Illustration by Rami Khoury (Photos provided by John Nielsen, Amnesty International Denmark and Syrians in Denmark interviewed for this series)
BEIRUT & PARIS — Mohammed Tarek al-Deiri is waiting for a letter from the Danish Immigration Service: a letter that will decide if his family will be split in two.
One year ago, Denmark revoked the 58-year-old Syrian lawyer’s residency permit after the country deemed Damascus and Reef Dimashq “safe” for refugees to return to. Mohammed was told he would be transferred to a return center with two of his children, while his wife and eldest daughter are allowed to remain at the family’s home in Sønderborg, in southern Denmark, while their case is under review.
“If they decide that I have to go with two of my children to a return center, we will request asylum in Belgium, Netherlands or Germany,” said Mohammed. “If they send me alone to the return center, I will go and leave my family in our house, so they can continue with their lives and studies” in Denmark, where they have been since 2015.
For the last eight months, Mohammed’s family’s case has been in a gray area, waiting for the judge to decide whether to reopen their case. Mohammed is, for now, home, waiting for the letter confirming the decision.
Like Mohammed, hundreds of Syrian refugees have had their lives upended by the Danish policy, introduced in 2019, of revoking residence permits on the grounds that parts of Syria are safe, contravening European Union and United Nations security assessments. Denmark is the only EU country to do so.
Since 2019, the Danish government has screened more than 800 cases of Syrians from Damascus and Reef Dimashq who were granted protection because of the “general circumstances” of war in Syria, and is currently assessing 300 cases, according to the Danish Immigration Service.
From 2019 to 2021, 378 Syrians have had their residency revoked or not extended, with the decision upheld after appeal in 162 cases, according to data provided to Syria Direct by the Danish Immigration Service and Refugee Appeals Board. Data is not available for 2022.
However, only five Syrians who had their residency revoked or not extended have returned so far, according to the Danish Return Agency, the authority responsible for ensuring that rejected asylum seekers leave Denmark. Dozens of Syrians who lost their right to stay in Denmark have since fled to other EU countries. According to the Return Agency, 37 Syrians claimed asylum in another EU state and five left the Schengen area.
In addition to the five confirmed cases of Syrians who returned to Syria after losing their right to stay in Denmark, 137 Syrians voluntarily returned in 2020 according to a European Union Agency for Asylum report. Danish authorities confirmed this figure to Syria Direct, noting that it refers to Syrians who had not lost their residency.
Currently, 117 Syrians are officially registered at the Danish Return Agency as obliged to leave Danish territory. Syrians who have lost their right to stay in Denmark must leave the country, but since Copenhagen does not have a bilateral agreement with Damascus, they cannot be deported. As a result, they are forced to stay indefinitely in return centers, until they decide to leave Denmark.
Twenty Syrians who lost their residency permits are presently being held in a return center. Soon, Mohammed could be among them.
Mohammed Tarek left Syria in 2014 after more than 10 members of his family were detained by Syrian security services. “I felt they were following some of the family members,” he said. “After being stopped several times at the checkpoint to check the family name, I decided to flee.”
One of his nephews who was detained later appeared in the “Caesar photographs,” a collection of more than 50,000 images that show thousands of detainees killed in state-run detention centers.
After leaving Syria, Mohammed’s journey of exile took him through Lebanon, Algeria, Libya, and Italy until he reached Denmark, where he applied for asylum in 2014. “The interviewer told me the army was not looking for me because the military service is between 18 and 42 years old.” Mohammed was 50 and received subsidiary protection status (section 7.2 under the Danish Aliens Act), a status given due to the general conditions in the country, but that does not include an individual asylum claim.
This detail would turn his life upside-down years later, but back then Mohammed didn’t think twice—he was happy about it. “They gave me protection, and I thought maybe after two years we would be done with the criminal killing system and Bashar al-Assad and we will go back,” he recalled.
In 2015, Mohammed brought his wife and three children to Denmark via family reunification, and they started a new life together there. The couple and their three children, who are now 19, 16 and 13 years old, speak Danish fluently. In 2019, Mohammed and his wife, who was a history and literature teacher in Syria, bought a restaurant. Then when COVID-19 hit hard, his wife found a second job at a factory.
Their nightmare began in February 2021. Danish immigration authorities revoked Mohammed’s residency and, since he had brought his family through reunification, the whole family was affected by the decision. After the decision, his wife and eldest daughter filed an asylum claim. Their case is under review, so they are no longer affected by the order to leave Denmark, as Mohammed and their youngest daughter and son are.
