Denmark recently became the first European country to begin denying temporary residence status to Syrian refugees. The move reflects internal Danish politics but also represents a threat to individual Syrians, with potentially much larger consequences if other European countries follow Denmark’s lead.
So far, Denmark is focusing on Syrians from Damascus and the surrounding areas. The government argues that these areas are now mostly safe from conflict. According to media reports, men of military age are generally exempt, given that they would likely face conscription or punishment for evading conscription if they returned to Syria. Many of the Syrians affected are women and older Syrians, and the orders will separate families. While data varies, at least 200 to 300 have been denied residency permits renewals, with another 400 to 500 cases under review. There is an appeals process, but recent changes make that process more likely to rule against the refugees.
Denmark does not have diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, so it cannot actually deport the refugees. Those who lose their appeal process are most likely to end up in a detention center, with no right to work or study in Denmark.
Copenhagen is setting a poor example. It is true that Damascus is now relatively secure — while it still experiences regular security incidents, such as car bombings, it is no longer a city at war. Some of the surrounding areas, however, are less stable. Arguably, returning Syrians to Damascus would be safe in terms of the direct risks of wartime violence. However, this does not mean that returning refugees would be safe in any genuine meaning of the word.
There is a significant risk that returning Syrians would be subject to detention and abuse, and potentially death. There are many stories of returnees to regime-controlled areas, who returned with the government’s permission, but then faced detention and abuse. Others encountered frequent harassment by security forces, extortion and other forms of abuse. Many refugees fear retaliation from the regime simply for fleeing. The UN refugee agency has said it “does not consider that the recent improvements in security in parts of Syria to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees.”
Beyond concerns about personal safety, which are most relevant to refugee protection laws, there are also pressing problems with living conditions. Most of Syria, including regime-controlled areas, faces widespread housing shortages, destroyed and damaged infrastructure, skyrocketing food prices, and unemployment. The government has passed laws and carried out practices designed to take the property and assets of Syrians who left, complicating their ability to return, rebuild and restart their lives.
The Danish government is trying to force some Syrians to return based on wishful thinking, rather than a serious assessment of conditions on the ground. This reflects shifts in the country’s politics in recent years. Denmark once had a reputation as a defender of refugees and was the first country to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. However, in recent years, the rise of right-wing political groups, especially the Danish People’s Party, has led to policies that are openly hostile to immigration and asylum. While the party is not in power, its impact on politics has led to centrist parties embracing such policies.
In the last few years, Denmark has intentionally shifted from a concept of refugee resettlement that emphasized long-term protection and integration to one that prefers short-term protection for a few months or years. This approach might be understandable, but it is an unrealistic response to an entrenched conflict like Syria, which offers little hope that most refugees can safely return home any time soon. Furthermore, a short-term approach provides fewer opportunities for refugees to learn the language and integrate, thus wasting human productivity; it also makes it easier to frame refugees as a public burden, which can increase resentment within the host country population.
Denmark cannot yet deport Syrians, but it is trying to use carrots and sticks to persuade them to leave. In addition to the threat of revoked residency permits and detention centers, the government has offered money to Syrians to voluntarily return to Syria. However, only a small number have so far accepted.
There are now two big questions. One is whether Denmark will continue or even expand its current policy. The government has said it will not back down, but there are Danish critics of the policy. The second question is whether other European countries will follow Denmark’s lead. Some countries that emphasize their legal and moral responsibilities to refugee protection are unlikely to do so, but others with similar internal dynamics that are hostile to asylum seekers might consider ways to begin denying protection. Caught in the middle are individual Syrians, who are faced with the unenviable dilemma of returning to a place that is not safe or sitting in a detention center for an indefinite period of time with little hope for the future.
By By Kerry Boyd Anderson
Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years' experience as professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch