Illustration by Rami Khoury. (Photos provided by John Nielsen, Amnesty International Denmark, and Syrians in Denmark interviewed for this series)
BEIRUT & PARIS — “When you enter a return center you become nothing, you feel outside of space and time,” 51-year-old Asma Natour explained. “It was very cruel, it was dirty, I was psychologically exhausted—it felt like jail,” 62-year-old Dalal Hussein Khalil said.
After losing their protection status in Denmark, Dalal and Asma were sent to a return center. They are among 378 Syrians to have their residency permit revoked after Danish authorities designated Damascus and Reef Dimashq safe for return in 2019. In Denmark, rejected asylum seekers who do not agree to return to their countries are forced to stay indefinitely in return centers—until they change their minds.
Currently, 20 Syrians whose residency permits have been revoked are staying in return centers, according to the Danish Immigration Service. The number of people in these centers fluctuates constantly: After spending a few days there, many decide to flee to a third country, while the lucky ones have their asylum cases reopened.
“We fear that these Syrians may remain in these return centers for months or even years without the possibility to follow an education or work or have full access to health services,” Lisa Blinkenberg, senior advisor at Amnesty International Denmark said. “It’s like a life on standby.”
Danish authorities “are taking people who had strong ties to Danish life and dumping them into a place completely far out where they have no reason or means to contribute,” Nadia Hardman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.
In happier days, under a shining Danish sky, Dalal’s family stood smiling into a camera as they celebrated her 20-year-old son Mahmoud’s high school graduation. In the picture taken that day, they hold a Syrian revolutionary flag adorned with a portrait of Abdul Baset al-Sarout, the Syrian goalkeeper who became a symbol of the revolution.
“We were very happy in Denmark,” Dalal explained. “My children were at school, working, they all learned Danish. Mahmoud will start to study medicine at university next September.”
After fleeing Syria in 2012, the life that Dalal, her husband and seven of their eight children— one lives in Germany—had built in Aalborg, northern Denmark, seemed stable. It was not.
In December 2019, the family was called in for an interview with the Danish Immigration Service. A few weeks later, Danish authorities decided it was safe for Dalal and her husband to go back to Syria, but not their children, as their sons are of military age and their daughters are married to Syrians of military age.
After reviewing their case in August 2020, the Refugee Appeals Board upheld the decision. “The judge said that they were old and there was no danger to them,” explained Dalal’s son Mahmoud.
“They told me to leave Denmark, but my children are in Denmark, I have nine grandchildren here,” Dalal said. “We could apply for asylum in Germany, but I don’t want to go on my own. They want my husband and I to live alone in Germany and leave my family here?”
The family petitioned the authorities twice to reopen their case, but in November 2021, Dalal and her husband were sent to the Sjælsmark return center.
Asma Natour and her husband also ended up in Sjælsmark. Originally from Daraa, the family lived in Damascus before fleeing Syria in 2013 and finding safety in Denmark in 2014. They learned Danish and opened a small shop selling Arab products. Their two children attended school, and are now preparing to enter university. “We paid our taxes like any other Danish person,” said Asma.
In November 2020, the Immigration Service reopened their case. “The Danish authorities told us ‘Damascus is safe, you have hospitals and schools for free and there’s a card where you get sugar and rice for free,’” Asma recalled. The family insisted, to no avail, that Asma’s husband used to work at the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Syrian regime would “go after him” if they returned.
But the Refugee Appeals Board confirmed the revocation of Asma and her husband’s residency. By that time, Asma’s husband had suffered a stroke, which the family attributed to stress. In October 2021 they were sent to Sjælsmark. “You feel like you’re in a prison,” Asma said.
A stay with no end in sight
Denmark has three return centers: Sjælsmark and Kærshovedgård—which are run by the Danish Prison and Probation Service—and Avnstrup, designed for families with children and run by the Danish Red Cross.
Non-citizens who lose their right to stay in Denmark but do not leave the country are forced to reside in these centers indefinitely. It is a unique case in the European Union.
The EU Return Directive establishes a “pre-removal detention maximum period” of 18 months for “irregularly staying third-country nationals.” But Denmark lets rejected refugees remain in return centers indefinitely because it does not consider them to be detained.
