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TERRORISM

More Scandinavians joining Isis

The number of Europeans fighting for the Islamic State has increased dramatically in the past month with fears that Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are among them.

More Scandinavians joining Isis
An undated Islamic State handout showing a parade in Raqqa, north Syria. Photo: Raqqa Media Center/Polfoto
The EU's counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove has said that around 3,000 people from across Europe are now working alongside Islamic State (Isis) fighters, compared with about 2,000 just a few months ago.
 
Gilles de Kerchove told news agency AFP that at least eleven European countries including Denmark have seen citizens travel to Iraq and Syria.
 
Just over a month ago a Swedish terrorism expert – Magnus Ranstorp – estimated that between 300 and 350 Scandinavians had links to Isis.
 
 
On Tuesday, Gilles de Kerchove said that numbers may have been boosted by the Islamic State's declaration in June of a caliphate (an area ruled by a supreme religious and political leader) straddling the two countries.
 
"The flow has not dried up and therefore possibly the proclamation of the caliphate has had some impact," de Kerchove said.
 
His comments came hours after the United States and its Arab allies began strikes from land and sea on Islamist militants in Syria.
 
 
The EU counter-terrorism chief said he would check his figures with those of European Security Service chiefs in the next couple of weeks, suggesting their numbers may be more conservative.
 
Gilles de Kerchove said that European fighters working with Isis mainly come from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. But he said some are now also travelling from Spain, Italy, Ireland and most recently Austria.
 
"I think even a country like Austria has foreign fighters now, which I was not aware of before," he added.
 
When measured by total population, Denmark has sent the second-highest number of foreign fighters to Syria, behind only Belgium. Danish authorities estimate that at least 100 Danes have fought in Syria. Denmark's outsized contribution of foreign fighters led the government to announce a new anti-jihadist strategy last week. 
 
In Germany, growing numbers of teenagers are reported to be joining Isis, with at least 24 people under 18 known to have made the journey to Syria or Iraq.
 
Meanwhile, Martin Bernsen at PST, the Norwegian Security Police, added that it was aware of young people from Norway signing up.
 
"We have examples of minors who have entered or attempted to travel to Syria", reported Norwegian news agency NTB.

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SYRIA

‘I can’t go back’: Syrian refugees in Denmark face limbo after status revoked

Bilal Alkale's family is among the hundred or so Syrian refugees in Denmark whose lives are on hold amid an insufferable legal limbo -- their temporary residency permits have been revoked but they can't be deported. Now, they have no rights.

Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. 
Syrian refugee Bilal Alkale and his daughter Rawan at their home in Lundby, Denmark on November 17th 2021. Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

Alkale, who until recently ran his own small transportation company in Denmark, found out in March he wasn’t allowed to stay in the Scandinavian country where he has lived as a refugee since 2014, as Copenhagen now considers it safe for Syrians to return to Damascus.

His wife and three of his four children were also affected by the decision taken by Danish authorities.

Once the ruling was confirmed on appeal in late September — like 40 percent of some 200 other cases examined so far — Alkale and his family were ordered to leave.

READ ALSO: Danish refugee board overturns decisions to send home Syrians

They were told that if they didn’t go voluntarily, they would be placed in a detention centre.

The family has refused to leave.

Normally they would have been deported by now, but since Copenhagen has no diplomatic relations with Damascus, they can’t be. And so they wait.

Days and weeks go by without any news from the authorities.

In the meantime, the family has been stripped of their rights in Denmark.

Alkale can’t sleep, his eyes riveted on his phone as he keeps checking his messages.

“What will become of me now?” the 51-year-old asks.

“Everything is off. The kids aren’t going to school, and I don’t have work,” he says, the despair visible on his weary face as he sits in the living room of the home he refurbished himself in the small village of Lundby, an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Copenhagen.

“All this so people will get annoyed enough to leave Denmark.”

For him, returning to Syria means certain death.  

“I can’t go back, I’m wanted,” he tells AFP.

And yet, he has no way to earn a living here.

“As a foreigner staying illegally in Denmark, your rights are very limited,” notes his lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen, who has applied for new residency permits for the family.

In mid-2020, Denmark became the first European Union country to re-examine the cases of about 500 Syrians from Damascus, which is under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

The decision was later widened to include the neighbouring region of Rif Dimashq.

Despite a wave of Danish and international criticism, the Social Democratic government — which has pursued one of Europe’s toughest immigration policies — has refused to budge.

READ ALSO:

The Alkale family is considering leaving for another European country, even though they risk being sent back to Denmark. 

Alkale’s oldest child was already over the age of 18 when they arrived in Denmark and therefore has her own residency permit, currently under review.

Of the three other children, only the youngest, 10-year-old Rawan, still has the carefree ways of a child.

Majed, 14, says he’s “bummed”, while Said, 17, who was studying to prepare for professional chef school, says he now has no idea what his future holds.

Only a handful of Syrians have so far been placed in detention centres, regularly criticised for poor sanitary conditions.

Asmaa al-Natour and her husband Omar are among the few.

They live in the Sjælsmark camp, a former army barracks surrounded by barbed wire and run by the prisons system since late October.

“This centre should disappear, it’s not good for humans, or even for animals. There are even rats,” says al-Natour.

READ ALSO:

 The couple, who have two sons aged 21 and 25, arrived in Denmark in 2014.

“My husband and I opened a shop selling Arabic products, it was going well. Then I decided to resume my studies, but now everything has just stopped,” says al-Natour, who “just wants to get (her) life back.” 

“Going back to Syria means going to prison, or even death, since we’re opposed to Bashar al-Assad. He’s a criminal.”

Niels-Erik Hansen, who also represents this couple, says his clients are being “held hostage by the Danish authorities.”

The government is trying “to spread the message that ‘in Denmark, we almost deport to Syria’,” he says.

Amnesty International recently criticised Syrian security forces’ use of violence against dozens of refugees who returned home.

Danish authorities meanwhile insist it’s safe for Syrians to go back.

“If you aren’t personally persecuted … there haven’t been acts of war in Damascus for several years now. And that is why it is possible for some to go back,” the government’s spokesman for migration, Rasmus Stoklund, tells AFP.

Some 35,500 Syrians currently live in Denmark, more than half of whom arrived in 2015, according to official statistics.

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