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IMMIGRATION

Denmark criticised over plan to repatriate Syrians to ‘safe’ Damascus

Denmark is facing growing criticism for a decision last year to revoke residence permits for Syrian refugees, citing a  "safe" situation around Damascus, but the country is sticking to its position.

Denmark criticised over plan to repatriate Syrians to 'safe' Damascus
Social Democratic migration minister Mattias Tesfayein parliament. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The tough Danish stance is a new sign of the country now having one of Europe’s most restrictive migration policies.

“No other country in Europe has adopted such a policy,” Niels-Erik Hansen, a lawyer specialising in migration issues, told AFP.

In the last election in 2019, the Social Democrats, headed by Mette Frederiksen, adopted a restrictive line on immigration and managed to take power from the conservative government propped up by the far-right Danish People’s Party.

Widespread indifference toward the policy change in the Scandinavian country was upended in early April, after one of Hansen’s clients, a teenager about to graduate secondary school, pleaded for her case on Danish television.

Speaking in fluent Danish, 19-year-old Aya Abu-Daher moved viewers as she asked, holding back tears, what she had “done wrong.”

The “excellent student” according to the headmaster of her high school in Nyborg is campaigning for her family to be allowed to stay.

The young Syrian girl was recently told that her residence permit, which expired at the end of January, would not be renewed.

Like her, 189 Syrians have already had their residence permits revoked since the summer of 2020 after Copenhagen decided to re-examine the cases of around 500 Syrians from Damascus, under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

‘My mother risks going to jail’: Why is Denmark sending refugees back to Syria?

The revocations were on the grounds that “the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit”. 

Some of the rejected applicants, who had originally been granted only a temporary permit, have been placed in a detention centre.

“Being in a return centre, you can’t work nor study and you get food three times a day. Basically they keep you there until you sign a paper saying that you’ll return voluntarily to Syria,” Hansen told AFP.

Under Danish immigration law, temporary residence permits are issued without an end date in cases of a “particularly serious situation in the country of origin characterised by arbitrary violence and attacks against civilians,” but can be revoked once conditions are deemed to have improved.

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

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was concerned about Denmark’s decision, even with deportations currently suspended because of a lack of collaboration between Denmark and the Syrian regime after 
years of civil war.

UNHCR said it “does not consider that the recent improvements in security in parts of Syria to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees.”

Rights group Amnesty International has also denounced the “worrisome development.”

“Denmark keeps sending signals that they don’t want any asylum seekers in the country and scaring the ones who are here into returning to their home countries even when they are not safe,” Lisa Blinkenberg, a senior advisor for Amnesty in Denmark, told AFP.

“Not only is Denmark the worst place in Europe but the country also shows a lack of solidarity with other European countries refusing to take a share in the burden,” Hansen said.

But, despite criticism even from within parliament, the government is sticking to its guns.

“The government’s policy is working, and I won’t back down, it won’t happen,” Social Democratic migration minister Mattias Tesfaye said after Aya Abu-Daher’s plea was broadcast.

“Denmark has been open and honest from day one. We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist,” Tesfaye told AFP on Friday.

Social Democratic spokesperson for immigration, Rasmus Stoklund, also defended Denmark’s principle that some refugees can safely return to Damascus, in an interview with newspaper Politiken.

“There’s a big difference between whether the regime has a personal charge against you or whether you have fled because there are general war conditions. There’s a risk a bomb could down fall on your house. There’s not necessarily anything between you and the regime,” Stoklund said.

A “personal charge” could, for instance, constitute refusal to serve in the Syrian military and fleeing the country as a result, he also said.

Syrian refugees in Denmark who have had their asylum status withdrawn have told The Local they risk persecution because their family members fled from military service in Syria.

The Nordic country has a stated goal of “zero asylum seekers”, and also offers special grants for voluntary returnees grants, which were accepted by 137 Syrians in 2020.

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POLITICS

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.

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