According to a representative of the Immigration Service, “the return centers are open centers, and there is no authority to physically restrict the movement of the residents.”
Residents in return centers are allowed to go out during the day, but they face multiple rules restricting their movements. They must sleep at the center every night, and while they can request a permit to sleep elsewhere for two nights every two weeks, there has to be a “valid” reason such as “family visits, sickness, or birthdays.” Residents must also check in with the police at the center three times per week.
If they do not follow these rules, they risk four months in prison.
These rules leave the open character of the centers up for debate. “People are free to come and go, then there are rules that you have to stay during the night and there are rules about how many times a week you have to report to the police” explained Eva Singer, head of the Danish Refugee Council’s Asylum Department, which provides legal counseling to refugees. “If you don’t abide by these rules you might end up getting a prison sentence, but if you look at it at face value they are not detention centers.”
Toby Cadman, an international law specialist and cofounder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers in London, disagrees. “It is very difficult for the Danish authorities to say with any credibility that they have not been detained—they are being detained,” he said. For Cadman, it is not the fence or surveillance camera that make it a system of detention, but “the circumstances by which they are held there.”
Regardless of the official definition, for Dalal and Asma it felt like jail.
“It is surrounded by iron fences, there are surveillance cameras, and three times a week you have to go to the police to say that you are there otherwise they will fine you or put you in jail,” Dalal said.
People at the return centers are not allowed to work, study or cook. “The month I stayed at the camp, I lost weight because I was barely eating the food they prepare at the center, and it was forbidden to cook,” Dalal recalled.
While at Sjælsmark, Dalal said she met an Iraqi woman who had spent four years there. “It affected us to see these people there for years,” she said. “There are many Palestinians and Afghans.”
Asma felt “psychological pressure” to leave. “You are made aware that you are not wanted in Denmark, they do everything to press you to leave the country,” she said. “But my children are in Denmark, so I didn’t want to go to another country and start from scratch.”
‘Violence in Syria is arbitrary’
Denmark’s designation of parts of Syria as safe for refugee returns particularly impacts those who obtained temporary protection in Denmark due to the general circumstances of war. “Women who don’t have an individual refugee claim and men above the age of 42 who do not have an individual claim for asylum” are among those most affected, Singer explained.
The notion that it is broadly safe for older people and women to return to Syria has been refuted by human rights groups. Amnesty International met with Danish authorities in late 2021 to explain to them that “violence in Syria is arbitrary, and affects not only men and boys but also women and girls: everyone can be subjected to gross human rights violations in Syria,” according to Blinkenberg.
The core of the Danish return policy—that parts of Syria are safe—counters the EU’s assessment and has been contested. A September 2021 report by Amnesty International found “horrific violations” committed by Syrian intelligence officers against 66 returnees, including 13 children. Researchers documented five cases of returnees who died in custody and 17 cases of enforced disappearance. “This is brand new research that shows that refugees who go back to Syria are really in danger,” said Malene Haakansson, head of press at Amnesty International Denmark.
Similarly, an October 2021 report by HRW documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, five extrajudicial killings and 17 enforced disappearances among Syrians who returned from Lebanon and Jordan between 2017 and 2021.
Between January 2019 and February 2022, the Syria Network for Human Rights (SNHR)recorded “9,117 arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, of which 4,914 were at the hands of the Syrian regime, and among those, 177 cases are women,” according to Fadel Abdul Ghani, the founder of SNHR.
A glimmer of hope
Both Asma and Dalal’s cases were reopened recently after they spent almost two months at the Sjælsmark return center. Both are currently staying at a refugee reception center waiting for a judge’s decision that will determine if they can go back home with their children in Denmark, or go back to a return center. Dalal’s decision is expected on March 4. Asma does not have a date yet.
“The reception center is better,” Dalal said. “They give you a cash allowance, you have your kitchen and a small room, but of course it’s not the same as having a residency permit and being with your children.”
Asma said that the living conditions at the reception center are “not bad,” unlike the return center. Still, it is not the “stable life that I used to have for seven years with my children and my husband living in a house, working, studying.”
The first time Asma stayed in a reception center, after arriving in Denmark, she was happy. She had fled war and that center meant a new beginning. Seven years later, with her residency revoked, being in a reception center again feels the opposite.
*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.