We are gravely concerned by Denmark’s decision to declare parts of Syria as a safe place to send refugees back to despite the indisputable clear-cut conclusions of the UN that war-torn Syria is still witnessing war crimes, crimes against humanity and dire living conditions, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said in a statement today. We call on Denmark to immediately reconsider this dangerous announcement that signifies a drift in Danish politics towards the far-right.
Last March, Denmark has revoked the residency permits of 94 Syrian refugees after declaring Damascus and its governorate no longer dangerous. This comes less than two years after the Danish government decided in December 2019, that Damascus was considered no longer sufficiently dangerous to give grounds for international protection and reviewed the residency permits of about 900 Syrian refugees. The recent decision considering safe the whole Rif Dimashq Governorate, including Damascus, means that a further 350 Syrians will have to undergo a reassessment that could lead to a revocation of their refugee status.
The Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, claimed that they “have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary. It can be withdrawn if protection is no longer needed”. Yet Denmark’s decision comes right after the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria demonstrating how the country is still ravaged by war and serious human rights’ violations.
The report affirms that “the sheer volume, scale and consistency of government policies and acts that the Commission has found to amount to crimes against humanity have continued unabated for nearly 10 years, without any sign that the government intends to discontinue them”.
In determining whether circumstances in and around Damascus have changed so profoundly to justify the loss of the international protection, a crucial issue is whether the refugee can re-avail himself/herself of the protection of the country of origin and its primary duty bearers, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Commission of Inquiry on Syria made it clear that such protection is far from being available and effective, as both the government and the other warring parties are not willing nor able to hold perpetrators to account in a way that comply with international standards.
An essential indicator showing if and how a state is functioning is its general human rights’ situation, starting from the fundamental right to life and liberty and the prohibition of torture. In Syria, tens of thousands of civilians are still being unlawfully deprived of their liberty, while thousands more have been subject to torture, sexual violence, or death in detention, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry.
Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission, stated that “it is no exaggeration to say that nearly all Syrians have been victims, one way or another”, regardless of their area of origin.
Denmark is the first EU country to send Syrian refugees back alleging their area is no longer dangerous, in a year that saw the lowest number of asylum requests in the country since 1998. This latest decision is in line with the goal of having “zero asylum seekers” repeatedly stated by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
Immigration Minister Tesfaye affimed that “when conditions in the home country improve, a former refugee should return home and re-establish a life there”. However, even when circumstances have changed in the country of origin, as alleged by Denmark on certain parts of Syria, there may be specific and individual factors requiring appropriate arrangements.
Most of the Syrian refugees whose residence permits have been or are being revoked have already started over in Denmark several years ago, studying, working and integrating into the Danish society. The new policy would put into jeopardy the established situation of those refugees who, thanks to their long stay, have developed strong family, social and economic links in Denmark.
Moreover, as Denmark refuses to negotiate and cooperate with the regime of al-Assad and can’t forcibly send Syrian refugees back, if they refuse to return voluntarily, they could end up living in deportation camps in Denmark for years.
“This policy seems very far from a sustainable and durable solution, as it disrupts the re-established lives of hundreds of refugees to put them in deportation camps for an undefined period of time, if they refuse to go back to war-torn Syria” said Michela Pugliese, Migration Researcher at the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, “An insufficiently grounded revocation of refugee status and residency permits will only lead to a climate of uncertainty and fear among the refugee population, that will menace profoundly their integration in the Danish community”.
UNHCR Guidelines on the Cessation of Refugee Status declare that “changes in the refugee’s country of origin affecting only part of the territory should not lead to cessation of refugee status”. International protection can only come to an end if the grounds for persecution are removed “without the precondition that the refugee has to return to specific safe parts of the country in order to be free from persecution”.
For the cessation to be applicable and fair, conditions in the whole country of origin must have changed in a profound and enduring manner and, in that case, all developments “should be given time to consolidate before any decision on cessation is made”.
Euro-Med Monitor calls on Denmark to respect and fulfil the right to seek and enjoy asylum and the fundamental principle of non-refoulement; to refrain from a premature review of Syrian refugees’ protection needs and align with the cessation clauses contained in Article 1C of the 1951 Refugee Convention; to ensure that Syria has developed fundamental, stable and durable changes using information from relevant bodies, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in order to make sure that its procedures for determining the cessation of the refugee status are objective and verifiable; and to subscribe entirely to the EU asylum acquis and the Common European Asylum System.