Denmark slammed by UN expert over children in Syrian camps

Denmark has been strongly criticised by a senior UN rapporteur for failing to protect Danish children stranded in camps in Syria.

Denmark slammed by UN expert over children in Syrian camps
The al-Hol camp in eastern Syria. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has criticised Denmark for failing to repatriate children from Syrian camps.

The Danish government has refused to repatriate nationals including children from the al-Hol and al-Roj camps in Syria, citing security risks. The adult citizens are in the camps because they travelled to Syria in support of the Islamic State terror group.


“Denmark has always been and should be an advocate of tolerance, human rights and for the rule of law. But you can’t just preach that to other countries in the abstract. You have to live your values when it’s hardest, when it’s most difficult politically, when it’s easiest to walk away,” the Special Rapporteur said in an interview with broadcaster DR.

“In relative numbers, the number of Danish nationals in the camps is tiny. I work with countries who are taking back hundreds of their nationals, including during (the Covid-19 pandemic),” she continued.

At least two men, seven women and 19 children with Danish nationality are currently accommodated at the camps, the broadcaster writes.

The foreign ministry is aware, via contact with family or guardians in Denmark, of the 19 children. Nine of the children were born in Denmark and ten in conflict zones. They are either children of “connected to” Danish citizens or former Danish citizens and are aged between 0 and 14 years.

Ní Aoláin said to the national broadcaster that conditions in the camps were “inhuman” and that torture and degrading treatment occurred there. She also said that the children were victims of terrorism and were not to blame for being in the camps.

“States including Denmark have an international obligation to protect their citizens when they are in danger of being tortured and subjected to inhuman treatment,” she also said according to DR’s report.

In 2019, the government implemented a principle that persons who had travelled to Syria had rejected Denmark and would therefore not be given help to return home. The Danish foreign ministry confirmed to DR that Denmark only repatriates children if their parents give “explicit consent” to separation.

But that amounted to advocating for the separation of traumatised children from their parents, further traumatising them and making it even more difficult for them to reintegrate into society, Ní Aoláin said in the interview.

In comments in parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen denied she and her government had turned their backs on Danish children by refusing to repatriate them from the Syrian camps. Frederiksen also confirmed that the government has no plans to return the children to Denmark.

“I’m not turning my back to any children. I don’t recognise the premise that we should take any kind of risk in relation to jihadists. And that risk exists in any form of action on this area,” she said.

“These people no longer have a home in Denmark. Jihadists cannot come home to Denmark. Denmark is not their home,” she said.

The Danish police intelligence agency, PET, concluded in spring 2019 that Danish children in the camps did not pose a threat to Danish security but risked permanent damage and radicalisation if they were forced to remain in the camps.

A panel of experts have previously provided analyses at the request of the foreign ministry in which they have recommended a four-year-old girl at Al-Roj be removed from the camp in order to receive treatment for PTSD. The experts, which include senior medical advisors, also said it would further traumatise the girl to separate her from her mother.

“The four-year-old girl did not turn her back on Denmark,” Social Liberal party immigration spokesperson Kristian Hegaard said during the parliamentary debate.

Denmark has repatriated an injured 13-year-old and an orphaned infant in other cases.

“What I would say to Denmark is, be a leader. Show the rest of the world how to do this. Show how to use your national systems, which are really deeply respected around the world and, on child rights and child integration and child welfare. Show how this can be done.

“And in the long term, this is in Denmark’s own security interest. Because the intelligence agencies, the security services I work with every day are also telling us that to leave these children and their mothers in this camp is a long-term security risk for Denmark and for every other country whose nationals are there,” Ní Aoláin said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.