A refuge little more than temporary: Syrian refugees in Denmark ‘living day by day’ amid threat of tougher refugee policies

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People protest against proposed new refugee policies in Copenhagen in December. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

AMMAN: When Ahmad Laila came to Denmark in 2014, he did just about everything that was expected of him.

Four years into his life in Europe, the 25-year-old former Damascus resident is almost fluent in Danish, and he is taking courses to ready him for university. Laila also has a part-time job at a hotel and volunteers with various civil society groups during whatever free time he has left. And last year, he ran for the local elections in his municipality.

In other words, Laila is the epitome of a well-integrated refugee.

“Syria is my mother, where I grew up,” says Laila. “And Denmark is my wife, the one I chose to live my life with.”

“You don't choose your mother, but you do choose your wife.”

And yet despite Laila’s commitment to integrating into Danish life, a recent political agreement adopted by the country’s right-wing coalition government has now left him and thousands of other refugees in Denmark nervous about their long-term prospects of establishing a life there.

In the so-called Finance Act, which determines the Danish state’s budget for each coming year, Denmark’s right-wing coalition government announced late last month what it calls a “paradigm shift” in national asylum policies, shifting focus completely away from long-term integration and towards the notion that refugees are only in the country temporarily.  

The agreement involves a slew of measures—ranging from lowering financial support for refugees to strengthening repatriation efforts—all with the explicit goal of making it clear to refugees that “their stay in Denmark is temporary and that they have to return home as soon as circumstances allow."

Long-term integration into society is no longer the goal.

The Finance Act is expected to pass in Parliament on December 20 in a vote that is largely considered a formality, although it remains unclear how the proposed measures will be implemented.

Still, the news itself has been enough to leave refugees in Denmark living in fear of the future.

Laila meanwhile, four years into life in Denmark, has been left “shocked.”

“They are closing in on us on all sides,” he says.

‘To the edge of the conventions’

When this year’s Finance Act was presented on November 30, one proposal in particular sparked both local and international outcry: around 100 “unwanted” foreign nationals would be relocated to a deserted island some 75 kilometers south of the capital, Copenhagen.

For the past 80 years, the island of Lindholm served as a research facility where the few buildings that dot the sandy outcrop were once used to experiment on animals.

This is where the Danish government wants to detain its “unwanted”—undesired non-citizens including refugees and rejected asylum seekers who have committed criminal offenses in Denmark but who cannot be deported.

News about the plans for Lindholm quickly made international headlines and was met with “concern” by both the UN and the Danish Institute for Human Rights

But Lindholm is just one in a series of new measures designed to actively prevent long-term integration of refugees. The government calls it a “paradigm shift,” one that puts returns at the center of its asylum policy.

Denmark's Minister of Immigration and Integration Inger Stojberg in 2016. John Thys/AFP.

“The focus has completely flipped from integration to return and temporariness,” says Michala Bendixen, founder and director of Refugees Welcome, an organization that has provided free legal advice to asylum seekers in Denmark since 2010.

The Finance Act’s tone is tough, with the text of the agreement proposing that in the future authorities go all the way “to the limit of the responsibilities implied by [international human rights] conventions” when assessing the possibility of extending residence permits for refugees.

According to the agreement, the decision of whether or not to extend the permit should rely solely on the person’s need for protection—their level of integration will only be given minimal significance.

It has left refugees like Laila wondering whether their efforts to integrate have been futile.

“Why did I learn the language and why did I integrate into society if in the end they want to send be back?” says Laila.

Slava Ali, a former English teacher from the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, who has been in Denmark for more than three years, was discussing the Finance Act with her husband one day recently when her 10-year-old son came up to them.

“‘Mama, I don’t want to return to Syria’,” she recalls him saying. “‘I love Denmark’.”

Ali says that her children, who are currently in second and third grade, are fully integrated into Danish society.

“They express themselves better in Danish than in their mother tongue.”

‘It’s been made crystal clear’

The shift in policy did not come from nowhere.

Denmark has become an increasingly restrictive, and less hospitable, environment for refugees since around 2014, when the arrival of refugees—mostly from Syria—began to pick up exponentially across Europe.

Like the rest of the European Union, Denmark at the time operated with two different types of refugee status: Convention Status, granted to persons who fall under the 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee; and Protected Status—or “subsidiary protection”—granted to people who do not qualify as refugees according to the Convention but who are nonetheless in need of international protection.

Prior to 2015, both statuses meant a five-year residence permit. The likelihood of having that permit renewed was also relatively high.

“If first you had gotten a real refugee status in Denmark, you would almost have to do something actively to lose it again,” says Refugee Welcome’s Bendixen.

In 2015, however, the government, which at the time was led by the center-left Social Democratic Party—Denmark’s largest—implemented a new set of laws that reduced residency for refugees to a maximum of two years, while introducing a new legal status altogether.

The new status—“temporary protected status,” or 7.3 Status—was introduced for refugees whose need for international protection was deemed to have stemmed from “severe instability and indiscriminate violence against civilians in [their] home country,” implying that these people would be sent back as soon as that instability and violence came to an end.

