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How Denmark’s hard line on Syrian refugees is an aid group’s ethical dilemma

‘If we go back, the same moment they will kill us.’

Two women sit on a couch and embrace.
Denmark has been revoking the residency permits of Syrian refugees from in and around Damascus – like Maya (right) and her mother, Awatif – and citing a report co-written by the country’s largest NGO as justification. (Amanda Magnani/TNH)
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Denmark is the first European country to tell large numbers of Syrian refugees to go home. While it hasn’t begun deportations, nearly 400 Syrians from in and around the capital, Damascus, have been stripped of their residency permits and the right to work since 2019.

Few of those affected have risked going back on their own to Syria, where human rights groups have recently documented the torture and disappearance of returning refugees. But they are under increasing pressure, and hundreds have left Denmark in search of refuge in other EU countries. 

The Danish government – which has taken one of the hardest lines on asylum and migration in Europe in recent years – justified its decision by saying there had been a decline in armed conflict in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs.

Its key piece of evidence was a 2019 “Country of Origin Information” (COI) report co-written by the country’s immigration service and Denmark’s largest NGO, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). In addition to its impact on Syrians in Denmark, the report was a propaganda coup for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, with Syrian state media describing the Danish decision as a political victory

The decision to revoke residency permits dovetails with a broader trend of countries across Europe implementing hardline policies to block access to asylum and erode protections. Nearly 11 years after the war in Syria began, advocates and rights groups worry that Denmark’s decision is also a sign of what’s to come as more and more European countries choose to focus on the reduction in armed conflict when calibrating their asylum policies – as opposed to ongoing human rights abuses committed by the al-Assad regime and the continued threat they pose. 

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

Many governments and international organisations produce COI reports – like the one used to support Denmark's decision – to gather information on refugees’ home countries to help guide immigration authorities in their asylum decisions. They often consult civil society, but Denmark is unusual in paying DRC – an NGO whose mandate is to protect refugees and their rights – to join fact-finding missions and co-write reports, according to experts. 

Established in the 1950s as an umbrella organisation for Danish refugee groups, DRC has a long history of working closely with the Danish government – which is also one of its largest funders. This particular report on Syria created a fierce debate within the organisation about the benefits of its close relationship with the government, which openly states that its goal is to have as few refugees in the country as possible.

The New Humanitarian interviewed nine current and former DRC officials about the report, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. On one side of the internal debate are staff who believe DRC can positively impact policy from the inside by maintaining its close relationship with the government. On the other are those who believe DRC’s participation was used to legitimise Europe’s harshest policy on Syrians and did little – if anything – to help protect refugees. 

The story of DRC’s involvement in drafting the report – investigated by The New Humanitarian through interviews, public records, and freedom of information requests – provides a stark example of the dilemmas that arise when the mission of a humanitarian organisation and the politics of its government partner (and funder) sharply diverge. 

DRC says its relationship with the government doesn’t influence its work on COI reports, and The New Humanitarian’s reporting did not turn up any evidence of political manipulation in the drafting of the Syria report. But, considering the overall context, some current and former DRC officials believe it’s time for a rethink. 

“Given the way in which this area has become increasingly politicised, I question whether DRC should continue producing reports on asylum in cooperation with the authorities,” Christian Friis Bach, a Danish politician who was secretary general of DRC when the Syria report was produced, told The New Humanitarian. "This was an open and important discussion at the time. We were balancing on a knife’s edge about this question," added Friis Bach, who was fired by DRC in 2019.

The rush back to Damascus

In 2015, as a record number of Syrians escaped war to Europe, Denmark passed a law establishing a temporary status for people fleeing indiscriminate violence – rather than individual persecution – which was eventually applied to around 4,700 of the approximately 35,000 Syrians in Denmark. Under the law, those with temporary protection risk losing their status as soon as there’s any improvement in security on the ground back in their home countries, even if the situation remains “fragile and unpredictable”.