In May 2021, the Refugee Appeals Board confirmed that Mohammed’s residency was revoked. The final decision came just before his children would have been eligible to remain in the country. Under Danish law, if children have been studying for six years in Denmark, residency permits are automatically renewed. “My children had been studying for 5 years and 10 months when the authorities made the final decision, can you imagine? For two months!” Mohammed said in exasperation.
Danish authorities ordered him and his two youngest children to go to a return center, but he hasn’t received the letter confirming it, leaving them in limbo. Mohammed has asked the judge to reconsider their file, but for the last eight months, the judge has either not accepted or refused to reopen it.
“The return camps are like a prison,” said Mohammed. “I would go on my own, but why would you torture children and put them in a prison? I am just hoping that the 13- and 16-year-old stay at home, but the authorities have refused,” he explained.
The return centers are in isolated locations and ‘residents’ are not allowed to work nor study and are subjected to strict rules concerning their freedom of movement. For example, they have to sleep everyday at the center and have to check their ‘presence’ three times per week with the police. “If you compare the state of the prisons and those deportation camps…I’d rather go to prison,” he added.
Pushing for ‘voluntary’ return
Denmark’s policy runs counter to UNHCR and EU assessments of Syria as a country that is unsafe for returns. “Denmark is really an outlier and just wants to send a political message, which is not how refugee international obligations work,” explained Nadia Hardman, researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The cornerstone of international refugee protection is the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from returning a refugee to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.
The Danish government insists that returns are voluntary, but the “voluntary” character of returns is debatable, since refugees whose residency is revoked are obligated to reside indefinitely in return centers.
“They can’t legally live a life of dignity in Denmark, what’s their choice? To spend their days in a return center, a hell of a limbo where they cannot live a normal and dignified life? Try to leave to another EU country? Or voluntarily go back to Syria? What are these choices?” asked Hardman.
“These are not individuals who are voluntarily returning, that’s nonsense. What Denmark is trying to do is trying to force them to travel back to Syria,” explained Toby Cadman, international law specialist and cofounder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers in London.
Denmark is not putting Syrians in planes to Damascus, but the pressure they put on refugees could amount to indirect refoulement. “It is highly problematic that Syrians who have been living and have had rights in Denmark, suddenly suddenly have their lives put on hold,” said Lisa Blinkenberg, senior advisor at Amnesty International Denmark. “It could be an indirect refoulement, because they put a certain pressure on Syrians to return.”
“Indirect pressure can be so great that it amounts to a breach of the non-refoulement obligation,” said Hardman. “It could be that Denmark is breaching that obligation just by virtue of shoving people into return centers.”
“The reason why Denmark doesn’t send people back is because they don’t want to strike a deal with a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, yet it is ok for people who have considered themselves part of Danish life to go back?” asked Hardman. Last January, a German court found two former officials of the Syrian security apparatus guilty of crimes against humanity.
In the event that a Syrian refugee returns to Damascus after losing their right to stay in Denmark, and is forcibly disappeared or killed in Syria, “there is a likelihood and a legal basis for the family to bring a civil claim for damages against Denmark for that person’s death,” explained Cadman.
Watchdog organizations have documented ongoing violations and abuses perpetrated by the Syrian government. Last October, Human Rights Watch reported 21 cases of arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture and five extrajudicial killings among returnees. Amnesty International found that five returnees had died in state custody and the fate of 17 forcibly disappeared people remained unknown.
As someone who has lost relatives in detention in Syria, Mohammed does not need to read reports about the dangers for returnees. He knows. “We fled the murderous regime, we participated in demonstrations in Denmark against the regime, how can we return now? If we are detained, we won’t have guarantees over our lives,” he stressed.
Since their residency was revoked, Mohammed and his wife have lost their right to work. The pressure is mounting. “I’m psychologically tired, I have diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure.” His health deteriorated when the problems with their status started, he says.
“We are under psychological and economic pressure—we can’t breathe,” said Mohammed. For now, the anxious wait continues.
*Editor’s Note: Ammar Hamou, one of the authors of this report, provided testimony to the Danish Immigration Service that was used for the 2019 country of origin (COI) report on Damascus and Reef Dimashq that reclassified them as “safe” for refugee returns. Along with other experts quoted in the COI report, he later signed a joint statement that condemned the return policy and the use of their testimonies to support it.