Danish prime minister changes stance on children in Syrian prison camps 

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has signalled for the first time that the government could act to repatriate 19 children who are Danish nationals from prison camps in northeastern Syria.

Danish prime minister changes stance on children in Syrian prison camps 
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in parliament on Wednesday. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Newspaper BT first reported on Tuesday that the PM was now open to bringing the children to Denmark after meeting with leaders of allied left-wing parties.

Frederiksen said that she had discussed options for helping the children with the parties, which prop up her minority government, amid increasing pressure on the government to act on the issue.

The Kurdish-controlled camps, al-Hol and al-Roj, house former militants and supporters of the Islamic State (Isis) terror group. The children are ostensibly in the camps because their mothers travelled to Syria in support of Isis.

“There are children which have ended up in a very unfortunate situation due to their parents’ very wrong choices. We’ve always said we wanted to help those children,” Frederiksen claimed in comments to journalists, reported by news wire Ritzau.

In January this year, the PM told newspaper Berlingske that “if helping the children (in Syria) means their parents are also helped to get to Denmark, then we can’t make that choice”.

Until now, the government has refused to extract the children from the camps, primarily citing security reasons. But the Danish intelligence service FE has said in a report that leaving them in Syria poses more of a potential security risk to Denmark than repatriating them.


The other argument for repatriating the children is humanitarian in nature.

A panel of experts have previously provided analyses at the request of the foreign ministry in which they recommended a four-year-old girl at Al-Roj be removed from the camp in order to receive treatment for PTSD. The experts, which include senior medical advisors, also said it would further traumatise the girl to separate her from her mother.

A senior UN rapporteur recently criticised Denmark for refusing to repatriate the children.

Details of how the children might be repatriated remain to be clarified, as does what might happen to their mothers, who could be expected to face prosecution in Denmark if they returned to the country.

Frederiksen stressed on Tuesday that the government still has no intention of helping the children’s mothers, who she said had “turned their backs on Denmark”.

“We will look at whether we can help the children. Some children have been (previously) brought home to Denmark. It may be relevant for more children to come to Denmark. But we have no wish to help their parents,” she said.

Asked whether she wanted to repatriate the children, the PM responded, “No. I want to help the children. Exactly how that will be done must be discussed with the parties in parliament.”

Pressure has increased on the government over the issue following reporting by newspaper Ekstra Bladet, which has shown the children are at risk of radicalisation in the camps. The foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, has faced mounting criticism over the government’s lack of transparency on security reports related to the matter.

The Danish foreign ministry previously recently released a count of the number of Danish nationals, including women and children, who are currently at the two camps.

A total of 19 children, who are either children of or “connected to” Danish citizens or former Danish citizens are known to be accommodated at the camps. Their Danish citizenships are “not confirmed”, according to the ministry.

They are aged between 0 and 14 years. Nine of the children were born in Denmark and ten in conflict zones.

The six mothers of the children in question have all stated that they wish to return to Denmark. Three of the six have had their Danish citizenships withdrawn administratively, according to earlier reports.

“Men, women, and children from around the world are entering a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria while their governments look the other way,” Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director with NGO Human Rights Watch, said on Wednesday in a statement on the situation with the camps.

“Governments should be helping to fairly prosecute detainees suspected of serious crimes and free everyone else,” Tayler added.

According to the organisation, 43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to Isis remain detained in “inhuman or degrading conditions” by regional authorities in northeastern Syria, two years after they were rounded up during the fall of the terrorist group.

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‘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.