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Denmark has revoked residency from Syrian refugees, as they have deemed Syria ‘safe’ for return.  This controversial decision has raised domestic and international criticism.

Denmark has begun revoking residency permits for refugees from Syria. A decade after the fighting in Syria that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced even more of the population started, the Danish government has decided that Damascus and neighbouring regions are now ‘safe to return to’. They are the first European country to come to this conclusion. 

Experts disagree with the assessment made by the Danish Immigration Service that the situation in Syria is ‘safe’ for those who were granted asylum on the grounds of the dangerous security situation in Syria rather than individual persecution, saying conditions do not presently exist anywhere in Syria for safe returns, and many Syrians living in Denmark fear arbitrary retaliation from government security forces if they are forced to return. While there are government-controlled areas of Syria with a stable security situation, the destruction of entire neighbourhoods means that many people have no houses to return to, and basic needs like water and electricity are scarce or nonexistent. 

The Danish government justifies the move to force Syrian refugees to return on the grounds that they made it ‘clear’ to Syrian refugees from the beginning that they were only being offered temporary protection. This stark position is the result of the left-wing Social Democratic-led government’s veer to the right on immigration policy in attempt to compete with the right for working-class votes. Although the number of asylum seekers coming to Denmark have dropped significantly since 2015, in January Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen expressed a vision of having ‘zero asylum seekers’. Further, political nature of this position is evident given the paradox that Denmark does not even formally recognize the Assad, and yet wants to send people back to the very same regime from which they fled.

This move has been condemned by the UNHCR, European Union, and numerous human rights organizations. Danish authorities have dismissed this criticism. Experts also worry that the ‘lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe’ by withdrawing residency permits for refugees is effectively pushing people to go to other European countries. There is also concern that this decision could set a precedent for forcing repatriation of refugees who have settled in countries like Sweden and the United Kingdom, who have also recently stipulated that the general security landscape in Damascus has improved. 

This policy pivot is especially surprising given the Danish reputation for tolerance and openness, and how Denmark has emphasized and encouraged the integration of refugees. Approximately 32,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Demark since 2011. Now, many refugees who have already become a part of Danish society – settling in the country, finishing their education and building their lives – will be forced to leave. 

Additionally, the conditions for being granted further asylum versus being deported are divided on highly gendered lines. Women’s claims for asylum are likely to be rejected, while men who could be conscribed into Bashar al Assad’s army are being told not to return and likely to be granted further asylum. Thus, many of the people affected by this decision are vulnerable refugees such as families, women, and children – those who fled the war but cannot prove they were individually persecuted by the regime. While conscription is a legitimate concern, indiscriminate detention and forced disappearances are still a significant concern in Syria that make it dangerous for anyone to return. People rightfully fear they will face retaliation from Syrian government forces for having fled the country. For many Syrian refugees, returning means death.

While the lack of diplomatic relations between Denmark and Syria mean that people cannot be directly deported to Syria, but Syrian refugees who refuse to leave will be sent to deportation centres. The conditions in these detention centres are ‘more like prisons’ according to the Red Cross, and decried by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). Infrastructure is rudimentary at best, cooking is banned, activity and access to work, education, or proper healthcare is restricted. Even the Danish language lessons many Syrian refugees have long been participating in are not allowed. 

But domestic opposition has been strong. Syrian refugees have spoken out decrying the policies that jeopardize their safety, and media coverage has supported their outcry. On Wednesday 21 April, hundreds gathered outside their parliament to protest these deportation orders. Refugees told their stories to the crowd, surrounded and supported by their Danish friends, supporters, and colleagues. Despite this international and domestic pressure, Danish authorities are thus far holding fast to their position.


Teresa Pian

Research Intern 
Institute of Public Affairs
MA Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto