A seemingly small ruling in Denmark is alarming refugee advocates that a new precedent could be set for Europe to send Syrians seeking asylum back to their war-torn home.

On Tuesday, Denmark’s Refugee Appeals Board denied asylum requests by three Syrian women, arguing that they didn’t face any individual dangers in returning to their hometown of Damascus, the Syrian government-controlled capital. The board’s ruling upheld a decision by the Danish Immigration Service.

Human rights and refugee advocates, however, condemned the decision, saying recent reports have documented a general danger to any Syrian returning to Damascus, where daily fighting has died down but returnees still face the threat of arrests, interrogations, torture, conscription and even death.

“Just because the Syrian war is coming to the end doesn’t mean there’s no need for protection of Syrian refugees,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Tahrir Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on Middle East policy. Other countries facing anti-refugee sentiment, she said, “can now be looking to Denmark as an example.”

Tuesday’s ruling raises new questions and fears

It’s unclear what will happen next to the three women, who include a Kurdish divorcée and a woman who is sick with lupus and already has family with asylum status in Denmark.

Denmark does not have an agreement with the Syrian government around deportations, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be deported, said Eva Singer, director of asylum at the Danish Refugee Council. Singer said some of the women and their children may qualify for family reunification as immigrants through relatives already holding asylum status in Denmark; if not, they would likely be sent to an open-air Danish deportation holding center.

Under international law, it’s illegal for governments to forcibly return asylum seekers to countries where they’ll be in danger. That’s why as Syrians fleeing war began to make their way in large numbers to Europe in 2015, European countries largely provided them a temporary protected status — i.e., the short-term right to stay as a persecuted person unable to return home. Syrians have to renew their residency every year or so, depending on their specific status and host country requirements. Since 2011, nearly 35,000 Syrians have received residency in Denmark, according to government figures. Those with temporary status face restrictions, including on accessing some education.

In June, Denmark became the first country in Western Europe to change its criteria for who counted for asylum by classifying Damascus as a different case: Syria’s capital, Copenhagen concluded, firmly under the Syrian government’s control, no longer posed a general security risk for returning Syrians. So immigration officials started reviewing cases: If they couldn’t find evidence of a specific threat against a Syrian from Damascus, the individual could be deported under the new guidelines.

Sweden, home to more than 100,000 Syrians with asylum, has followed Denmark’s lead. In August, Sweden’s Migration Agency changed its guidelines, so that Syrians from Damascus and some suburbs won’t automatically be granted the right to stay just because of where they came from, as remains the case for Syrians from most other areas. Unlike Denmark, however, there aren’t any reported cases of Sweden denying asylum requests based on this new policy.

Reports document repeated dangers for Syrian returnees

The problem, refugee advocates say, is that there’s no way to ensure that returnees won’t be endangered once back in Damascus, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad is highly suspicious of anyone who left and continues to conscript men into the military and arbitrarily arrest and restrict civilians.

During the past two years, almost 2,000 people have been detained after returning to Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has found. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, have forcibly returned Syrians.

As The Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported in June, “Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been arrested after returning home as the war they fled winds down — then interrogated, forced to inform on close family members and in some cases tortured, say returnees and human rights monitors.”

In its ruling, Denmark’s appeals board said the three women had no political connections or problems with the government that could endanger them. Nonetheless, say human rights groups, Assad is weaponizing all aspects of everyday life, down to laws about property rights in Damascus.

“For Syrian refugees, going home usually requires permission from the government and a willingness to provide a full accounting of any involvement they had with the political opposition,” Sly’s reporting also found. “But in many cases, the guarantees offered by the government as part of this ‘reconciliation’ process turn out to be hollow, with returnees subjected to harassment or extortion by security agencies or detention and torture to extract information about the refugees’ activities while they were away, according to the returnees and monitoring groups.”

Syria is also a “black hole of information,” said El-Sadany, so it can be hard to receive a full picture of the dangers people face. Syrians, for example, fear sharing information that could in turn cause them trouble with the government.

Syrians rose up in protest against Assad in 2011 as one wave of the Arab Spring. Assad, whose family has forcefully held power in Syria for decades, swiftly responded with a brutal crackdown on demonstrators by flexing all parts of his notorious security state. Soon the peaceful protests descended into an armed civil war, pitting Syrians against Syrians. The country, in turn, became fodder for regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, who funded Syrian proxies to fight on their behalf. By 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State had emerged and was controlling swaths of Syria, brutalizing and further dividing Syrians in its destructive wake. All the while, Assad’s prisons teemed with tortured Syrian activists and bystanders caught up in the chaos.

Some world leaders have called for Assad to go — but, even after reports have linked him to repeated chemical weapons attacks on civilians, his regime has survived. Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, is widely seen as the winner of the war that’s winding down. Meanwhile, in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, lawyers are preparing cases against Syria’s feared leader, who they accuse of war crimes.

Since 2001, more than 5 million Syrians have fled and another 6 million have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations. In 2014, the United Nations stopped counting the dead in Syria because of restrictions in verifying information.

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