BEIRUT — For Khaled Ahmad Ibrahim, the sleepless nights are back. After escaping the Syrian conflict in 2014, this 50-year-old man has lived a quiet life in Jutland in Denmark with his wife and four children. But recently, Danish authorities, who now deem Damascus safe for return, have notified him that they are reassessing his refugee status, opening the door for his return.
“I am terrified; every night, I imagine what would happen if they revoked my residency. It is psychological agony, like waiting for death every day,” Khaled, originally from al-Hajar al- Aswad neighborhood in the southern countryside of Damascus, told Syria Direct.
Khaled’s brother disappeared when he was arrested by the shabiha (thugs linked to the Syrian government) in 2012; four years later, he recognized his brother in one of the 28,000 ‘Caesar photos’ documenting deaths in Syrian prisons. Khaled joined the Caesar Families Association, and then through the Association of Prisoners and Missing Persons filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government. In Denmark, he felt a “kind of freedom,” so he dared to show his hostility towards the Assad regime on social media.
The Danish Immigration Service is screening 3,600 cases of Syrian refugees to identify from which province they come from, a task they expect to conclude by the end of 2020, according to Eva Singer, Director of Asylum and Refugee Rights at Danish Refugee Council (DRC). Each refugee’s status is reassessed periodically. In June, however, the Danish government decided to “expedite faster” the process for Syrians who “were granted asylum due to the general violence in Damascus province and do not face risks of individual persecution,” explained Nils Bak Andersen, Press Officer at the Danish Immigration Service.
The Danish authorities consider that “the security situation in Damascus and rural Damascus has improved significantly,” Singer told Syria Direct. Consequently, “several refugee statuses have been withdrawn and residence permits not prolonged to Syrians from Damascus in the past years,” she said, adding that “areas other than Damascus might be included in the foreseeable future.”
“The burden is on the refugee to bring evidence as to why there is a fear of persecution upon return. If there is no due process and they [the Danish authorities] do not consider that evidence properly, then you are falling into the territory of refoulement,” said Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Khaled tried to change his refugee status from humanitarian to political, given that he is politically outspoken against the Syrian government, but Danish authorities dismissed that petition.
As he now awaits the decision on his refugee status, the prospect of returning disturbs him. “I am afraid of killing, rape, the detention of my family; the regime is criminal,” he said.
The UNHCR has called on “states that have received Syrian refugees – including Denmark – to continue their protection.”
The Danish authorities offered Khaled a sum of money in the framework of a voluntary return scheme. “They don’t understand; even if they give thousands of [Danish] kroner or dollars, it is of no use; the fear of death is not like the fear of poverty,” he said.
If Danish authorities dictate the return of a refugee, but the individual refuses to be returned, they are sent to “open departure centers,” de facto limbos where those who cannot be deported are left to fade indefinitely until they change their minds. For now, no Syrian national has been relocated to one of these centers, as far as Singer knows.
“If they make me choose between death and going back to Syria, I choose death,” Khaled muttered.
The ‘safe return’ narrative
In 2019, Swedish authorities announced the end of residency based on ‘general risk’ for Syrians coming from regions where they assessed that the security situation had improved (that is Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Daraa, Suwayda, Quneitra, Hassakah and Latakia provinces). From then on, asylum would be based on individual circumstances.
Denmark and Sweden's approach of considering parts of Syria safe for return may send a “message to the world, especially to those countries such as Turkey and Lebanon which are hosting so many more Syrians, that now it is time to go home and that Syria is safe and secure,” Hardman said. “We are very concerned that the perception that there is less violence in Syria will encourage hosting countries to push refugees to return or to restrict their asylum policy,” added Marie Forestier, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International.
Broadly, since 2018, the frontlines have stabilized, and large-scale and direct clashes have wound down. Today the Syrian government controls two-thirds of the country. In 2019 there were 1.25 million IDPs and over 56,000 refugee returns, according to UNHCR.
The ‘safe return’ narrative has flaws, though. Between January 2019 and October 2020, 237 refugees who returned were arrested by the government, 194 of whom are still detained and 176 of whom have become forcibly disappeared; five were tortured to death in detention centers, Fadel Abdul Ghani, Founder and Executive Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), told Syria Direct.
Most of those arrested upon returning came from Lebanon, a country that, together with Turkey and Jordan, was signaled by human rights groups for forcibly deporting Syrians.
In July, 46 civil society organizations denounced a leaked 8-page policy paper drafted by the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs ‘to motivate the return’ of Syrian refugees. But given the current political turmoil, that policy does not seem to be on track to be implemented. For Hardman, this “resurgence of the return propaganda and scapegoating of the refugee population” is worrying amid the “economic crisis and the general breakdown in Lebanon’s government.”
In the case of Turkey, Amnesty International (AI) has documented unlawful deportations since 2014; the last instance was in May, when six Syrians were forced by Turkish authorities to sign voluntary return documents before being sent back to northern Syria. In September, AI also denounced Jordanian authorities for transferring Syrian refugees to a no-man’s land between Jordan and Syria.
The pushback is felt in the Mediterranean as well. For instance, last September, Cyprus pushed back 200 individuals, including Syrian nationals, on a boat from Lebanon and denied them their right to lodge an asylum claim, according to HRW. This contravenes the principle of non-refoulement. On the EU authorities’ role dealing with these practices, Hardman said that “statements of concern are welcomed but what we need to see is accountability, we haven’t seen any investigation.”
The key ally of Damascus, Moscow, has been the leading voice in this push for return, seeking to normalize relations with the Syrian government. In 2018, a Russian Initiative was launched to motivate the return of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Next November, Russia will hold a conference in Damascus to discuss “the return of refugees and displaced to their homeland.”
However, that return to the ‘homeland’ for many, including Khaled, constitutes a nightmare under the current circumstances.
This article has been amended after mistakenly attributing the assessment of Damascus as safe to DRC, rather than the Danish authorities.