EU politicians criticise Denmark over return policy for Syrian refugees

Denmark faced the ire of European Union parliamentarians on Wednesday for its policy of sending some Syrian refugees back to the Damascus area and revoking their asylum status.

 Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye attends a meeting at the EU Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), in Brussels, Belgium, January 13th, 2022.
Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye attends a meeting at the EU Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), in Brussels, Belgium, January 13th, 2022. Photo: Johanna Geron/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye was on Thursday at the European Parliament in Brussels to attend an EU civil rights committee over Denmark’s policy of sending some Syrian refugees back to the Damascus region.

The EU’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) summoned Tesfaye to the hearing.

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, claiming “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

Despite a wave of Danish and international criticism, including from experts used by the government, Tesfaye’s ministry refused to budge.

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

“How do you expect them (the refugees) to integrate in Denmark with the threat of being sent back,” Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, of the centrist Renew group, asked Tesfaye according to Danish news wire Ritzau’s report.

Several members of the LIBE committee stated that they believed Denmark was displaying a lack of solidarity with other EU countries with the policy, because refugees in Denmark were more likely to apply for asylum elsewhere in the EU than to return to Syria.

“All your politics does is send a signal to the Syrians that they are not welcome in Denmark,” Maltese social democratic MEP Cyrus Engerer said according to Ritzau.

Another MEP, Tineke Strik of the Greens alliance, called the policies pursued by the Danish Social Democratic government a moral low point.

Tesfaye said at the hearing that the EU must change its asylum system to prevent people smuggling.

“We must ensure that it is Europe that has control of who comes into the EU, not the people smugglers,” he said.

The Danish minister also repeated Denmark’s claim that Syrians can safely return to some parts of the country including Damascus.

He also spoke about Denmark’s plan to open an asylum processing centre in a third country. Rwanda has been reported to be the intended location of such an offshore Danish asylum facility.

Tesfaye said he hoped the Danish project would inspire other countries to take a similar step, but some MEPs questioned how Denmark would be able to ensure asylum seekers’ rights are protected in locations outside of the EU.

He received support from other MEPs during the hearing, notably Peter Kofod of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and conservative Italian MEP Nicola Procaccini.

READ ALSO: Amnesty slams Rwanda migrant deal as ‘new low’ for Denmark

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Danish authorities criticised for defying own report on Syrian asylum claims

Immigration authorities in Denmark sometimes rule in contradiction of their own report on security in Syria when assessing the asylum claims of refugees, critics say.

Danish authorities criticised for defying own report on Syrian asylum claims

Syrian refugees whose residency in Denmark is revoked because it is deemed safe for them to return to the Damascus area are still at risk of persecution and attacks if they travel home, according to critics of Danish Immigration Service rulings on asylum cases.

Decisions made by the Danish Immigration Service (Udlændingestyrelsen) appear in some cases to be at odds with the immigration authorities’ own report on the security situation in the Middle Eastern country, according to a report by public service broadcaster DR.

The Danish Immigration Service in May released a report detailing the risks that former refugees returning to Syria face — “authorities who continue to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture, extort and kill Syrian refugees,” DR writes.

An EU report published in September and reviewed by the Immigration Service likewise concludes that repatriated Syrians are subjected to interrogation, arrests, rape and torture.

Denmark’s government maintains that the situation in Syria and especially around Damascus has improved enough for refugees to be sent home in some cases.

The Danish Refugee Council, a nonprofit advocacy and humanitarian group, argues that immigration authorities are not sufficiently taking the reports into account in deciding whether to renew Syrian refugees’ residence permits. 

The Immigration Service told DR that its report is used as background information when cases are processed.

The Refugee Appeals Board (Flygtningenævnet) — the part of the Danish Immigration Service that serves as its appeal body — told DR it routinely refers to the report in its decisions.

The Refugee Appeals Board has reversed Immigration Service’s decision to remove Syrian refugees in 49 out of 70 cases that have surfaced between May and September, DR writes. 

READ ALSO: Denmark reverses residence decisions for hundreds of Syrian refugees

“This means that 21 cases at the Refugee Appeals Board will not be overturned despite the report of the Danish Immigration Service and the report from the EU,” Eva Singer, head of asylum at the Danish Refugee Council, told DR.

“This corresponds to 30 percent of the cases, and these are refugees who may also be at risk if they are sent back to Syria. We cannot see how they differ from the others. As such, the practice at the Refugee Appeals Board is not clear,” she said.

The Refugee Appeals Board told DR that approval of some appeals and rejection of others “is not an expression of unclear practice”.

“In all cases, the Refugee Appeals Board conducts a concrete and individual assessment,” to assess whether the applicant “risks persecution or abuse,” it said.

“General conditions” in Damascus and the surrounding region are not considered in isolation to be cause for granting or extending asylum, it said.

Denmark and Hungary are the only EU countries which currently deem it safe to return Syrian refugees.

Since Denmark doesn’t have a repatriation agreement with Syria, refugees whose status is revoked are frequently moved indefinitely to detention facilities termed ‘deportation centres’, where conditions have been strongly criticised.

READ MORE: Danish agency sent letters about deportation to refugee children