In Denmark, Fears Grow Among Syrian Asylum Seekers As Residence Permits Are Revoked
In 2019, Danish authorities issued a report stating that the security situation in some parts of Syria had "improved significantly." Last year, that report was used as justification to begin reevaluating hundreds of Danish residence permits granted to Syrian refugees from the area around and including the capital Damascus.
Now some of those refugees are being told, officially, that their time in Denmark is up.
Among those affected are Heba Alrejleh and Radwan Jomaa, a couple from Damascus. Jomaa left Syria in 2013, traveling first to Egypt and later making his way to Italy. Upon landing there, he says, the Syrians on his boat set off in different directions, with some heading for Sweden and others for France.
Jomaa chose Denmark, having heard about the country's welcoming reputation.
He was soon joined by Alrejleh and the kids — Aya, who is now 11, and Mohamed, now 10. Their youngest, four-year-old Lilian, was born in Denmark.
The family lived for several years in the town of Skive, though it was far from Jomaa's job at a pizzeria near Aarhus.
Meanwhile, in neighboring countries like Germany and the Netherlands, friends and family who had fled Syria around the same time were starting to get permanent residence and even citizenship. Surely, they thought, the same would soon be true for themselves.
So in December, with a mind to putting down roots, the couple found a small row house just outside the city of Silkeborg. Here, their three kids could go to a quieter school, Jomaa would have a shorter commute and Alrejleh would be able to continue her studies. She dreams of becoming a nurse.
On the day they were packing to move, a notification arrived from the immigration service informing the family that they were being sent back to Syria.
Jomaa was shocked.
"This decision means life or death," he says. "The words 'to send us back to Syria' means to destroy our lives."
Jomaa says his family has nothing and no one left in Syria. Because he participated in protests against the Assad regime, he fears he would be arrested upon return.
The couple has appealed the decision, but for now their lives are on hold. The walls of their new apartment remain bare, the living room almost empty.
Alrejleh, whose first husband was killed before her eyes in Syria, says this is not the new beginning she'd dreamed of.
"All I can think about is the decision from the immigration service," she says. "Otherwise I would be doing many things: continuing my studies, raising my children, dreaming about their future. Lots of things. But it's all at a standstill."
Jomaa, who says he's been having nightmares, doesn't understand why Denmark would do this.
"The name Denmark used to be a shining example when it came to human rights. But now racism is ruining Denmark's reputation in the whole world," he says.
But scaring asylum seekers away seems to be the government's goal, says Michala Bendixen, who heads the Danish advocacy group Refugees Welcome.
"We have a new expression now among migrant researchers called 'negative nation branding,'" she explains. "We're trying to scare people away from Denmark, deliberately, by telling stories about how bad life is as an asylum seeker is here, how very, very limited your rights will be if you are granted asylum — that you should never feel safe or secure about your future here, because even if you are among the lucky ones who are granted asylum, you will be kicked out sooner or later."
Bendixen says Denmark has been moving in this direction for decades. But the country's most recent hard turn on immigration is part of an attempt by the center-left government, voted into office in 2019, to capture the populist vote back from the far right.
It's referred to as the "paradigm shift" and also underlies a current debate about whether to bring home Danish children of women who joined ISIS and are now stranded in refugee camps abroad.
Politically, this strategy has helped the Social Democrats. But Bendixen says it's also putting Denmark on a cliff's edge when it comes to international humanitarian law.
"They're trying to find out where is the limit, actually," she says. "They're stepping as close to the limit or a little bit across it to see 'how far can we go?'"
But even as organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations criticize Denmark's stance on refugees, Bendixen says international guidelines on repatriation are open to interpretation, making the government's policy hard to challenge.
The irony is that because Denmark has not resumed diplomatic relations with Syria, rejected asylum seekers cannot actually be deported.
Of the 94 Syrian refugees who lost their Danish residence permits in 2020, some — like Jomaa and Alrejleh — are still under appeal. If they're lucky, these people may be granted a more protected status and allowed to stay.
But Bendixen says some 30 people have already lost their appeals. The choice, at that point, is either to live indefinitely in a Danish deportation center, go back to Syria voluntarily — or go underground and try to start over in another European country.
When Denmark's Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye announced last June that the government would be reevaluating residence permits, he emphasized that Syrian refugees who choose to go back get a "bag of money" from Denmark in order to rebuild their lives in Syria.
The government will provide funds for travel costs, four years of medical coverage, plus a flat sum of about $23,000 per adult. But last year, only 137 of Denmark's roughly 35,000 Syrian refugees took advantage of that offer — which Bendixen says speaks volumes about conditions in Syria.
When asked what will happen to his family if their appeal is denied, Jomaa sits quietly for a moment as his eyes fill with tears.
"I don't have an answer," he says.
He and Alrejleh have tried to protect their children from what's happening, but it's hard to hide the frustration.
Still, 11-year-old Aya knows she does not want to go back to Syria, which she remembers only vaguely as a place where "many people died." Now, speaking in perfect Danish, she says that Denmark, her new home, is a good place.
"Because," she says, "people don't go around killing each other."
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