Six years after fleeing the war in Syria, Damascus native Bilal Tamam is “100 per cent fully integrated” in Denmark: he runs his own removals company and his children enjoy sleepovers with Danish friends.
But the Tamam family might soon be told to leave as Copenhagen says Damascus and surrounding towns are safe enough for their return, a move that has sparked outrage from activists and refugees.
“Of course [Syria] is not safe [to go back to],” said Tamam, 51, who will soon hear whether Danish authorities will renew his residency permit. “Those of us who left are considered traitors.”
Fighting has subsided in much of the country but activists and analysts who advise the Danish government on Syria this week urged the authorities to reconsider the decision, which they warned “could lead a worrying trend in European refugee policy”.
Critics fear some EU states will follow suit and try to return refugees to countries hit by conflict. Proposals for a revamp of the EU’s wider approach to migration and asylum, published last year, “confirmed the focus on sealing borders and boosting returns”, Human Rights Watch said in its annual World Report in January.
Almost 33,000 Syrian refugees and their families live in Denmark, a tiny fraction of the 5.6m who have fled their homeland since the country’s bloody civil war began in 2011. Immigrants make up about 9 per cent of Denmark’s population, and the debate around immigration has long been politically charged. The centre-left and centre-right have competed to push through tough laws, allowing, for example, the confiscation of cash and jewellery from migrants.
Refugees — such as Tamam — deemed not personally threatened by the Damascus regime have had to renew their residency every year, and in 2019 the government overturned the blanket protection granted to all Syrians when the war began.
The Danish Refugee Appeals Board has since concluded that security in and around Damascus has improved enough that the need to protect people “who are not individually persecuted, but have a temporary residence permit granted on the grounds of the general circumstances, has ceased to exist”, said Mattias Tesfaye, Denmark’s immigration minister in the Social Democrat government.
“Denmark has been open and honest from day one,” said Tesfaye. “We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary.”
Now 461 Syrians from Damascus city, including Tamam, are set to hear “whether their residence permits will be retained, extended, changed, revoked or denied an extension”, said the Ministry of Immigration and Integration this month, adding that the status of 350 more people from surrounding areas of Damascus is under review. The Danish immigration service said an estimated 50 Syrians were now “staying at the return centers in Denmark” — considered to be deportation centres.
The government’s advisers on Syria “strongly condemn[ed] the Danish government’s decision” in this week’s statement, adding: “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.” Denmark is subject to international prohibitions against refugee “refoulement”— their return to a country where they are liable to face persecution.
Denmark’s “decision was based on the fact that there were no longer air strikes because the Syrian government had retaken most of the territory in Damascus governorate”, said Sara Kayyali, HRW’s lead Syria researcher, and a signatory to the statement. Yet “it’s very clear that Syria is not safe for return [as] the situation has not improved when we’re talking about detentions, mistreatment . . . risks of persecution are still very much alive and well”, she said. “You have no way of identifying if someone is safe in Syria until that person returns.”
At the same time, Syria’s civil conflict has metastasised into widespread hunger as its battered war economy has all but collapsed, pushed over the edge by the Covid-19 pandemic. The UN’s food agency estimates that 60 per cent of Syrians are unable to access sufficient food.
It is unclear whether other European countries will follow the Danes’ move. Syrians have made up the highest proportion of asylum seekers in the EU since 2013. While Sweden and the UK have also noted that parts of Syria are now less dangerous, Denmark has become the first to act.
In practice, Denmark cannot deport refugees to Syria because it does not have official relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has won back most of its territory lost to rebels. Instead, it offers refugees financial incentives to take themselves back. Those who lose their status and fail to leave Denmark face indefinite detention in Danish deportation centres. According to the immigration ministry, some 250 refugees returned voluntarily to Syria in 2019.
Since fleeing Syria via land and sea and arriving in Denmark on foot, Tamam has done everything from making pizza to cleaning. Denmark “became like my country, the people here are like my people”, he said. His family joined him after three years. They too love Denmark. “My little daughter tells me, ‘Baba . . . I don’t want to leave’,” said Tamam.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels