratic migration minister Mattias Tesfaye said after Aya Abu-Daher’s plea was broadcast.

“Denmark has been open and honest from day one. We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist,” Tesfaye told AFP on Friday.

Social Democratic spokesperson for immigration, Rasmus Stoklund, also defended Denmark’s principle that some refugees can safely return to Damascus, in an interview with newspaper Politiken.

“There’s a big difference between whether the regime has a personal charge against you or whether you have fled because there are general war conditions. There’s a risk a bomb could down fall on your house. There’s not necessarily anything between you and the regime,” Stoklund said.

A “personal charge” could, for instance, constitute refusal to serve in the Syrian military and fleeing the country as a result, he also said.

Syrian refugees in Denmark who have had their asylum status withdrawn have told The Local they risk persecution because their family members fled from military service in Syria.

The Nordic country has a stated goal of “zero asylum seekers”, and also offers special grants for voluntary returnees grants, which were accepted by 137 Syrians in 2020.

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IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

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