Geneva – As part of its anti-asylum crusade, the Danish government is sending threatening letters to Syrian child refugees to convince them to leave Denmark voluntarily or risk facing deportation or indefinite detention, warned Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in a statement today.

A Danish documentary by public service broadcaster DR titled På flugt fra Danmark (“Fleeing from Denmark”) has revealed that the government sends letters to children under 15 whose parents are going through the asylum procedure. A 12-year-old girl born in Syria who has spent the past eight years of her life living and studying in Denmark received a letter addressed to her personally from the Danish Immigration Service saying, “If you do not leave voluntarily, you can be forcibly sent to Syria.” Despite the letter, the girl and her family received a two-year extension to their residence permit, but their situation is far from unique.

Denmark is the first European country to decide to send Syrian refugees back, as it has—unlike the United Nations and the European Union—judged the Damascus region to be safe. As a consequence, thousands of Syrian refugees have been stripped of their residency permits and the right to work in Denmark since 2019, but repatriations haven’t yet begun. Indeed, Denmark cannot really force refugees to return to Syria as it refuses to cooperate with the regime of al-Assad, and does not have a repatriation agreement with Syria. Nevertheless, it can still place refugees indefinitely at so-called “departure centres” until they leave voluntarily.

   By trapping refugees in uncertain legal limbos or physical detention centres, Denmark is again signifying strongly that it is not a welcoming country for refugees or asylum seekers   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

Refugees have been left in a frightening legal limbo. With threats of indefinite detention and deportation from the Danish government hanging over them, and the impossibility or unwillingness to return to a country still grappling with human rights abuses, hundreds of Syrians have already left Denmark in recent years in search of protection elsewhere in Europe, heading mainly to the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium.

While most Syrians have been told to return to Denmark due to the Dublin Regulation, other courts have put Dublin transfers on hold because they no longer consider Denmark a safe place for refugees. “By trapping refugees in uncertain legal limbos or physical detention centres, Denmark is again signifying strongly that it is not a welcoming country for refugees or asylum seekers, and is moving closer to its goal of having zero asylum seekers,” said Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

In 2021, 48% of residence permits were granted to foreign nationals in Denmark for employment reasons, while asylum seekers represented only 1% of residence permit recipients. “Yet according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, to which Denmark is a State Party, the principle of non-refoulement prohibits not only direct measures to transfer a person where there are substantial grounds to believe that they would be in danger, but also disguised measures with the same outcome,” explained Pugliese. “As Denmark cannot lawfully return Syrian refugees, it also cannot employ indirect measures designed to circumvent the non-refoulement principle, like sending threatening letters directly to Syrian children living there to force them to ‘choose’ between indefinite detention or deportation.”

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor calls on Denmark to comply with international and European law, and in particular to respect and ensure the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, including the prohibition of “constructive refoulement”—which occurs when states create circumstances which leave an individual who should be protected by the principle of non-refoulement with no real alternative other than returning to their country of origin—as it is doing right now with vulnerable Syrian refugees, including children.