Denmark to consider repatriating children from Syrian camps by separating them from mothers

The Danish government has said it will establish a ‘taskforce’ to look at options for repatriating 19 children with Danish nationality or claims to Danish nationality from prison camps in northeastern Syria.

Denmark to consider repatriating children from Syrian camps by separating them from mothers
The Kurdish-run al-Hol camp earlier this month. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

The decision was announced by the country’s foreign ministry in a statement on Tuesday. In the statement, the ministry said that the minority government has agreed with a broad range of parliamentary parties to appoint a “fast-working taskforce” in relation to the matter.

“By no later than May 15th, (the task force) will reveal whether evacuation of the Danish children without their parents based on individual assessment can be conducted in a secure manner and, within the framework of Denmark’s obligations to (international) conventions, provide concrete models for this and take relevant steps to prepare evacuations,” the ministry statement reads.

In addition to the government, the Liberal, Conservative and Liberal Alliance parties on the right wing; and Social Liberal and Socialist People’s parties on the left back the taskforce.

A total of 19 children, who are either children of or “connected to” Danish citizens or former Danish citizens are known to be accommodated at two Kurdish-controlled camps in northeastern Syria.

The children are aged between 0 and 14 years. Nine were born in Denmark and ten in conflict zones.

The six mothers of the children in question have all stated that they wish to return to Denmark. Three of the six have had their Danish citizenships withdrawn administratively, according to earlier reports.

The Kurdish-controlled camps, al-Hol and al-Roj, house suspected relatives and sympathisers of Islamic State (Isis) fighters. The children are ostensibly in the camps because their mothers travelled to Syria in support of the terrorist group.

According to NGO Human Rights Watch, 43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to Isis remain detained in “inhuman or degrading conditions” by regional authorities in northeastern Syria, two years after they were rounded up during the fall of Isis.

Until recently, the government has refused to extract the children from the camps, primarily citing security reasons. The Danish intelligence service FE has said in a report that leaving them in Syria poses more of a potential security risk to Denmark than repatriating them.


The other argument for repatriating the children is humanitarian in nature.

A panel of experts have previously provided analyses at the request of the foreign ministry in which they 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.

A senior UN rapporteur recently criticised Denmark for refusing to repatriate the children.

In the statement released on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said that “adult militants who have joined a fight against our democratic values of freedom and equality are unwanted in Denmark”.

Each of the supporting conservative parties said via statements included in the press release that they wish to help the stranded children without allowing their parents to return to Denmark.

“We have consistently said that we would like to look into how we can help the children but we will under no circumstances, either directly or indirectly, have the parents in Denmark, so nothing has changed for us,” the Liberal party foreign affairs spokesperson Michael Aastrup Jensen said.

The Red-Green Alliance, the only left-wing parliamentary group not to back the agreement, has criticised the taskforce plan and accused the government of “pickling”, or dragging out a resolution to the situation.

“The children in these camps are in mortal danger and we have already been through every legal clause in relation to what can be done,” the party’s justice spokesperson Rosa Lund said to news wire Ritzau.

“It may be that (Prime Minister) Mette Frederiksen knows different lawyers to us, who have a different interpretation, so that children and mothers can be separated. We don’t believe so, so we can only see this as a pickling jar,” Lund added.

Representatives from various Danish ministries already sit on a pre-existing group whose tasks include assessing the situation with the children in Syria, Ritzau writes.

Charity Save the Children Denmark (Red Barnet) has urged the government to evacuate both the children and their mothers to Denmark.

“We have not been able to see any legal way… to bring the children to Denmark without their mothers. And even if a legal way was found, it would be in breach of conventions, so that would be clearly against our recommendation,” the organisation’s general secretary Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen told Ritzau.

The children would be “further traumatised by be being separated from their primary guardian – in this case their mothers,” Schmidt-Nielsen added.

“Our clear recommendation… (is) that the children are brought to Denmark with their mothers. On Danish soil, there should be a professional assessment of the mothers’ parental capabilities just as they naturally should face the consequences of their actions under the Danish legal system,” she added.

READ ALSO: Danish prime minister changes stance on children in Syrian prison camps

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‘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.


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.


 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.