The threshold for when residency could be withdrawn, due to security improvements refugees’ origin countries, was also lowered.

Given these developments in Danish asylum policies, says Eva Singer, head of the asylum department at the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), it is “unclear” whether the increased focus on temporariness presented in the Finance Act implies any significant changes to the current practices, or “simply describes how things already are.”

But Bendixen, from Refugees Welcome, acknowledges that while there have already been “small steps in that direction,” there has not previously been “as articulate and clear change of course.”

“Now, it’s been made crystal clear,” she adds.

Some Syrian residence permits ‘hanging by a thread’

Over the course of the past year, the Syrian government has retaken large swathes of formerly opposition-held territory.

Increasingly, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have promoted a narrative that Syria is entering a more secure and stable reconstruction phase, calling on Syrian refugees to return—a line that has gone down well among some policymakers, and far-right parties, across Europe.

Last month, Germany’s Minister of Interior announced that officials would “examine” the opportunity to remove a blanket ban on deportation of Syrian refugees—although a classified ministry briefing reportedly concluded that it was still unsafe to do so shortly afterwards.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, maintains that Syria is not safe enough for refugees to start returning.

Still, Denmark’s latest proposals put returns front and center.

According to Bendixen, Syrians in Denmark with temporary protected status could be particularly vulnerable given that their residency hinges on the general situation in their origin country.

“I have always been of the conviction that the 7.3 Status hung by a very, very thin thread, and that it was a matter of time before they start sending people back to some of the safer areas of Syria.”  

“It’s been the plan from the beginning,” she says.

From the time it was introduced until the end of last year, some 30 percent of Syrians who have received asylum in Denmark have temporary protected status, according to numbers from the Danish Immigration Service.

The status was originally designed with Syrians in mind, experts say, and up until now Syrians have been the only ones to receive it.

Many of them are women, the elderly and their families—because men between the ages of 18 and 42 are eligible for Convention Status on account of the risk of forced military conscription in Syria.

Coming to Denmark in 2015, Syrian refugee Hend Marak’s family were among the first to receive temporary protected status—since her father is above military age and therefore not eligible for Convention Status.

“They might withdraw our residence permit at any moment,” she says, although she claims to have grown accustomed to the daily insecurity of never quite knowing.

“I was ruined [by this] a long time ago.”

But will Denmark start trying to encourage Syrian refugees to return home?

At this point, it’s hard to say.

Experts agree that it’s difficult to assess the practical implications of the Finance Act since the proposals haven’t yet been implemented.

The Danish Immigration Service declined to comment when reached by Syria Direct for the same reason.

And yet, through the Finance Act, the Danish government has already announced its intentions to step up repatriation efforts for all refugees, partly by designating counselors in local municipalities to advise people on the opportunity to repatriate, and—in the case of Syrians in particular—by offering financial support to those wishing to return home voluntarily.

The repatriation and reintegration benefit already exists for other nationalities, but Syria is currently excluded from the program due to the security situation.

According to Singer, the DRC is regularly contacted by Syrians hoping to return and enquiring about financial support to do so.

“As long as it continues to be voluntary, then it is fine,” she says.

“[But] it must never get to the point where people chose to return to a country that is as destroyed as Syria is, because the situation in Denmark is so difficult.”

One of the main reasons that Syrians in Denmark currently give for wanting to return, Singer says, is that they find it hard to make ends meet.

In 2015, cuts to a monthly stipend for refugees in Denmark were criticized by human rights groups for being insufficient to maintain an “existential minimum” and leaving children growing up in poverty.

‘I don’t have a future here’

Question marks remain, but the overall message is clear enough: refugees need to start looking at Denmark as a temporary refuge.

And the effects of that have already started to show.

“There are very many refugees in Denmark who are incredibly scared of what will happen,” DRC’s Singer says, with “many rumours circulating, and people...almost thinking that they should pack their suitcases right away.”

Daroush had trouble sleeping and concentrating long before now—often concerned for family members who stayed behind in his hometown of Afrin, in northwestern Syria.

There, his relatives regularly face threats and reprisals from the local Turkish-backed factions who control the area, says Daroush, who asked that his real name be withheld in this report for fear of his family’s safety in Syria.

According to Daroush, news of the Finance Act constitutes yet another stress on an already fraught life in diaspora.

“You will always feel that you are here temporarily and that, any day now, you might have to leave,” he says.

Though he only had one year left of his high school equivalency courses, which would eventually give him access to university, Daroush interrupted his studies earlier this year due to his concentration problems, and started work in a job that leaves him with just enough to get by.

Torn about whether to attempt to resume his studies or continue working, he finds it difficult to make any decisions about his future.

“How am I supposed to think of other things?” he exclaims over the phone. “This means I don’t have a future here.”

“[It means] I have to keep living from day to day.”

This report is part of Syria Direct’s Advanced Investigative Journalism Training and Reporting Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

 

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.