FOR MORE than a year, Denmark has been trying to send people back to Syria. It says it will only send back those who hail from in or around Damascus, the Syrian capital. That part of the country, which is firmly in the grip of President Bashar al-Assad, has seen no fighting for three years. Therefore, the left-wing Danish government argues, it is now safe for people to return.
Syria experts disagree. Human Rights Watch, an NGO, says that Syrians who go back are likely to be locked up or tortured. The regime might see the fact that they fled the country in the first place as evidence of disloyalty, and it has often murdered people it suspects of that. Yet Denmark has doubled down on its decision. Since taking office in 2019, the government has reviewed the cases of more than 600 of the 33,000 Syrian refugees in the country. It removed “temporary protection” status from more than 200 of them, including nearly 100 this year. Another 410 are in jeopardy.
Refugees everywhere are protected by an international legal principle called non-refoulement. This prohibits sending people back to countries where they face a credible threat of persecution. In 1951 a UN refugee convention, designed to resettle Europeans displaced by the second world war, first codified the right to non-refoulement. A subsequent protocol in 1967 extended it to non-Europeans.
When refugees enter Denmark, the government decides whether they face a credible threat of persecution and therefore qualify for protection under the convention. If they don’t, Denmark may still give them temporary permission to stay and promise not to send them back into peril. Previously most refugees in Denmark ended up staying long enough to apply for permanent residence. But Denmark now seems to be vigorously and frequently reviewing that status with the aim of sending more people home. In January, the prime minister announced a goal of having “zero asylum-seekers” in Denmark.
Critics accuse the government of bigotry. The ruling Social Democrats want a cap on the number of non-Western immigrants, arguing that they struggle to find jobs or integrate. Rasmus Stoklund, a party spokesman, says Denmark could help more refugees for less money by supporting aid programmes outside the country, such as refugee camps in Africa.
Refugees who are ordered to leave Denmark can appeal. So far, the appeals board (made up of judges, lawyers and appointees from the immigration and integration ministry) has sided with refugees some of the time; they won 35 of the 86 cases the board has ruled on. It asked Danish immigration authorities to reconsider another 12 cases. Some Syrian refugees could seek protection in more welcoming EU countries, but whether those countries would accept them is unclear. The remaining options are to return to Syria voluntarily or to be housed in a prison-like deportation centre in Denmark. The Danish government does not have diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, so it cannot actually arrange for their flights home.
It is too early to know if other European countries will follow Denmark’s lead, or whether the government will be challenged in court. Sweden has stopped automatically accepting Syrian refugees, citing improved security in the Damascus area, though it has not yet sent anyone back. But when a wealthy country such as Denmark closes its doors, it sets a precedent, says Hanne Beirens of the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. Most of the 6.6m refugees from Syria are in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. If Denmark will not accept these people, poorer countries may ask why they should.