Illustration by Rami Khoury (Photos provided by John Nielsen, Amnesty International Denmark, and Syrians in Denmark interviewed for this series)
BEIRUT & PARIS – Dozens of Syrians stripped of their residency permits have fled Denmark for other European Union countries, only for some to be sent back to Danish territory under the Dublin Regulation.
Nadia Ahmad al-Masri is one of them. The 43-year-old Syrian received confirmation that her residency was revoked in November 2020 and was ordered to leave Danish territory by April 2021 or move to a return center indefinitely. When the deadline came, she fled to the Netherlands, but last week Dutch authorities sent her back to Denmark.
Nadia, who used to live in the Syrian capital Damascus but is originally from Daraa, fled Syria in 2013. She spent three years in Egypt and then, with her sister, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and made her way to Denmark, where her sister’s husband and son had fled priorly.
In 2017, Nadia received temporary protection status in Denmark. “I learned Danish, I had Arab and Danish friends and for the last three years I’ve been working in a restaurant in Copenhagen and paying my taxes,” she said.
Then, in 2019, Denmark designated Damascus and Reef Dimashq safe for refugee returns. Danish authorities reopened Nadia’s case as a result, and decided that she did not have grounds to fear returning to Syria, a finding that she contests. “I am from Daraa, I am a woman on my own, how am I not afraid? Where is security when Bashar al-Assad is there?” she asked. “Damascus is not safe for Syrians—it is safe for the Iranian militias.”
Nadia still gets outraged recalling how Danish authorities told her that if she didn’t want to return to Damascus, she could just go to Reef Dimashq, the province surrounding the capital. “They heard that there are groups of five or ten Syrian women who live together and share rent,” she said. “They told me I could do that.”
Last Friday, Nadia was sent from the Netherlands to a reception center in Denmark. “In the Netherlands they are very angry at Denmark because many of those that are rejected are going there, and they don’t want to open their doors,” she said.
Testing the EU Dublin Regulation
Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, the law that regulates asylum procedures in the EU, refugees who first obtain protection in one member state and then seek asylum in a second must be sent back to the state in which they first received protection.
But given that Denmark is stripping Syrians of their residency permits on the grounds that parts of Syria are safe for return, a policy at odds with the EU’s stance, could EU members reconsider sending Syrians back to Denmark?
“We are looking very much at Germany now because there have been some local court decisions saying that Syrians might not be able to return to Denmark,” said Malene Haakansson, head of press at Amnesty International Denmark.
The German rulings seem to be an exception so far. The Dublin Regulation “hasn’t been challenged yet,” explained international law specialist Toby Cadman. “You would have to argue that the risk in Denmark is such that they should be granted humanitarian protection or asylum in the third state.”
Since Denmark is not actually deporting Syrians, a claim for asylum in another state may be difficult to make. If Denmark’s pressure on rejected refugees were to be considered indirect refoulement, then an asylum claim in a second EU country would be more solid.
So far, 378 Syrians have had their residency revoked or not extended. Eva Singer, head of the Danish Refugee Council’s Asylum Department, explained that the Appeals Board is overturning an important percentage of the revocations ordered by immigration authorities. “People should not panic and leave Denmark until they have actually reached a final decision,” she said.
From Germany to a Danish return center
Haitham al-Kurdi waited for final confirmation that his residency was revoked before leaving Denmark. In January 2021, the 61-year-old Syrian sought asylum in Germany, but the authorities there sent him back to Denmark.
Al-Kurdi fled from Syria to Turkey in 2015 with his wife and four of their children. Another son had previously fled to Denmark to avoid conscription, so Haitham decided to travel on his own to join him there and later bring the rest of the family from Turkey. “My mistake was that I didn’t take my wife and my children when fleeing to Denmark,” he said. Danish authorities denied the family reunification, so he has been living with one of his sons in Denmark while the rest of the family stayed in Turkey.
In 2019, Danish authorities reassessed Haitham’s case. He recalled the interviewer telling him that there was “gasoline, medicine and electricity” in Damascus, so he could return. “I told him I didn’t flee to Denmark because of money or medicine, I fled because of Bashar al-Assad. If Bashar fell, I would go back to Syria by myself without you having to send me back.”