By 2018, the Syrian government, with the support of Russia and Iran, was gaining a decisive upper hand in the Syrian war. The Danish Immigration Service asked DRC to join a trip to Damascus to assess the security situation in March of that year. Despite a recent string of victories, al-Assad’s government was still battling opposition fighters in the Damascus suburbs, and the fact-finding mission noted that security in the capital had “deteriorated” compared to 2017. 

However, two months later, the Syrian government declared that it had full control of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs for the first time since the war started in 2011.

Before their earlier findings had been made public, the Danish Immigration Service requested a second assessment “as quickly as possible”, according to emails obtained through freedom of information requests. The return visit by DRC and immigration service personnel in November 2018 then found security in Damascus had improved “significantly”.

“There might have been a momentary improvement in the security situation, but that shouldn’t necessarily lead to any conclusions,” said Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, a professor of international migration and refugee law at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s clear that the [Danish] government was eager to exploit the possibility of that moment in time.”

The consequences for Syrians in Denmark were immediate. "I am pleased that conditions in parts of Syria have improved,” said Inger Støjberg, then the Danish immigration minister, as she announced the report’s release in February 2019. “When there is no longer a need for protection, one must travel home and help with the reconstruction of one’s homeland.” Støjberg was later impeached, and last month handed a two-month prison sentence over a different hardline migration policy.

“It’s clear that the government was eager to exploit the possibility of that moment in time.”

A week after the publication of the COI report, the Danish Immigration Service said it would start refusing to extend residency permits for refugees from Damascus.

DRC criticised the decision, as it had the 2015 Danish law establishing temporary protection, which it saw as watering down protections. And the organisation’s leadership insists that DRC was right to produce the report, even though it knew how it would be used against Syrians in Denmark. 

“The situation in Damascus had changed. I think anyone could see that at the time. And we knew how that would be interpreted [by the Danish authorities],” said Eva Singer, the head of DRC’s asylum department, which works on the COI reports. “This is exactly why we thought it was important to be part of [the report]: to ensure that it had as many nuances as possible.” 

Singer said it was normal to do two fact-finding missions in the same country, but conceded that it was “unusual” for a second report to be requested so soon after the first. 

The organisation declined to make Secretary General Charlotte Slente, its top executive, available for an interview with The New Humanitarian, instead submitting a written statement. When asked about the nuances DRC contributed to the report, Slente said it would be impossible to provide specific examples.

“We still believe the report became better with our participation,” she wrote. “And we don’t see any indications that DRC not participating would have meant that fewer Syrians would have lost their residence permits.”

‘It was very shocking’

Sara Alderi was the first person in her family to read the email from the Danish Immigration Service in February 2021 saying that her father’s residency permit – and therefore those of his wife and his three children – would not be extended. "It was very shocking," said the 19-year-old high school student.

DRC emphasises that the 2019 COI report is a collection of testimonies from sources and experts and does not make recommendations about whether it is safe for Syrians to return to Damascus and the surrounding countryside. But the report was listed as the first piece of evidence in the letter from the Danish Immigration Service to Sara’s father.

Sara had been in Denmark with her family for six years. “Syrian authorities have control over your home neighbourhood,” the letter read. “There has been an improvement of conditions in Damascus.”

But Sara and her family had not fled the general violence in Damascus; they had left their home because they feared the Syrian authorities. One of Sara’s father’s cousins was arrested early during the civil war, and the following day his corpse was delivered to the family. A nephew’s body was later identified among a trove of photographs leaked from inside al-Assad’s jails. 

syria-denmark-protest-deportation-copenhagen.jpg

“Syria is not safe”, reads the sign (in Danish) on a tent outside the parliament in Copenhagen as protesters launch a May 2021 sit-in against the Danish government’s decision to revoke Syrian refugees’ residency permits.
Amanda Magnani/TNH
“Syria is not safe”, reads the sign (in Danish) on a tent outside the parliament in Copenhagen as protesters launch a May 2021 sit-in against the Danish government’s decision to revoke Syrian refugees’ residency permits.

