Denmark evacuates women and children from Syria: What happens next?

Fourteen children and their three Danish mothers have arrived in Denmark after being repatriated by the government from a detention camp for former Isis militants and sympathisers in Syria.

Esbjerg District Court, where one of three repatriated Danish mothers was due to appear for preliminary proceedings under terrorism laws on Thursday October 7th.
Esbjerg District Court, where one of three repatriated Danish mothers was due to appear for preliminary proceedings under terrorism laws on Thursday October 7th. Photo: Claus Fisker/Ritzau Scanpix

The women and children, who waited for months to leave the camps after the government agreed to repatriate them earlier this year, are now in Denmark after leaving the al-Roj camp yesterday.

The three mothers were earlier reported to be in police custody, scheduled to appear at preliminary court hearings in Kolding, Esbjerg and Frederiksberg on Thursday. All three women are charged with joining the Islamic State terror group in Syria. Prosecution authorities were to apply for them to be remanded in custody.

All hearings were to take place behind closed doors, meaning any statements given by the women will not be made public.

Evacuation of the women and children took place calmly and without incident, a Foreign Ministry representative said on Thursday.

“The mothers and children were looking forward to coming to Denmark,” Erik Brøgger Rasmussen, director of organisation and citizens’ services at the ministry, said at a briefing.

The National Board of Social Services (Socialstyrelsen) said that the children will have “calm” futures but would not be given special treatment, after social services in relevant municipalities received the children on their arrival.

“The 14 children will be integrated into Danish society. They will have a childhood with security and school and calm in the future,” National Board of Social Services director Ellen Klarskov Lauritzen said at the briefing.

“But they will not be given special treatment of either positive or negative variety,” Lauritzen added.

No information was given as to the condition of the children and the social authority said it would not reveal which municipalities have now taken them in.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen meanwhile said in parliament on Thursday that the government would not evacuate any more parents from the camps in Syria.

“It could be necessary to evacuate more children from Syria, but not more parents,” Frederiksen said.

The PM repeated her known stance that the government was willing to help children but not parents who have “turned their back on Denmark”.

In practice, that means Denmark refuses to evacuate mothers unless they have sole Danish citizenship.

If the mothers are connected to Denmark, for example by prior residence or through marriage or if their children were born there, they will not be evacuated unless they hold citizenship. Denmark has revoked the citizenship of some of the persons involved.

If they have dual citizenship, they will also be refused evacuation – although the government has broken with this policy in one instance.

Their children can be extracted from the camps, but this requires the mothers to agree to separation from their children.

“We’ve offered to evacuate the children. But it’s the parents’ decision if we are not given permission to help them,” Frederiksen said in parliament.

The opposition Liberal (Venstre) party has called for mothers to be forcibly separated from their children in these instances, citing neglect as justification.

Frederiksen said she agreed that the children had been neglected by their mothers but that it was the “task of social authorities” to act as caseworkers, not politicians.

Lobby group Save the Children called for the the repatriation process to continue.

“We welcome the news that the Danish and German governments have taken 37 children out of the miserable conditions they had been living in,” said the group’s Syria Response Director Sonia Khush. Germany brought home eight women and 23 children in the same operation that saw Denmark evacuate its nationals.

“Children in the camps face harsh conditions, with limited freedom of movement, inadequate basic services including water and education, and an ever-present risk of violence,” Khush said.

She also urged Denmark to revisit its decision to strip three mothers of their nationality while seeking to bring their children back to Europe.

“Mothers should not have to choose between staying with their children in camps with such harsh humanitarian conditions and letting go of them where they would have to live on their own,” she said.

READ ALSO: Organisation sues Denmark for failure to evacuate children from Syrian camps

Member comments

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


‘I can’t go back’: Syrian refugees in Denmark face limbo after status revoked

Bilal Alkale's family is among the hundred or so Syrian refugees in Denmark whose lives are on hold amid an insufferable legal limbo -- their temporary residency permits have been revoked but they can't be deported. Now, they have no rights.

Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. 
Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

Alkale, who until recently ran his own small transportation company in Denmark, found out in March he wasn’t allowed to stay in the Scandinavian country where he has lived as a refugee since 2014, as Copenhagen now considers it safe for Syrians to return to Damascus.

His wife and three of his four children were also affected by the decision taken by Danish authorities.

Once the ruling was confirmed on appeal in late September — like 40 percent of some 200 other cases examined so far — Alkale and his family were ordered to leave.

READ ALSO: Danish refugee board overturns decisions to send home Syrians

They were told that if they didn’t go voluntarily, they would be placed in a detention centre.

The family has refused to leave.

Normally they would have been deported by now, but since Copenhagen has no diplomatic relations with Damascus, they can’t be. And so they wait.

Days and weeks go by without any news from the authorities.

In the meantime, the family has been stripped of their rights in Denmark.

Alkale can’t sleep, his eyes riveted on his phone as he keeps checking his messages.

“What will become of me now?” the 51-year-old asks.

“Everything is off. The kids aren’t going to school, and I don’t have work,” he says, the despair visible on his weary face as he sits in the living room of the home he refurbished himself in the small village of Lundby, an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Copenhagen.

“All this so people will get annoyed enough to leave Denmark.”

For him, returning to Syria means certain death.  

“I can’t go back, I’m wanted,” he tells AFP.

And yet, he has no way to earn a living here.

“As a foreigner staying illegally in Denmark, your rights are very limited,” notes his lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen, who has applied for new residency permits for the family.

In mid-2020, Denmark became the first European Union country to re-examine the cases of about 500 Syrians from Damascus, which is under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

The decision was later widened to include the neighbouring region of Rif Dimashq.

Despite a wave of Danish and international criticism, the Social Democratic government — which has pursued one of Europe’s toughest immigration policies — has refused to budge.


The Alkale family is considering leaving for another European country, even though they risk being sent back to Denmark. 

Alkale’s oldest child was already over the age of 18 when they arrived in Denmark and therefore has her own residency permit, currently under review.

Of the three other children, only the youngest, 10-year-old Rawan, still has the carefree ways of a child.

Majed, 14, says he’s “bummed”, while Said, 17, who was studying to prepare for professional chef school, says he now has no idea what his future holds.

Only a handful of Syrians have so far been placed in detention centres, regularly criticised for poor sanitary conditions.

Asmaa al-Natour and her husband Omar are among the few.

They live in the Sjælsmark camp, a former army barracks surrounded by barbed wire and run by the prisons system since late October.

“This centre should disappear, it’s not good for humans, or even for animals. There are even rats,” says al-Natour.


 The couple, who have two sons aged 21 and 25, arrived in Denmark in 2014.

“My husband and I opened a shop selling Arabic products, it was going well. Then I decided to resume my studies, but now everything has just stopped,” says al-Natour, who “just wants to get (her) life back.” 

“Going back to Syria means going to prison, or even death, since we’re opposed to Bashar al-Assad. He’s a criminal.”

Niels-Erik Hansen, who also represents this couple, says his clients are being “held hostage by the Danish authorities.”

The government is trying “to spread the message that ‘in Denmark, we almost deport to Syria’,” he says.

Amnesty International recently criticised Syrian security forces’ use of violence against dozens of refugees who returned home.

Danish authorities meanwhile insist it’s safe for Syrians to go back.

“If you aren’t personally persecuted … there haven’t been acts of war in Damascus for several years now. And that is why it is possible for some to go back,” the government’s spokesman for migration, Rasmus Stoklund, tells AFP.

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