Before leaving Syria, Haitham and his family lived in Reef Dimashq, and he fears for his safety if he were to return there. “My brother and nephew were killed,” he explained, adding that he is wanted by a Syrian state security intelligence branch in Damascus.
After being sent back to Denmark in June 2021, Haitham first spent three months in a reception center. Eight months ago, he was sent to Kærshovedgård return center, which is 350 kilometers from Copenhagen, where his son lives. He asked authorities to send him to a nearer camp, but “the judge told me, ‘I am not going to put you next to your son so you go and visit him,’” he recalled.
The nearest train station is 7 kilometers from Kærshovedgård return center. “It takes me a whole day to go to my son’s house, and then one day to come back,” Haitham said. In return centers, residents are allowed to sleep outside of the center two nights every two weeks, upon approval of the authorities. If they do not follow the rules, they risk imprisonment.
Because he lost his right to stay in Denmark, Haitham cannot work, so he lost the job he held at a bakery. In the return center, he is not allowed to receive a state cash allowance either.“They put me in the camp with people who committed crimes and had drug charges,” he said, referring to the fact that foreign nationals with a criminal record are also sent to return centers.
“The deportation camps are prisons, my life is going to the bathroom and coming back,” he said.
On February 9, Haitham’s case was reopened, but as of the time of publication, he remains in Kærshovedgård and has not been transferred to a reception center pending a judge’s decision.
Could the European Court of Human Rights overturn this policy?
Once the appeal options are exhausted in the Danish system, the next logical step for Syrian refugees and their advocates would be to petition the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
In 2021, the Danish Refugee Council brought one case of a rejected Syrian to the ECHR, but the court stated “the case it is not admissible at the moment” because “there is no immediate risk of refoulement,” said Singer, given that Denmark is not forcibly deporting Syrians. “We are considering how to bring cases to the ECHR,” she added.
Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers is prepared to bring cases to the ECHR the moment there are forced returns. “We are liaising with Danish groups and as we consider that there’s a real risk, we will intervene to take the case to Strasbourg,” said Cadman, cofounder of Guernica 37.
In order to bring a case before the ECHR, “you’d have to be able to argue that the policy breaches one of the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said. “The domestic law flies in the face of EU law and effectively international human rights law, so you’ll have to argue that the entire policy is unlawful.”
There is a precedent of the ECHR ruling against Danish asylum policy: in 2021, the court ruled that the Danish policy of making refugees wait three years to apply for family reunification was illegal, since it violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Another option for rejected Syrian refugees may be to file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee or the UN Special Procedures in Geneva. “The difficulty with that is that it is a very slow process and is not a judicial decision—it is like a recommendation,” Cadman said.
Are Tartus and Latakia next?
In October 2021, Danish authorities published several reports about the security situation in Latakia and Tartus, as well as a report about Palestinian refugees from Damascus. “It may be that the Danish authorities are looking at the situation of Palestinians in the areas they already deem safe, and they also have their eyes on Tartus and Latakia,” warned Nadia Hardman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International Denmark wrote to Danish authorities in December 2021 to inform them they had made “several inaccurate statements” in these latest reports. For instance, Danish authorities claimedthat Syrians “who have unsettled military and security issues, can settle their issues with the Government of Syria,” and that a person needs “to settle his/her status with the Syrian authorities to have his/her name removed from the wanted lists.” In their letter, Amnesty criticized what they called an “incredibly simplistic” approach, warning that there is “no assurance that a security clearance approval would protect individuals from arbitrary detention.”
Part of Danish civil society has mobilized in solidarity with Syrians affected by the return policy. Amnesty has gathered 95,000 signatures protesting this policy, and supporters have taken to the streets to voice their disapproval. “Last year we had 25 demonstrations in 25 cities in Denmark. I can’t recall when we had that the last time,” said Haakansson.
“Syrians are well integrated in Danish society. It is somebody’s neighbor, somebody’s school friend [who is] now having their life totally turned around,” she added.
Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, hosts 35,000 Syrians. In the last three years, out of the 378 refugees who had their residency revoked, five returned to Syria. The rest are stuck in an agonizing wait.
“The future is uncertain,” said Nadia, who is now waiting at a reception center for her case to be reopened or rejected again, in which case she will be sent to a return center. “I feel like there’s no goal in my life.”
*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.