Can Denmark return Syrian refugees?

As the first country in Europe, Denmark is now revoking residence permits referring to improved security in Damascus, but this raises serious problems

Denmark recently revoked residence permits to 3 female Syrian refugees, referring to the general security level in Damascus now being acceptable. The Syrian cases have been taking a zig-zag course during the last year – read more below.

The Syrian cases have similarities with the Somali cases, where a large amount of permits were revoked during 2017 and 2018. However, the appeals board has subsequently disagreed on more than half of the 1,350 revoked Somali cases. The cases raise several problematic questions concerning return of refugees, as described at the end of the article.

35,000 Syrians have been granted residence in Denmark since 2011. Of these, 4,500 have been given asylum under section 7(3) due to the general security situation; this is the group which is now at risk of losing their permits.

Photo: Syrian refugees arriving to Lesbos 2015. Karen Christensen.

The country report

In February 2019 a new fact finding report was released, written by Danish Immigration Service and Danish Refugee Council. The report gave an impression of improved security in the areas under government control, especially in Damascus province.

But at the same time it described increased control and surveillance from the Assad regime, including interrogation of returned persons, with a certain risk of being detained. One source says that 10-15% of the refugees who went back from Lebanon have been arrested and asked about their activities outside of Syria, and some of them have not been released. Information about what happens to returned persons is not reliable, and several sources say that it depends on the individual person performing the job.

Immigration Service revokes permits

Based on the report, Immigration Service decided to revoke a number of Syrian refugee permits given under article 7(3) to persons from Damascus province. The 7(3) status is given to Syrians who don't have an individual asylum motive, but fled form the general war. 6 cases were pointed out as trial cases and sent to the Refugee Appeals Board, which is the final instance for asylum cases. All Syrian refugees in Denmark got bad nerves – especially the ones who had the 7(3) status.

Appeals Board changes the first 7 trial cases

In June 2019 the board, very surprisingly, overturned all 6 decisions and another one a few weeks later. Instead they were granted individual asylum status on articles 7(1), convention status, or 7(2), protection status.

In the 7 cases, the board did not dismiss the improved security level in general, but found that individual protection should be given as the persons in question was at risk for the following reasons:

• Close family members to persons with a certain risk profile, including persons who had escaped military service or similar, or whom in other ways were in opposition to the Syrian authorities
• Persons who come from or have been staying in areas formerly under opposition control
• State employees who had left their jobs without permission
• Persons who had been exposed in some way as opponents to the Syrian regime (for instance through media exposure in the country of residence).

The cases showed a new practice concerning individual risk, lowering the bar compared to earlier decisions. The above conditions had been assessed before and not found serious enough. The asylum lawyers were positively surprised, and the Syrians were relieved.

U-turn in next 3 cases

In December, the Refugee Appeals Board came up with another big surprise: 3 cases were confirmed, and lost their residence permits in a final decision. The asylum lawyers and Danish Refugee Council were shaken, not least over the case handling which had seemed speedy and badly prepared.

Exempt from the decision, repeated in all 3 cases: "As an overall assessment of the background information (…) we find that the situation in Damascus is still serious and fragile. However, we also find that the risk of civilian losses caused by fighting in Damascus has changed significantly since May 2018, and that conditions in Damascus have improved over a longer period (…) … the board finds that the current situation in Damascus is no longer such that everybody is at risk for being exposed to assaults falling under ECHRs article 3 only for being present in the area."

Case 1: Divorced woman with 4 children, Kurdish. Referred mostly to risk because of her husband's and brother's conflicts in Syria, but both have subsequently been back in Syria without experiencing problems.

Case 2: Young woman, Kurdish. Referred to risk because of her mother's and father's activities. The father got asylum 2013, but went back to Syria in 2017. The mother also went back for a few months in 2014 without experiencing problems.

Case 3: Woman, widower, Arabic. Referred to her late husband being killed in 2012, and armed men coming to her home afterwards, but the board did not believe her story. She has been back in Syria several times in 2013 and 2014 without experiencing problems, and had a passport issued. She also referred to her brother getting asylum in 2017 because of military service, but this was not found to be relevant for her.

Voluntary return

UNHCR estimates that around 42,000 Syrians have returned during 2018, more or less voluntarily; most of them from Lebanon, not many from Europe. An increasing number of Syrians have asked for repatriation support from Denmark, from May till November 2019 it was 91.

Refugees Welcome is in contact with Syrians who have returned voluntarily and not had any problems. But many others are extremely afraid of being sent back, and are developing mental stress disorders because of the constant threat of losing their permit to stay here. Only a small part of the Syrians living in Europe have "only" fled from war – most of them have fled Assad's dictatorship, which is returning to power.

From integration program to deportation center

The Syrian cases expose the inexpediency in coping with each aspect of asylum cases separately, without looking at the actual consequences for the humans in question. A residence permit is revoked, though the authorities know that returning the person is not possible – there is no return agreement with Syria. The same thing happened with people from Kosova in the 90's, with the Iraqis in the 00's and recently with the Somalis in the 10's.

The asylum authorities only consider the risk; returning people is a police matter. Socio-economic conditions in the home country like access to housing, income, medicine – no matter how serious and life threatening these may be – are not considered in the asylum decisions from Immigration Service or Refugee Appeals Board. These conditions should be considered in an application for humanitarian residence permit by the Integration Ministry – but the decisions here are extremely restrictive, and only a handful of people are given permission every year. In practice no permits are given in Denmark for humanitarian reasons, only to people with life threatening diseases.

Most of the Syrian refugees in Denmark came around 5 years ago, and afterwards the law was changed, no longer counting integration and attachment to Denmark (fluent Danish, self-support, education, resident family etc.) when a permit must be extended every second year. The demands to obtain permanent residency are difficult to meet, and you must wait 8 years before applying, which is much harder than other European countries.

What are the societal and human benefits of tearing people away from a normal daily life in the Danish municipalities with school and jobs, into a life of indefinite waiting in the deportation camps, proven to make people sick and broken down, costing the state far more money per year? Both Syrians and Somalis may face many years in the camps.

Deals with Assad?

Denmark can not morally defend making a future agreement with the Assad regime on forced deportations. Assad has dropped numerous bombs and chemical weapons on his own civilian population, and held an area just outside Damascus under siege for 5 years. We have tried making deals before with other war criminals like Al-Bashir from Sudan. But this can expose the returnees to danger in itself.

Is it acceptable from a humanitarian point of view to return people to a country in ruins? According to UNHCR the numbers look like this: 5,6 mio have fled the country. 6,6 mio are internally displaced. 13,1 mio are in need of help. 2,8 mio live in isolated and occupied areas. It is problematic to support rebuilding of the country under a war criminal as Assad, and large parts of Syria is still very much under armed conflicts, forcing more people to flee.

The system holds another paradox. Asylum under section 7(3) is the weakest and most temporary form of protection – but is given to the most vulnerable groups; namely women and unaccompanied children. They are typically the ones with no individual asylum motives. 87% of the ones who have been given 7(3) status are women. This means they are first in line when it comes to forced deportations.

Read more:

Country report from February 2019 (English)

Foreign articles about the recent decisions: France24 and Washington Post

UNHCR on Syria