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

Danish authorities have withdrawn the asylum status of dozens of refugees from Syria, with hundreds more cases still to be reviewed. No other country in Europe has made a similar decision.

'My mother risks going to jail': Why is Denmark sending refugees back to Syria?
Syrian refugees who have had their asylum status in Denmark revoked. Photos: supplied

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 They can be withdrawn if there is no longer any need for protection,” immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye said in February.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.

Mohamed Alata

“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.”

Mohamed Alata’s mother and two little sisters, who have had their residencies revoked. Photo: supplied

Rasha Kairout

“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.”

Rasha Kairout and her children. Photo: supplied

Joud Bashour

“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.”

Joud Bashour and his sister Tulip. Photo: supplied

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.

Asmaa Al Natour and Omar Al Natour. Photo: supplied

Testimonies provided to/translated by Alysia Grapek

Member comments

      1. the politics of bigotry is the new liberalism…bigotry against non-western migrants is political currency in Denmark and its a race to the bottom..this outcome is 100% proof that there is something ROTTEN here..

  1. Is it not very presumptive of Denmark to assume they have a clear picture that everything is safe enough for immigrants to return home?
    No other country does.

    1. Apparently, like everything, Danes think they know best. any expat knows this about Danes. Even DRC doesn’t know much, especially their new Secretary General who is SO far removed from the actual work on the ground like all their SecGens are. DRC only works through the Syrian Red Crescent… they’re barely there despite their logo “We Are There”.

      In this case, it’s all simple: when numbers are this small (a few hundred max) to a country of 6 million, these are are just political communications tools for the next election the SocDems to get the Conservative vote.
      Despicable indeed.

  2. it is a political move to show Dansk citizens that the governnent would like, generally, to keep ALL foreigners out of Denmark.

  3. Why aren’t Muslim countries taking in their own? Why are they Europe’s responsibility??

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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. 

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