Sara’s father, Mohammed Tarek Alderi, who was a lawyer in Syria, told The New Humanitarian that when he petitioned the Syrian authorities for information, an intelligence official warned him: “Don’t keep asking questions, or you will join them.”

“If we go back, the same moment they will kill us,” Sara told The New Humanitarian. “The same moment.” 

DRC argues that the Danish authorities shouldn’t base asylum decisions on the COI report alone, and points to a Danish judge’s statement that they rely on multiple sources. Yet the report that DRC co-wrote continues to influence the Alderis’ case. 

Around half of the refugees who had their permits revoked have successfully appealed the decision, but Mohammed Tarek’s appeal was rejected in July. The judge again cited the COI report in explaining why he should be able to return to Damascus. “I said, ‘Your report is not right,’” Mohammed Tarek recalled. “But [the judge] said, ‘I don’t care; that's not my job.’” 

Sara and her mother have filed a new joint asylum application, but her father and two younger siblings have been told they will soon have to go into one of Denmark’s return centres, which have been described by human rights watchdogs as “unacceptable for people” – due to poor sanitary conditions and the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor infractions, such as possessing a mobile phone.

The Syrians sent to them live in a painful limbo: They aren’t allowed to work or participate in society, but are left to wait indefinitely for deportations that can’t practically happen because Denmark has no diplomatic relations with Syria and therefore can’t coordinate repatriations with the Syrian authorities. 

“I will go there alone, but please not with my children… it is worse than a prison,” Mohammed Tarek said of the centres.

A flawed report?

Several former DRC staff working with Syrian refugees told The New Humanitarian they had warned the NGO against working with the Danish Immigration Service on the COI report. “Why would DRC put its name on something that’s clearly political in nature?” one of the NGO’s former Syria specialists recalled asking their bosses in Copenhagen in 2018. 

Other ex-staff in the Middle East said they were either never informed about the organisation’s role in the COI report or were rebuffed when they made suggestions about people to interview for it. They spoke on condition of anonymity as most still work in the humanitarian sector and said they feared negative career repercussions for speaking out. 

Once DRC’s asylum department began working on the report, it struggled to persuade the Immigration Service to broaden the focus from the decline of military conflict to include more information about the risks returning refugees might face from Syrian authorities, according to internal emails seen by The New Humanitarian.

“I must repeat once again that I believe we are extremely well covered by security situation sources and that I don’t see a need for any more,” a Danish Refugee Council official wrote to Majid Behbahani, chief adviser to the Immigration Service’s COI unit, ahead of the November 2018 trip. “It is exactly the issues [of return] where very little information is publicly available and where very little information exists; where it would be meaningful to add more sources.”

Eventually, the DRC official gave up. “It is clear to me that we will never agree on this point, and it doesn’t make sense for me to keep on insisting,” they wrote to Behbahani in a follow-up email, also obtained by The New Humanitarian through a freedom of information request.

Immigration service officials declined to discuss the content of the report or their relationship with DRC on the record, instead sending a written statement asserting the independence of their work.

In her written response, DRC’s Slente said key staff were informed about the report and they can’t publicly discuss their methodology around the selection of sources because of the sensitivity of the security situation in Syria. 

After Syrians began having their residency permits revoked, nearly every person DRC interviewed on the record for the report spoke out against it. Eight of the sources released a joint statement last March criticising the document as “flawed” and flagging their contributions as “underappreciated”.

“I was shocked and could not believe that the entire testimony had been reframed in a way that in the end it came across as the opposite of what I had said,” said Bente Scheller, one of the sources quoted in the report, and the head of the Middle East and North Africa Division at the German foundation Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

‘Something has clearly gone wrong’

There have been controversies over Danish COI reports before. 

Denmark has also revoked the residency of hundreds of Somalis under the same 2015 law now being applied to Syrians. This followed a 2015 fact-finding mission by the Danish Immigration Service that was criticised for never leaving the area around Mogadishu airport, as well as a 2017 joint mission with DRC that was conducted from Kenya for security reasons.

