Since 2019, the Danish Government has deemed Damascus and Damascus Rif as safe areas for Syrian refugees under Articles 7.2 and 7.3 of the Danish Protection Act. In 2021 the debate on the withdrawal of temporary protection of Syrians under Article 7.3 was at its highest in Denmark, including demonstrations and protests around the country, news media coverage, social media campaigns, etc. However, little happened in March 2023, when the Danish government deemed two more regions, Latakia and Tartus as safe areas, putting more Syrian refugees at risk of return.
The Danish Aliens Act includes four categories of protection forrefugees:
1. Geneva Convention Refugees under Article 7.1;
2. Protection status for individuals at risk of being killed, tortured, or exposed to undignified under Article 7.2;
3. Inhuman treatment, protection for resettled UN refugees under Article 8; and
4. The Syrians who are at risk of forced repatriation, those protected under Article 7.3
(This paragraph was added in 2015 to give temporary protection status to Syrian refugees, who fled due to the general security situation in Syria, but who were not individually prosecuted).
The decision to withdraw the temporary protection from Syrian refugees under Articles 7.2 and 7.3 has been challenged by the international community since 2019, with Denmark being the only EU country deeming Damascus and Syria safe for return.
The EU Commission reminded in March 2021 “all Member States that Syria is not a safe country to return to; believes that any return should be safe, voluntary, dignified and informed, in line with the EU’s stated position; calls on all EU Member States to refrain from shifting national policies towards depriving certain categories of Syrians of their protected status, and to reverse this trend if they have already applied such policies”.
UNHCR also condemned the Danish authorities, Asylum Appeals Board, and the Danish Immigration Services for withdrawing temporary protection for refugees from the Damascus and Rif Damascus regions in its letter in 2021, and again in 2022, “Denmark’s recent practice with regard to pursuing early termination of protection status has had significant consequences for refugees, including many Somalis and Syrians, who have lost their protection although the situation in their country of origin has not changed in a fundamental and durable manner”.
UNHCR also criticized that termination of protection status has also applied to refugees who were resettled to Denmark under UNHCR’s global resettlement program, hence Article 8 of the Aliens Act, which was designed to provide refugees with a durable solution to their plight and should not be repatriated.
Another issue with the repatriation of Syrians under articles 7.2 and 7.3, are that it tears Syrian families apart, as Syrian men often hold the Geneva Refugee status under article 7.1, whereas women are protected under article 7.3. Nuclear families of different protection statuses are only protected from being torn apart if the children are under 18 years old. Syrian families that are torn apart due to the repatriation scheme, can have a solid case objecting to the repatriation under article 8 of the ECHR, the right to respect for private and family life.
The Danish government proceeded with its withdrawal of temporary protection for Syrian refugees and did not reverse its trend. On the contrary, it has expanded the safe regions to include Latika and Tarus. This happened just after the earthquakes in March 2023 which had damaged the regions and exacerbated the dependency on humanitarian aid, to which 90 % of Syrians are dependent.
The Continuing Risk of Returning to Syria
Multiple organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, ActionAid, and ECRE have criticized the Danish government’s classification of Damascus, Rif Damascus, Latakia, and Tartus as safe areas. Human Rights Watch reported that the general security situation in these regions still included the risk of the returned Syrians experiencing “grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian authorities and affiliated militias, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and kidnappings”, these concerns also being reported by other organizations.
Human Rights Violations
Reports from the above-mentioned human rights organizations provide evidence of human rights violations such as the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) Articles on the right to life (2), prohibition of torture (3), right to liberty and security (5), right to a fair trial (6), and freedom of expression (10), which is also inbreach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Further, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry reported in March 2023 that it “found that conditions for safe and dignified return are still not in place. Some Syrians were denied return outright, others were arbitrarily arrested or prevented from accessing their homes upon return to government-controlled areas during the reporting period” and that “protection of civilians in Syria remains an illusion”.
The Danish Government continued with its withdrawals despite the backlash from the international community, even publicly stating in a statement in April 2023 that “the conditions in Latakia remain serious and fragile, but that it no longer has such a character that there are grounds for assuming that anyone will be at real risk of being subjected to abuse under ECHR Article 3 solely as a result of the mere presence in the area”, the same covering the area of Tartus.
The Danish Government did not take the numerous reports of human rights violations against returnees into consideration but referred to the Immigration Office and Refugees Appeal Board as making individual judgments. This is directly against the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) findings in the case of M.D vs Others vs Russia in 2021, that returnees to Syria would be at risk of having their human rights to life (2) and protection from torture (3) violated.
