Six years after fleeing the war in Syria, Bilal Tamam, originally from Damascus, is “fully integrated” in Denmark: he runs his own moving company and his children enjoy sleepovers with Danish friends.
But the Tamam family may soon be told to leave as Copenhagen says Damascus and surrounding towns are safe enough for their return, a move that has sparked outrage from activists and refugees.
“Of course [Syria] is not sure [to go back to]Said Tamam, 51, who will soon learn whether the Danish authorities will renew his residence permit. “Those of us who have left are considered traitors.”
Fighting has calmed down across much of the country, but activists and analysts advising the Danish government on Syria this week have urged authorities to reconsider the move, which they say “could lead to a worrying trend in politics. European Refugee Council ”.
Critics fear that some EU states will follow suit and try to return refugees to countries affected by conflict. The proposals for an overhaul of the EU’s broader approach to migration and asylum, published last year, “confirmed the focus on sealing borders and increasing returns”, Human Rights Watch said in its annual world report in January.
Nearly 33,000 Syrian refugees and their families live in Denmark, a tiny fraction of the 5.6 million who have fled their homeland since the country’s bloody civil war began in 2011. Immigrants make up around 9% of Denmark’s population. , and the immigration debate has long been politically charged. The center-left and center-right fought to pass tough laws, allowing, for example, the confiscation of migrants’ money and jewelry.
Refugees – like Tamam – seen as not personally threatened by the Damascus regime had to renew their residency every year, and in 2019 the government revoked the general protection afforded to all Syrians when war broke out.
The Danish Refugee Appeals Commission has since concluded that security in and around Damascus has improved enough that the need to protect people “who are not individually persecuted, but who have a temporary residence permit granted due to general circumstances, ceased to exist ”. , said Mattias Tesfaye, Danish immigration minister in the Social Democratic government.
“Denmark has been open and honest from day one,” Tesfaye said. “We made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit was temporary.”
Today, 461 Syrians in the city of Damascus, including Tamam, are expected to know “whether their residence permits will be kept, extended, changed, revoked or denied an extension,” the Immigration Ministry said this month. and Integration, adding that the status of 350 more people from the surrounding areas of Damascus are under review. The Danish immigration service said around 50 Syrians “are now staying in return centers in Denmark” – considered deportation centers.
Government advisers on Syria “strongly condemn[ed] Danish government decision ”in this week’s statement, adding:“ We do not recognize our views in any subsequent government findings or policies, nor do we consider that Denmark’s Syrian refugee policy fully reflects the views of the Danish government. actual conditions in the field. Denmark is subject to international bans against the “refoulement” of refugees – their return to a country where they risk persecution.
“Denmark’s decision was based on the fact that there were no more airstrikes because the Syrian government had taken over most of the territory of Damascus governorate,” said Sara Kayyali, HRW senior researcher on the Syria and signatory of the declaration. Yet “it is very clear that Syria is not safe for the return [as] the situation has not improved when it comes to detentions and ill-treatment. . . the risks of persecution are still alive, ”she said. “You have no way of determining if anyone is safe in Syria until that person comes back.”
At the same time, Syria’s civil conflict has metastasized into widespread hunger as its battered war economy all but collapsed, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations food agency estimates that 60% of Syrians do not have access to sufficient food.
It is not known if other European countries will follow the decision of the Danes. The Syrians invented the highest proportion of asylum seekers in the EU since 2013. While Sweden and the UK also noted that parts of Syria are now less dangerous, Denmark has become the first to act.
In practice, Denmark cannot expel refugees to Syria because it has no official relations with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has reclaimed most of its territory lost to the rebels. Instead, it offers refugees financial incentives to recover. Those who lose their status and do not leave Denmark risk indefinite detention in Danish deportation centers. According to the Immigration Ministry, some 250 refugees returned voluntarily to Syria in 2019.
Since fleeing Syria by land and sea and arriving in Denmark on foot, Tamam has done everything from making pizza to cleaning. Denmark “has become like my country, the people here are like my people,” he said. His family joined him after three years. They also love Denmark. “My little girl said to me, ‘Baba. . . I don’t want to leave, ”Tamam said.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels