The Current

Denmark is telling Syrian refugees it's safe to go home — but advocates disagree

Officials in Denmark have revoked residence permits of at least 189 refugees since last summer, telling them it's safe to return to Damascus.

Officials revoked residence permits of at least 189 refugees since last summer

Hiba al-Khalil is a Syrian refugee living in Denmark. After officials there decided that Damascus is safe, her permit to stay in Denmark may be revoked. (Submitted by Hiba al-Khalil )

Full Episode Transcript

After five years living in Denmark, Syrian refugee Hiba al-Khalil has been told that her residency permit might not be renewed because officials believe it's now safe to return to Damascus.

"I was so surprised, and so afraid," said al-Khalil, 28, who has lived in Denmark since 2015.

She fears that if she's sent back, she could face arrest, violence, or even rape at the hands of the Assad regime.

Al-Khalil told The Current's Matt Galloway that she left Syria when she was 20 to escape fighting in the early years of the country's 10-year civil war. She spent time in Lebanon and Turkey, before crossing the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, and making her way across Europe. 

Danish officials granted her a residence permit in 2016, but have now decided a lack of fighting around Damascus means refugees from the city and surrounding area could safely return. (The country is largely back under the control of Bashar al-Assad, with fighting contained in the north.)

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Officials in Denmark have reviewed and revoked the residence permits of at least 189 refugees since last summer. The permits of around 500 people from the region are being reevaluated.

Al-Khalil met with officials to assess her application in January and again this month, and will find out by the end of May if her permit has been revoked. She wants to stay in Denmark, where she has learned to speak the language, and hopes to one day train as a journalist. As well as fearing persecution, she worries about returning to a country still reeling from a decade of war.

"The life is very, very bad. It's not about bombing or sarin gas; it's also about the economic problems — there's very much high prices," she said.

She can't bring herself to think about leaving Denmark, or having to "start from zero" in another country. 

"I don't have this energy actually again, I'm so tired of this," she said.

Asylum need has 'ceased to exist': Minister

In a statement to The Current, Danish Immigration and Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye said the country's refugee board had assessed the situation in Damascus, and concluded that the need for protection "has ceased to exist."

"The approach of the Danish government is to provide protection to those in need of it. But when the conditions in their home country have improved, former refugees should return to their home country," the statement said.

Sweden and the U.K. have also published reports noting an improvement in security around Damascus, but Denmark remains the only EU country to conclude refugees should return.

Charlotte Slente, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, disagrees with the government's designation of Damascus as safe. 

"The absence of fighting in some areas of Syria does not mean that people can go back safely," she told Galloway.

She pointed to a report last month from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which noted that "in all areas under government control, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, ill-treatment including torture, and extra-judicial executions continue to occur."

Charlotte Slente, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, says it takes 15 to 20 years for an area to become safe for refugees to return after a conflict. (Danish Refugee Council)

A report last year from the Syrian Network for Human Rights also alleges that hundreds of people who returned to Syria were arrested soon after.

"A number of them don't get out again. They remain detained for a long period of time; some are forcibly disappeared," Slente said.

The Current spoke to a woman in Syria, who said "life in Damascus is not safe."

"There is no democracy, or freedom [to] express your opinion," she said. The Current has agreed not to reveal her name, out of fears for her safety.

Officials in Denmark are reevaluating residency permits granted to people fleeing the fighting in general, rather than those facing individual persecution. Younger men are more likely to be allowed to stay because they could face army conscription on their return — or repercussions for avoiding it previously. That means the issue is largely affecting women and older people.

Slente said Denmark's decision to revoke protection is premature. 

"If you look at conflicts around the world, refugees in general need protection for around 15 to 20 years," she said.

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Refugees sent to 'repatriation centres'

Denmark's ruling party, the Social Democrats, have taken a harder line on immigration in recent years to win back voters from far-right rivals, said Kristina Simonsen, associate professor in political science at Aarhus University, in Aarhus, Denmark.

"Now they're sort of locked in, needing to prove that they actually are tough or restrictive on immigration," she said.

The goals around taking in refugees have shifted from integration, to repatriation, she told Galloway. 

"The idea is that being a refugee should be a temporary status, and the utmost goal of housing refugees is actually to return them to their homes," she said. 

The government has offered more than $38,000 in financial assistance to any Syrian refugees who voluntarily returns, but just 137 of the country's 35,000 refugees took up the offer last year.

The country also doesn't have diplomatic relations with Syria, meaning that it cannot make arrangements to forcibly deport the refugees. 

The political focus around refugees has shifted from integration to repatriation in recent years, says Kristina Simonsen, associate professor in political science at Aarhus University. (Submitted by Kristina Simonsen)

Those who have their permits revoked can appeal the decision. If they lose but refuse to return to Syria, they are sent to what Simonsen described as "repatriation centres."

Advocates have described the centres as prison-like. People cannot work or continue their education, while activities such as cooking and Danish language lessons are restricted.

"[These centres] limit their possibilities for living a life in Denmark and therefore sort of sends a signal that it's not attractive to stay in Denmark, and that they should return," Simonsen said.

Simonsen said the Social Democrats are facing criticism within Denmark, including from the smaller political parties whose support they need to remain in power.

Those parties are questioning why Denmark is the only country that has designated Damascus as safe for return, she said.

"They are standing with the Syrian refugees and arguing ... the government should rethink this policy," she said.

The issue is also changing the international perception of Denmark as a "a progressive liberal country, that is historically known also for sort of being liberal in the refugee area," Simonsen said.

"[This] turns everything upside down in a way."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Joana Draghici.

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