Further evidence of Syria not being safe for return for Syrians under articles 7.2 and 7.3, is evident as the Refugee Appeals Board overturned 77 % of the cases where the Immigration Office terminated protection since 2022. However, rather than all of this evidence leading the Danish Government to reconsider whether the regions were safe for return, Danish politicians criticized the Refugee Appeals Board for interpreting the rules too narrowly.
Due to the Danish exemption from the Common European Asylum System, Denmark has been able to offer less protection for refugees than the rest of EU member states, under Article 7.3 which does not exist in the EU. This means, that Syrian refugees being under convention, or subsidiary protection in other countries, have a higher protection as revocation follows Article 1(c) of the Geneva Convention and the EU Qualification Directive, requiring significant and non-temporary changes in the situation, whereas those under Article 7.3 in Denmark are not under such protection from revocation.
The Danish Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration and Integration received a letter from 42 European parliamentarians condemning the withdrawal of temporary protection that provided the following:
“Losing their temporary protection status in Denmark obligates them to leave their normal residence, stop their work or education and be de jure forced to return home. De facto, the Syrians from these areas will not be able to be repatriated as Denmark does not have any agreements with Syria on repatriation, they will be obligated to take residence in repatriation centres taking them away from their lives in and contributions to Danish society based on a decision, which can never be implemented”.
Continued Violations by the Danish Government
The Danish Government offers Syrians to voluntarily repatriate with the assistance of the equivalent to 22.000 GBP. Those not voluntarily repatriating, would not be forced to repatriate, as there is no repatriation deal between Denmark and Syria, but would be placed in the Danish return centres (which have been critiqued as being inhumane by the European Council’s Torture committee in 2019). A forthcoming article by Euro-Med describes how the conditions migrants without papers and asylum seekers are detained in Foreigners Centre Ellebaek, without permission to work or continue their education, until repatriation is possible.
As there is no prospect of a repatriation deal with the Syrian regime, Syrians in return centres are detained indefinitely, which not only violate ECHR Article 3 as it constitutes an inhuman and degrading treatment and Article 4 on the liberty of movement, but also violates the Return Directive stating that detention of pre-removals can be of a maximum of 6 months, and in exceptional cases, it can be extended with 12 months.
A judgement by ECtHR in May 2023 determined that a nine-day pre-removal detention had been in violation of ECHR Article 3 on torture and 5 on the right to liberty and security. The European Court of Justice also determined that detention cannot be justified if there is no prospect of removal; which is the case when it comes to what the Danish government is conducting.
This highlights that it is not only the withdrawal of protection that is in violation with international law, but the consequences of sending rejected Syrians to return-centres for indefinite periods with no repatriation deal with Syria on the horizon, is in itself aviolation of human rights. These conditions have been proven to force Syrians to repatriate to Syria “voluntarily”, as the conditions in Syria could be considered better than indefinite detention in inhumane conditions in Denmark; which raises the question of whether the voluntary repatriations of Syrians have been of truly voluntary nature.
Denmark Found in Violation of International Law by Other European Courts
Others have fled Denmark to claim asylum in other European countries, the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen reported in 2021 that Syrians whose refugee status under Article 7.3 was revoked, had gotten temporary asylum in Germany, after a court in Berlinruled that “Denmark could not necessarily be considered a safe country for Syrian refugees” and in the Netherlands “it cannot be assumed that Syrians can safely return to Denmark”, as it would be indirect refoulement and thereby in violation of numerous international laws, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Geneva Conventions, and the UN Convention Against Torture. The statement from UNHCR in 2021 criticized this tendency, as the Danish law undermines the European responsibility-sharing of asylum-seekers and refugees and the Dublin Regulation.
Denmark Encouraging the Violation of International Law
Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor believes that the withdrawal of temporary protection without substantial evidence of Syrian returnees not being in danger of having their human rights violated, is a dangerous precedence for other countries to follow in its footstep. The Lebanese Kataeb Party President [a far right political party] – MP Sami Gemayel – stated in April 2023 that“the most advanced countries in the field of human rights such as Denmark and Sweden, deported refugees, and it is time to change the way we deal with this issue”. The Austrian and Swedish Prime Ministers are also looking to Denmark for inspiration, calling for adopting similar repatriation schemes. This is a slippery slope, legitimizing violations of international legal obligations, and putting refugees at risk.
While the international community, over the past four years, has called on Denmark to change its classification of safe regions in Syria, the Danish government has continued its paradigm shift and pushed the borders of what can be considered a valid interpretation of international law, and what is straight out a violation of such.
Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor calls on the Danish government to cease the withdrawal of temporary protection statuses of Syrian refugees as long as returnees are at risk of being subjected to human rights violations by the Syrian regime or opposition forces and to get in line with recommendations by the UN and EU and internationally recognized organizations.