Syria's Western region Latakia is now also considered safe for return, in spite of arbitrary violations from the regime
Good advice to Syrian refugees with asylum under article 7(3) from Latakia and Tartous:
Don’t panic. Ask for advice at Refugees Welcome or DRC Danish Refugee Council and take it easy. You will be called in for interview by Immigration Service before they decide anything, and there are many reasons why you might have your permit extended or get a new and better one. If it’s withdrawn, the case will go to the Refugee Appeals Board, where you can make sure to choose a competent lawyer, and where chances for an overruling are good. Don’t leave Denmark, as the Dublin regulations are still in place, and you might risk making things even worse for yourself.
Danish authorities have so far gone through 1,400 cases from Damascus and Rif Damascus, and the vast majority have had their permit extended or received a better status. Around 130 have lost their permit finally, but some of those have applied for reopening of the case.
On Friday the 17th the Refugee Appeals Board ruled in the first test cases concerning safety in Latakia. The cases were brought to the board because Immigration Service recently decided to withdraw residence permits under article 7(3) in the Danish Alien Act to refugees from Latakia and Tartous, claiming that the two areas – like Damascus and Rif Damascus – no longer presents a danger to everyone. However, there are much fewer refugees from the Western provinces in Denmark than from the Damascus region.
The board agreed with Immigration Service that the general security situation in Latakia province no longer amounts to a risk level demanding protection under the European Convention on Human Rights article 3, thus accepting that a permit under Danish article 7(3) can be revoked.
The two persons concerned did however not lose their residence permits, as the board granted them convention status due to their individual risk, protecting them much better against withdrawal in the future. In one case, the male complainant had been exposed in public, and in the other one, the female complainant had several minor risk factors which overall made the board fear for her safety upon return.
Assessment of the situation in Latakia
The refugees’ defence lawyers emphasized a number of factors which the board chose to disregard. Here, it’s important to note that in a case of revoking, the burden of proof is reversed. When you arrive in a country and you apply for asylum, the applicant must argue for the risk s/he is facing. But when it comes to revoking, it is the authorities who must argue that the person is no longer in danger. In Refugees Welcome we listen to UNHCR and a number of human rights organisations claiming that nobody can guarantee the safety of a returned Syrian refugee, and therefore no permits should be revoked.
The conditions which led to granting asylum to all Syrians, even the ones without an individual asylum motive, are defined in the Sufi-Elmi ruling from 2011 which concerned Somalia. The criteria for when a person must be considered at risk simply by being present in a certain area are the following: whether the parties widely use methods aiming at civilians, whether the fighting are spread out over the whole area, and how high the numbers of wounded and dead civilians are.
Though the level of fighting has dropped since 2016 when the persons concerned were granted protection status, their temporary permits have been extended four times. Nothing suggests that security should have improved since the latest extension, and both Immigration Service and the Refugee Appeals Board refer to background information from 2019, 2020 and 2021. It’s hard to see what exactly led to a revoking right now. The same background reports are warning against great problems with the human rights situation, even if fighting has decreased. The regime performs arrests on a large scale, use of torture is widespread and many disappear. The human rights violations seem to be arbitrary and can happen to anyone. There are many signs that returning to Syria after many years abroad issues a risk in itself of being interrogated and punished as a traitor. Something that Immigration Service has described in their own reports.
Most of Latakia region has been under government control throughout the war and is therefore not a particularly dangerous area. But both Hizbollah, Iranian and Russian groups are present, and Sunnis are more exposed as Latakia is considered a stronghold for Alawites. However, there is very little knowledge about actual conditions in all of Syria.
The majority of Syrians in Denmark have asylum under the Refugee Convention, which is article 7(1) in the Danish Alien Act, either because they can be enrolled in military service and be forced to commit human rights violations, or because they are opposing the regime somehow. It doesn't have to be as an active opponent but can also be because they held a job as a civil servant and left the country without permission. These factors place them at personal risk, and their residence permit can only be revoked if we see lasting and fundamental improvements in Syria.
Assessment of attachment to Denmark
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights is also important when revoking a residence permit. Unfortunately, Denmark does not have a clear and defined practice for this. In the two test cases, the attachment was not considered strong enough by the board. But if you are married to a refugee who has asylum under article 7(1), it's sufficient in itself to get an extension. If you came to Denmark as a child and have been attending school for 6-7 years, it's usually considered enough to have your own strong attachment. For refugees who arrived as adults, more years are usually needed, but family, language, work and education can at some point be enough to be allowed to stay. Since 2016 it has been very difficult to meet the strict criteria for permanent residency, and if you chose education over an unskilled job, it will take a long time.