Syrians demonstrate against the Danish government's refugee policies in December. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Abdulrahman.

AMMAN: When Aisha* and her husband got married in Denmark about a year and a half ago, they did it the traditional Muslim way: in front of a sheikh and two witnesses.

Even before war broke out in Syria, few people actually registered their marriages formally with civilian authorities. So in Denmark, it didn’t really occur to them to validate their marriage with the local municipality.

Until last month.

Aisha had just gotten home from grocery shopping when she saw the news in her Facebook feed: the Danish authorities would start returning Syrians from Damascus who—like her—were given temporary protection based on the “general situation,” rather than a risk of personal persecution.

Her husband has a different type of refugee status than she does, as a Syrian male at risk of military conscription back home, and is not facing the same risk of being returned any time soon.

She’s worried they might be separated.

“I married my husband out of love,” the 24-year-old says. “I couldn’t bear it if something were to tear us apart.”

Proving their marriage became vital overnight, a matter of staying together or not. The couple immediately sent paperwork to local authorities, in the hope that Aisha would be able to change her status and stay in Denmark. They are still waiting for a definite answer.

In late February, Denmark’s Immigration Service announced it would start reassessing residency permits of Syrian refugees, originally from Damascus, who were granted asylum based on the “general situation” in the country. The controversial new policy is based on a report on Damascus, released by the Immigration Service, concluding that the security situation in the Syrian capital and surrounding countryside has “improved significantly.”

For now, Denmark’s immigration authorities will begin assessing a handful of cases of refugees and asylum seekers from Damascus who match this profile, in order to decide whether there are in fact grounds to reject asylum claims or withdraw residency permits.

However, experts warn that the Immigration Service’s change of policy makes Denmark the first European country to even start contemplating involuntary returns of Syrians—a potentially dangerous precedent as more and more European countries become increasingly inhospitable to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Thousands of Syrians across Denmark, meanwhile, have been left despairing over uncertain futures.

Seven months pregnant and already “mentally exhausted,” it’s not exactly the kind of news Aisha needed to hear. Since the Immigration Service’s announcement, she says she struggles to sleep at night.

“I’m afraid that they’ll tell me any moment now, ‘Go back to your country’.”

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Danish police escort a family from Syria seeking asylum in Denmark in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

UN deems returns ‘impossible’

Since spring last year, when pro-government forces violently cleared the final pockets of the city held by rebel and hardline Islamist groups, an uneasy calm has been hanging over Damascus.

While there have since been sporadic signs of the city coming back to life, residents are still faced with arbitrary arrests and forced army conscription, as well as absence of basic infrastructure and public services.

Last month’s 70-page situation report, produced in collaboration with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), states that violence has died down. And yet chief of the DRC’s asylum department, Eva Singer, tells Syria Direct it is still “too risky” to start returning Syrians to Damascus.

"We agree that the security situation in Damascus has changed since last time we went in 2018." However, she adds, "we don't know enough about what happens when people return, in terms of what consequences it could have and how [returnees] are treated.”

The UN, as well as rights groups, maintain that it is still far too premature to talk about the involuntary returns of Syrians.

On February 28—two days after the Immigration Service announcement—the UN Human Rights Council’s Syria Commission of Inquiry concluded that the situation across Syria “undermines the feasibility of the return,” pointing to a lack of access to even basic services, ongoing arbitrary arrests and a “general absence of rule of law” in areas recently retaken by the government.

One of the commissioners presenting the UN report called the possibility for safe and sustainable return “completely illusory.”

Originally from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp and suburb in southern Damascus, Aisha says she has neither home nor family to go back to. After years of siege by pro-government forces, between 70 and 80 percent of buildings in Yarmouk were destroyed when a pro-government offensive brought the camp back under Damascus’ control, UN agencies and rights groups estimate.

“What would you return to?” she says. “The camp has been levelled to the ground.”

‘This was always the plan’

Like all Syrian men between the ages of 18 to 42, Aisha’s husband is considered to have a “well-founded fear of persecution,” because he is wanted for military conscription. Unlike herself, her husband is therefore eligible for protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention—known in Danish asylum law as Convention Status, or 7.1. Status.

Aisha, on the other hand, had to settle with “temporary protected status,” or 7.3 status when she arrived, meaning a shorter residence permit, no right to free university education and restricted access to family reunification.

Temporary protected status was first introduced in 2015 by Denmark’s previous Social Democratic government—specifically with Syrians in mind and with the explicit purpose of making it easier to withdraw permits as soon as the situation improved, even if it continues to be “serious, fragile and unpredictable.”

In other words, the Immigration Service’s change of practice is simply the realization of a policy first introduced years ago.

According to Michala Bendixen, founder and chair of Refugees Welcome, a local NGO providing free legal advice to refugees and asylum seekers, the announcement therefore hardly “comes as a surprise” to anyone.

"7.3 Status is designed with this purpose,” she explains. “So this was always the plan."

