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Denmark faces criticism after pushing to send refugees back to Syria

Syrians seeking asylum are led away by police in Padborg, Denmark, conducting passport checks on Denmark's border with Germany in 2016. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen led her Social Democrats to victory in 2019 by championing left-wing economic politics — and a hawkish anti-immigration stand.

Now her government is facing growing international scrutiny over its efforts to force out some Syrian refugees by revoking their residency permits, as it argues that some parts of Syria are safe to return to.

The Danish government “is destroying the country by trying to follow these voters that they expect would agree with this policy,” said Michala Bendixen, head of Refugees Welcome Denmark. “It’s ruining our reputation around the world. And it’s ruining integration for those [refugees] who are already here.”

About 500 Syrians have been stuck in limbo since Denmark said it is reassessing temporary residency permits for refugees from Damascus, the capital, and Rif Damascus province, both controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A 2019 report by the Danish Immigration Service classified these areas as safe, citing a decline in fighting there since 2015. But on Monday, some of the experts and organizations interviewed for the report denounced the government’s conclusion.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under pressure as never before. But they say Syria is still too unsafe to return.

“Damascus may not have seen active conflict hostilities since May 2018 — but that does not mean that it has become safe for refugees to return to the Syrian capital,” they wrote in a letter published by New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Many of the key drivers of displacement from Syria remain, as the majority of refugees fled, and continue to fear, the government’s security apparatus, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, military conscription, and harassment and discrimination.”

More than a million Syrians have requested asylum in Europe over the past decade. Denmark has taken in a relatively small number, about 32,000 refugees.

About 5,000 of those Syrians were granted a temporary permit to stay in Denmark based on Syria’s general insecurity, not because of a direct individual threat. The asylum claims of Syrians in this category who are from Damascus and Rif Damascus, as well as relatives connected to their cases, are being reevaluated.

The European Parliament, the United Nations’ refugee agency and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among others, have rejected forcible returns to Syria.

“It’s not in the interest of the Syrian people to pressure Syrian refugees to return to Syria, including to regime-held areas, where many fear they will be arbitrarily detained, tortured or even killed by Assad’s security forces in retaliation for fleeing,” Blinken told the U.N. Security Council in March.

Since 2019, the Danish Immigration Service has revoked or refused to renew the residency permits of about 200 Syrians from Damascus and Rif Damascus, according to figures it provided to The Washington Post.

Conditions “have changed significantly over an extended period of time,” the agency said of its rulings, and “there no longer exists a general risk for being subjected to abuse.”

The immigration service said that in hundreds of other cases that were reviewed, residency permits were re-approved or an applicant’s immigration status was upgraded.

The rejected or revoked residency cases are subject to review by the Refugees Appeals Board, which between June 2019 and this April reviewed 86 cases and sided with the authorities in 39 of them, according to Bendixen.

Denmark and Syria do not have diplomatic relations, so Danish authorities cannot deport Syrians who have lost their appeals. Instead, they are sent indefinitely to “departure centers.” They are not permitted to work and cannot leave the facilities for more than 24 hours at a time, said Bendixen, who likened the conditions to an “open prison.”

Charlotte Slente, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, said in an email to The Post, “As long as the situation in Syria is not conducive for returns, we think that it is pointless to remove people from the life they are trying to build in Denmark and put them in a waiting position without an end date, after they have fled the horrible conflict in their homeland.”

Bendixen said she worried that rather than wait in the centers, these Syrians would try to escape to elsewhere in Europe. Danish authorities have similarly revoked residency permits granted to hundreds of Somali refugees, many of whom Bendixen said effectively went “underground.”

She also rejected the notion that the government was responding to broad popular opposition to immigrants. Rather, Bendixen said, over the past two decades the nationalist Danish People’s Party has made its anti-immigration stance a key condition for garnering the bloc’s support in Parliament. As a result, she said, “almost all the major parties [have] agreed to have this extreme migration policy.”

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