As with Syria, DRC spoke out about the authorities’ use of the report to take away Somalis’ residency. The Danish government refuses to confirm how many Somalis have been deported since then under a secret deal with Mogadishu. Refugee advocates believe many fled to other European countries. 

“[DRC is] able to exercise some degree of influence on the process, but it just isn’t enough. They should realise that by now,” said Michala Bendixen, founder of the grassroots Danish charity Refugees Welcome. 

To Bendixen, DRC’s funding from the Danish Immigration Service presents a stark conflict of interest. The Danish government was the third largest contributor to DRC’s $500 million annual budget in 2020. That funding included approximately $6.3 million from the Danish Immigration Service for work in Denmark such as assessing difficult asylum claims, including $80,000 to produce COI reports. 

“DRC is able to exercise some degree of influence on the process, but it just isn’t enough. They should realise that by now.”

“It’s a huge dilemma when the aims of an organisation are completely the opposite of those of the government, when [the government] is at the same time funding it,” Bendixen said. 

DRC says government funding does not affect its independence. While it could point to its public criticism of Danish migration policies, Singer, the head of the asylum department, also acknowledged that the NGO’s cooperation “to some extent legitimises the [COI] report”. 

“So we obviously hold this up against an opportunity to qualify and influence the content,” she explained. “That is a fact of life we have to accept, which is also the case when we participate in other asylum-related issues in Denmark.” 

DRC has never turned down a request from the immigration service to produce a joint COI report, except due to security concerns for the NGO’s staff, Singer added.

‘They pick and choose words’

As Danish politics have turned increasingly hardline on migration, DRC’s historically close relationship with the Danish asylum authorities has also been strained, according to Danish migration experts. 

“The Danish tradition of NGOs is different to other countries... [DRC’s relationship with authorities] was seen as amicable and non-confrontational,” said Gammeltoft-Hansen, the University of Copenhagen law professor, who has worked with DRC in the past. “But as Danish immigration policy has become more restrictive… those relationships have changed.”

“Something has clearly gone wrong,” said Friis Bach, the former DRC secretary general. “A case like this should certainly prompt some serious thinking about whether one should continue to be part of such a mission.”

Meanwhile, human rights groups have begun to fill in gaps in information about what happens to refugees who return to Syria. Human Rights Watch released a report last October documenting 17 cases of refugees disappearing after returning to Syria, while Amnesty International documented 66 cases of refugees being arrested, tortured, or abused by government authorities upon return. The numbers are by no means a comprehensive count.

One woman told Amnesty that both she and her five-year-old daughter were raped at the border by a Syrian security officer who told her: “Syria is not a hotel that you leave and return to when you want.”

“If I have to leave, I will go to any other country than Syria.” 

Back in Denmark, meanwhile, Sara Alderi’s family is living off loans from relatives after her father had to shut down the restaurant he had opened. They live in fear of being separated if Mohammed Tarek and the younger children are taken to a return centre, while the threat of deportation still looms large. 

The Danish Immigration Service has told Mohammed Tarek he will be forcibly returned to Syria “when it is possible”, and that he will “not be informed when the return will take place”, according to the official transcript of a recent meeting he had with the agency. 

“They know I am not wealthy and will eventually run out of money and have to leave,” he said. “If I have to leave, I will go to any other country than Syria.” 

As for the COI report that has upended the life he tried to build in Denmark, “They pick and choose words,” Mohammed Tarek said. “If you ask me, ‘Is Damascus safe?’ I would reply, ‘Yes it’s safe, but not for us – only for Bashar al-Assad and his people’.

“I gave you 100 words but you choose only five: Mohammed Tarek says it’s safe.”

This article was produced in collaboration with Lighthouse Reports, an investigative newsroom.

IRIN News, the forerunner to The New Humanitarian, contributed to Country of Origin reports for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in 2016 and 2017.

Edited by Sharon L. Lynch and Eric Reidy​.

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