The Immigration Service’s decision came about after the Danish parliament passed a set of new asylum and integration laws restricting the rights of refugees and shifting focus away from integration towards return—first introduced as a “paradigm shift” by the government late last year.

One new measure in particular could make returning refugees even easier: the degree of “attachment” to Danish society will be given minimal consideration when assessing residency permit extensions for refugees.

For refugees who’ve raised children in a new country, the thought of uprooting a life in Denmark seems particularly disconcerting.

"[My children] speak Danish better than Arabic, all of their friends are Danish, their school is all in Danish," says 35-year-old Mariam, a Syrian refugee originally from Damascus.

Mariam is currently taking high school equivalency courses that would qualify her for university, although her current temporary protected status doesn’t allow for her to continue past secondary school.

"I only just now started to understand Denmark,” she says. “My life is here.”

Denmark: A 'pioneer’ of problematic refugee policies?

For now, Denmark is the only country in Europe that has made concrete steps towards returning refugees to Syria. But in a political environment characterized by an increased focus on refugee return, experts fear that other European Union member states could “use” the Danish case to justify similar measures.

According to Refugee Welcome’s Bendixen, for years Denmark has been “building an image of being first-movers—always a bit faster, braver and more hardcore than everyone else.”

“Then the rest follow suit.”

Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exile (ECRE), an alliance of NGOs advocating rights of refugees and asylum seekers, also says that it’s not the first time Denmark is “pioneering measures that restrict the rights of refugees,” adding that there is “undeniably a risk” that Denmark could set precedents for other European countries to follow.

Still, she remains hopeful that because “some of these measures are...frankly so extreme,” they’re unlikely to gain traction.

For now, Germany’s only returns program remains voluntary, and in 2018 more than 400 refugees returned to Syria with financial support from the German government. Meanwhile, the immigration authorities of Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbors maintain that it is premature to send Syrians back, although the Norwegian Immigration Directorate says it is continuously “assessing the situation.”

Out of the roughly 20,000 Syrians granted asylum in Denmark since 2011, 4,700 hold temporary protection status, or 7.3 status—and since most men are eligible for convention status, most of them are women. However, the Immigration Service says it doesn’t maintain records on the origins of refugees within Syria.

It remains unclear if, and when, the first returns from Denmark will happen. For now, the Immigration Service will process a handful of “test cases” of Syrians from Damascus with 7.3 status, which will then have to be accepted through an appeals body—a procedure that experts estimate could take months.

In the end, all returns will rely on an individual assessment of each case.

‘Mentally devastated’

At the same time, Refugees Welcome’s Bendixen says, many Syrians with 7.3 status might have different grounds for staying—either because, like Aisha, they got married after arriving in Denmark, or because new risks for persecution have since emerged.

Mariam fled Syria in 2015, before eventually making it to Denmark with her children. There, she was granted 7.3 status.

But since then, she says, the Syrian government has pressed charges against her for leaving her public sector job without permission, potentially leaving her vulnerable to a fine and three-year prison sentence.

Mariam’s residency permit expires in a few months, and she has already applied for extension. She’s hopeful that her situation will be able to give her a better status, but only time will tell.

"I'm just waiting," she says.

Regardless of how many Syrians will be affected by the Immigration Service’s decision in practice, the laws have left thousands of Syrians across the country disheartened, confused and fearful for the future.

One survey of DRC’s volunteers released last month concluded that “fear” and “anxiety” among refugees caused by the numerous restrictive laws stifled their ability to learn the language and make decisions about their future.

Former Damascus resident Umm Ali says she feels “lost,” struggling to sleep and “constantly crying and thinking about what might happen.”

“I no longer know where I am and why, and what will happen,” she tells Syria Direct.

At the same time, there appears to be rising confusion among Syrians across the country. Both Refugees Welcome and DRC say they have seen a significant increase in people seeking legal advice—even those not at risk under the new policies.

Having spent the past four years tiring herself with language and school studies, former law student Roz al-Fares says she was “mentally devastated” on hearing of the new policies.

However, as a former resident of northeastern Syria’s Hasakah province, al-Fares is not immediately at risk—a fact that appears to be cold comfort to her.

“They will start with with people from Damascus, but then they’ll continue with everyone else.”

Layla, a 24-year-old granted asylum just before 7.3 status was implemented, says she’s lost track of the 100 or so laws adopted since 2015.

“As soon as one decision is implemented, another one is announced that's even more awful.”

She still isn’t entirely sure which type of refugee status she has. But either way, she says, the news adds on to a general political atmosphere that has built up over the years making her feel unwelcome.

“I’m tired,” she sighs.

Despite the hopelessness and anxiety among Syrians who spoke to Syria Direct, all appeared determined about one thing: not returning to Syria.

“We don’t have a house or a family in Damascus,” says Umm Ali. “So where are we supposed to go?”

Should she end up being deported, Umm Ali says she’ll find refuge in another country.

She refuses to go home.

“We haven’t decided where yet, but we will not return to the unknown.”

*All but one of the Syrians interviewed for this report spoke on strict condition of anonymity out of fear that participating would affect their case.