This past summer, the Danish Refugee Appeals Board, a quasi-judicial body that processes complaints about asylum-related decisions in Denmark, confirmed the Danish Immigration Service’s (DIS) decision to revoke or refuse to extend residence permits for many Syrian refugees from Damascus. The decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding in Europe that the Syrian capital is a safe place for returnees, a subject on which SJAC has previously reported. This dangerous precedent was furthered by the Danish government’s announcement in July that it would fast-track its review of nearly 900 Syrian refugees from Damascus by the end of 2020. Since then, both DIS and the Board continue to revoke and deny extension of residence permits. According to the Danish Refugee Council, DIS has also rejected new asylum applications and has expanded its focus to include Syrians from rural Damascus. The Board has not yet heard these cases, so it remains unclear if the Board will agree with DIS’s assessment of the security situation in the rural areas surrounding the Syrian capital.
The situation facing refugees in Denmark and other European states is part of a broader discussion on Syrian returnees, which is the focus of a conference in Damascus this week organized by the Syrian government and Russia. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the conference will contribute to “alleviating the suffering of Syrian refugees and allowing them to return to their homeland and their normal life, especially in light of what has been achieved in terms of restoring security and stability to most of the Syrian territory.” However, it will not be attended by countries who host the largest refugee populations, such as Turkey. Nor will it be attended by the United States or the European Union who “do not believe the Russian military is a credible host for convening a meaningful discussion on the return of refugees.”
Despite Russian and Syrian propaganda to the contrary, evidence shows that deportees have a well-founded fear of persecution should they be returned to Syria. As such, Denmark and other states should holistically account for country of origin information, in addition to their obligations under international and EU law, and uphold the right of refugees to protection, including those from the Damascus area. A case assessment will help to explain why countries should reconsider their current approach. It pertains to individuals who were denied residence permits by DIS. Their complaints were then heard by the Refugee Appeals Board.
Case before the Danish Refugee Appeals Board
In the case, a married couple claimed two reasons why their lives would be at risk if they returned to Syria. First, they are from a formally rebel-held area in Damascus where residents are targeted for their political affiliations. Second, their sons evaded military service, so the couple feared that they would be punished for their sons’ criminal offenses. The Board noted that the couple was granted Syrian passports in 2012 which enabled them to legally leave the country. Thus, they were not “individually profiled in relation to the Syrian authorities at the time of [their] departure.” Moreover, the Board held that the couple did not show that they would be targeted for their regional affiliations since “the current conditions in Damascus are no longer of such a nature that there is a basis to assume that they will be at real risk” of abuse simply because of their presence in the area. Consequently, they were denied Temporary Protective Status (TPS), though it remained on grounds unstated in the decision, meaning their TPS was still in effective. The couple’s adult daughter was the subject of a second case for which the Board made the same decision.
Significance of the Board’s decisions
The Board’s decisions are concerning because of the narrow lens through which they view security concerns in Damascus. Regarding the couple’s first claim that they would be targeted because of their regional affiliation, evidence shows that the Syrian government associates individuals residing in or originally from formally opposition-held areas with the armed opposition. These civilians face a barrage of abuses, including torture, sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, house searches, checkpoint searches, artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and sieges. Even in areas where reconciliation agreements were forged between parties, the conditions infringe on “key human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly.” Moreover, questions remain as to whether the Syrian Government will perceive fleeing as an act of opposition. The couple’s second claim, that they will be punished for their sons’ military evasion, is also substantiated by documentation that family members of draft evaders are often pressured by authorities, and even detained, as a way for the government to indirectly apply pressure on evaders themselves. Generally, a mountain of evidence shows that returnees to Syria face widespread human rights violations and poor economic prospects, rendering most returns unsafe and unsustainable.
It should be noted that Denmark is not currently carrying out deportations to Syria because the two countries lacks a repatriation agreement. Instead, individuals are placed in departure centers which have been criticized for their prison-like conditions. But its approach to safety assessments—and similar approaches from other European countries and attendees of the Damascus conference—reflect a deeply flawed understanding of the safety of refugee return which could put thousands at risk as refugee protections continue to weaken in Europe and the Middle East. Furthermore, it undermines the core tenets established in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights under which refugees are entitled to non-refoulement, liberty and security, no punishment without law, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of discrimination.
Accordingly, states must abandon this approach and account for international protection considerations. They should ensure that their practices align with the standards for refugee status determination and resettlement established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and they should favor UNHCR’s country of origin guidelines. In doing so, countries will reap the benefits of integrated refugee communities, rather than sending away vulnerable people and continuing cycles of displacement.