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How Denmark’s Syrian refugee residency move reflects shifting policies across Europe

‘I’m a single mother. If I get arrested, who will take care of my children?’

Demonstrators wearing masks hold signs at a protest.
Demonstrators in Copenhagen at a protest to stop the expulsion of Syrian refugees, on 21 April, 2021. The sign on the right reads, “Syrians are not your political game”. (B-Joe Johansen/TNH)

Over the past year, Rasha Kayrout has spent her days taking care of elderly people in Copenhagen after losing her job in hospitality due to the pandemic.

“I love them. They love me. It’s a wonderful job,” the 38-year-old Syrian refugee told The New Humanitarian, explaining that after six years living in Denmark with her two children, it makes her feel as if she is giving something back to the community.

“It is what makes me feel like I can say that I am both Syrian and Danish,” she said. 

Rasha is the kind of essential worker that people around the world – including Danes – have praised and applauded throughout the coronavirus pandemic. So she was shocked when she received an email from the Danish government informing her that her residence permit was being revoked. 

The decision followed the Danish government’s review of the temporary protection status of 1,250 Syrian refugees from Damascus and its suburbs at the end of last year. While most of the more than 35,000 Syrians living in Denmark are not affected, 380 Syrians living in Denmark – including children – have so far had their status revoked and have been asked to voluntarily return to Syria. If they don’t, they could be sent to bare-bones deportation centres that human rights watchdogs say are “unacceptable for people”

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The majority of those affected are women because Denmark still generally considers returning to Damascus and its suburbs to be dangerous for men, who could be conscripted into the military.  

While Denmark is the first European country to formally revoke Syrian refugees’ residency permits, the decision fits a troubling trend of countries across the continent implementing policies designed to discourage people from seeking asylum by stripping away benefits and making protection only temporary for those who manage to reach their borders.

“There has been a huge shift from a focus on inclusion and integration of refugees to emphasising the short-term nature of the protections and the need to return at the earliest opportunity,” said Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights migration researcher Michela Pugliese, pointing out that while Denmark’s decision is the most extreme, it fits a broader trend across Europe. 

Temporary protection

In Denmark, there are different statuses granted to people seeking protection depending on their circumstances. Individuals who are deemed to have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”, according to the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, are granted status as refugees, while people who flee indiscriminate violence against civilians in their home country qualify for temporary protection. 

Until recently, Syrians with temporary protected status like Rasha were able to renew their residency permits every year. However, this started to shift when the Danish government conducted its first review of the security situation in Damascus in 2019 and then reviewed the areas surrounding Damascus at the end of last year. The reviews concluded that the situation had “improved significantly” as there were no longer the airstrikes or the on-the-ground fighting that once defined the Syrian civil war. 

According to criteria of temporary protection status, this meant that the Danish government could now revoke Syrians’ residence permits if they were from these areas, and demand they go back.

“We have made it clear to Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist,” Danish Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye said recently in an interview with Reuters.

However, many of the experts consulted for the review used to justify the decision to revoke residency permits are now speaking out, saying the Danish government misconstrued their findings.

“Damascus may not have seen active conflict hostilities since May 2018 – but that does not mean that it is safe for refugees to return to the Syrian capital.”

“This decision used our testimonies… but we do not recognise our views in subsequent government conclusions or policies, and neither do we consider that Denmark’s Syrian refugee policy fully reflects the real conditions on the ground,” eight of the experts said in a joint letter

The experts highlighted the continuation of systematic arrests, detention, and torture of people perceived to be aligned with the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by the country’s security forces. “Damascus may not have seen active conflict hostilities since May 2018 – but that does not mean that it is safe for refugees to return to the Syrian capital,” the letter said.

In recent years, the Syrian army has recaptured most parts of the country that were once controlled by the opposition – including suburbs of Damascus – and is reasserting its control, which means cracking down on dissent and settling scores.

In March, the Syrian Network For Human Rights documented 143 cases of arrest and detention, largely in Damascus and the surrounding areas – the same areas the Danish government has declared safe for refugees to return to. One person was arrested for making a phone call to areas under the control of the opposition; another for posting on his Facebook account about the poor living conditions and corruption in areas under the Syrian regime’s control. 

In many cases, the Syrian government views refugees who return to the country with suspicion, and hundreds who have gone back have been arrested, interrogated, and tortured. Syria is also experiencing a deep financial crisis, with people having to stand in long lines just to buy bread, and many areas that saw fighting are still in utter ruin, leaving people without homes to return to or basic infrastructure to support their lives.  



