While fears of forced return have long haunted Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Turkey, Syrians granted asylum in Western Europe have generally been protected. This has begun to change over the past year as Denmark has slowly eroded protections offered to Syrian asylum seekers, leading many Syrians in Denmark to fear losing their temporary protected status. In June 2019, Danish Immigration Service decided that Damascus is now safe for return, meaning that origin in Damascus is no longer sufficient basis for an asylum claim. In December, for the first time, three Syrians had their requests to renew their temporary protected status rejected based on this decision. The new policy reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the risk of returning to Syria, and Denmark’s actions not only threaten refugees inside its borders, but create a dangerous precedent for other European countries with refugee populations.
Denmark’s Changing Refugee Policy
While Denmark welcomed only a small number of migrants during the height of the European refugee crisis, the country’s politics were rocked by images of Syrians and other migrants entering Europe, leading to a political backlash and a subsequent tightening of its refugee policies. In February 2019, the Danish parliament passed a new bill that resulted in a ‘paradigm change’ in the country’s refugee process. Whereas previously Denmark’s goal was to integrate refugees into Danish society, the goal is now eventual return. This decision has fundamentally reframed the purpose of Denmark’s refugee program.
The February decision, which applied to all refugees, was followed by a June decision by the Immigration Services specific to Syrians. Immigration Services announced that Damascus is now safe, and hence Syrians originating in Damascus cannot automatically qualify for temporary protected status. Syrians in Denmark can live in the country under a number of different statuses. Some are granted political asylum based on a personal fear of persecution. For example, this status can be granted to an individual who was involved with the opposition and hence is at risk for government retaliation. Syrians with this status retain their right to remain in Denmark, no matter their specific area of origin.
However, some Syrians are in Denmark on a temporary protected status based on the general state of conflict in the country. These individuals need to renew their status on a yearly basis. For those from Damascus, renewal is no longer guaranteed. The new ruling may put as many as 3,000-4,000 Syrians at risk for rejection when their status comes up for renewal. This is what happened in December, when three women from Damascus were told that their status would not be renewed.
This policy change reflects a deep misunderstanding of Syrian government policies and treatment of returnees. The Syrian government continues to commit serious violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings against civilians. While the government often targets those who are believed to be aligned with the opposition, civilians can also suffer these violations for no clear reason. As long as the security sector in Syria continues to conduct these widespread abuses in an unpredictable fashion, all Syrians are at risk of such abuses and hence deserving of asylum as well as temporary protected status.
Attempts to Motivate Return
Because Denmark does not have a repatriation agreement with the Syrian government, there is no immediate risk of deportation. However, the Danish government has created departure camps for rejected asylum seekers, which the Minister of Immigration, Integration, and Housing has stated are expressly designed in order to “make life intolerable” for refugees and motivate them to request return to their home countries. While the government cannot legally detain rejected asylum seekers, they have required the rejected applicants to reside at the centers, respect a curfew, and check in regularly with police. Centers are located in remote areas often far from public transport, and residents are not permitted to seek work. Residents at the camps report that they live under constant surveillance with no hope of leaving the camp or building a different life for themselves. Return as a result of the poor conditions within the camps should not be considered voluntary.
Asylum Standards Across Europe
While the rulings in Denmark affect a relatively small number of Syrians, the country’s decision may embolden other European countries to similarly adjust their asylum policies. This process has already begun. In August 2019, Sweden followed in Denmark’s footsteps, announcing that the government will no longer offer automatic protected status to new arrivals coming from Damascus and a number of other governorates.
As policies begin to shift across Europe, discrepancies in the level of protection Syrians receive in different countries is growing. These differing requirements for asylum are particularly problematic, because under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, rejection of an asylum application in one country effectively disqualifies the applicant from seeking asylum in another EU nation. This leaves Syrians who have their asylum application rejected in Denmark with little recourse aside from living permanently in the departure camps, or facing the potential of serious violations back home.
While no Syrians have been deported from Denmark to date, the decision that Damascus is safe sets a disturbing precedent. All refugee host countries should respect the rights of Syrians to seek refuge, regardless of their city of origin or other biographical details. Moreover, host countries need to ensure that living conditions for refugees are not so difficult as to coerce returns. Denmark and other EU countries should be leading the way in protecting the asylum rights of Syrians and providing humanitarian aid to Syria’s neighbors to ensure humane conditions for refugees. Instead, Denmark is stripping asylum seekers of their rights and pressuring Syrians to make risky returns.