SHARE
COPY LINK

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

IMMIGRATION

Swedish Iranians complain of ‘drastic drop’ in visas for relatives

Iranians living in Sweden are complaining that relatives are no longer being granted visas to visit, causing pain and heartbreak for one of Sweden's most established immigrant communities.

Swedish Iranians complain of 'drastic drop' in visas for relatives

“This has affected our community very greatly,” Kamran Chabokdavan, spokesperson for the Swedish-Iranian interest group, or Intresseföreningen för Svensk-Iranska frågor, told The Local. “There’s so many people who are feeling depressed or mistreated.”

He had planned to marry his Swedish partner in 2019, but has still not been able to as his parents have not been able to get a visa to come to Sweden, despite visiting, and returning back to Iran several times before. 

“If it was the first time that my parents came here, then it would be more reasonable to say that we cannot be sure that you will go back,” Chabokdavan, who works as a vet in Gothenburg, said. “But if the person has been here ten times before, and suddenly you decide to reject the application, that is a little bit odd.” 

The group now has 2,000 members on Facebook and has contacted the embassy in Tehran, Sweden’s foreign ministry, and MPs in two of Sweden’s political parties, who Chabokdavan said had promised to raise the issue in their parties and to the government.

Chabokdavan told The Local that many Iranians were suffering from the shift to a stricter visa policy. 

“Another member in our group had a sister who was a late-stage cancer patient at the hospital, and her parents couldn’t come here to say goodbye to her.” 

Rozita Akrami, a data scientist at Ericsson, also a group member, has collected data showing that Sweden is now the worst country in the Schengen area for giving visiting visas to Iranians, with only 35 percent of visa applications by friends and relatives of citizens accepted. 

She claims there was a “drastic drop” in the acceptance rate, from 55 per cent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019, with France accepting 75 percent of visa applications from residents’ relatives that year and Switzerland 79 percent. 

“It seems that the Swedish embassy in Iran has decided to apply stricter criteria, which are really, really unclear,” Chabokdavan said. “It’s really not clear what’s the criteria is here, or why they are rejecting so many documents.” 

In a judgement from last week, the Migration Court ruled that the tougher approach taken by the Swedish embassy in Tehran was justified by a recent rise in the number of Iranians granted visas to Sweden who had then decided to stay and apply for asylum.  

“The embassy further notes that in recent years hundreds of Iranian citizens have applied for residency in Sweden after travelling in on a visa that had been granted,” the court said, justifying its decision to reject an appeal. 

“The embassy can point to the Migration Agency’s reports that a several of these people had had been granted visas previously, even several visas. As a result, visas previously awarded are not a strong indicator of an intention to return.” 

In its judgement, it also noted that sanctions against Iran had resulted in a “severely worsened economy”, with “high unemployment and a weakened currency”, while also pointing to growing “repression of religious minorities” and “imprisonment of political dissidents”. 

In a letter to the embassy in Tehran the group complained that there was no mechanism to replace documents rejected by the Swedish authorities, or to send in missing documents. The group also called for clarity on how applicants’ economic situation was assessed and how relevant it was, and called for the embassy to publish its official statistics from 2015 to 2022. 

“This is about parents who have lived for 60 to 70 years in their homeland and visited Sweden several times while always leaving the Schengen region before their visa has expired,” they wrote. 

Chabokdavan said that in some of the rejection letters, applicants had been told that the worsening economic situation in Iran made Sweden’s authorities worried that visiting relatives would not now return. 

Other rejection letters, he said, had stressed that just because the applicant had visited Sweden and then returned home to Iran many times before, did not mean that they could be relied upon to do so again. 

He said that it was unclear what documents would be enough to prove how well established and tied to Iran the visa applicants are. 

Iranians, who came to Sweden both after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are one of Sweden’s most successful migrant groups, with 60 percent getting a university education, and many working within universities, or in high skilled professions.   

“These are people who are really established in Sweden by their job or their studies,” Chabokdavan said. “And their parents usually have a strong, economical base in Iran, otherwise, they couldn’t get this kind of visa from the beginning.”

The Local has contacted the Swedish foreign ministry and the embassy in Tehran for comment. 

SHOW COMMENTS