A broader trend? 

Denmark is the only European country that has so far revoked the residency permits of Syrian refugees. But policies are starting to shift in other countries as well. 

Sweden and the UK have both come to similar conclusions about the security situation in Damascus improving, and Germany became the first EU country to allow a blanket ban on deportation to Syria to expire at the end of last year. Germany has said that only Syrians who commit crimes or “pursue terrorist aims” will be considered for deportation. 

As attitudes towards migration have hardened across the EU, countries have tightened their criteria for asylum, resulting in more people being granted subsidiary protection instead of refugee status.  

“Member states have been giving inferior forms of protection when they should be giving refugee status because they are trying to limit the amount of time that they host them,” Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), told The New Humanitarian. 

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Subsidiary status has allowed thousands of people fleeing conflicts and other humanitarian crises to access protection, but it also allows host countries to limit the rights of recipients compared to refugee status, Woollard added. 

“Under EU law, there shouldn’t be a big difference between temporary protection status and refugee status, but in practice, there are big differences,” she continued. 

For example, people with subsidiary protection may not have the same family reunification rights as refugees. In 2016, Germany suspended temporary protection holders’ right to family reunification for two years, leaving thousands of separated families with no way to legally reunite. 

“It makes a big difference for people’s lives, their security, and their prospects for integration,” Woollard said.

Coercing a decision?

Meanwhile, Denmark’s left-wing Social Democratic government is explicit about how it feels about migrants. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the country’s goal is to have “zero asylum seekers” and pays refugees as much as $28,150 to leave the country. 

The financial incentive, coupled with revoking refugees’ residency rights, is all a part of a wider crackdown that sends a clear message, according to rights advocates. 

“Denmark isn’t putting people on a plane at the moment, but they are stripping their residency – and with it, their right to live in a place,” said Nadia Hardman, a migration researcher with Human Rights Watch. 

Without residency permits, people do not have the right to earn an income or rent an apartment. But the Danish government cannot actually enforce the orders it has issued for Syrians whose residency has been revoked to leave the country because it does not have diplomatic relations with the Syrian government. 

Instead, those who have been told to leave – like Rasha – face being sent to so-called “removal centres”, austere living facilities far from city centres. Rights advocates say that the remote location of the centres – coupled with the fact that those who have been sent there have also had their right to study and work revoked – makes continuing normal life effectively impossible.

“If you were living in such conditions, it might coerce a choice [to leave the country],” Hardman continued, pointing out that even though many refugees know that they could face danger in their home countries, they are forced to weigh up whether the risk is worse than being forced into legal limbo in Europe.

‘I can’t go back’

For now, Rasha is waiting to see if it will be possible to appeal the decision to revoke her residency permit. The Danish Refugee Appeals board – a quasi-judicial body made up of a judge, a lawyer, and a representative of the Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs – has sided with refugees on 35 of the 86 cases it has reviewed so far. 

Rasha does not know how her attempt to appeal will turn out, but one thing is clear. “I can’t go back to Syria,” Rasha said, her voice breaking as she recalled the Syrian secret police knocking on doors in her neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus, asking about her after she had an argument with her boss. Rasha assumes her boss reported her to the security forces out of spite after their fight – a not uncommon revenge tactic for those looking to settle scores.

“I’m not afraid of the bombs. I’m afraid of the regime.”

*Knowing she was no longer safe, Rasha grabbed her two children and fled; first, to Turkey, then in a flimsy boat across the sea to Greece, where she trekked across Europe and eventually ended up in Denmark, where she was offered protection.

As long as al-Assad is still in power, she knows the same regime that targeted her 10 years ago could come after her again and fears that presenting herself at the Syrian border could be akin to turning herself in.

“I’m not afraid of the bombs. I’m afraid of the regime,” Rasha said, echoing the concerns of many other Syrians who fled their homeland with no intention of returning, unless the political situation drastically changes.

“I’m a single mother,” she continued. “If I get arrested, who will take care of my children?”

As for the home she’s made for herself in Denmark: “We spent six years working, learning the language, contributing to this country,” said Rasha. “I’m not ready to give up.”

(*This story was updated on 20th May to clarify that Rasha spent only a short time in Turkey before travelling to Greece. An earlier version stated that she spent three years there.)

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