“I can’t even think about it,” says 20-year-old student Aveen Mohamad Issa, crying into the phone.
“We have nothing in Syria, not even a house. What are we going to do, live on the street?”
Issa’s family escaped the civil war in Syria, and for several years they have lived in northern Denmark. But now Issa, her younger sister, and their mother, along with 500 other Syrian nationals, face having their right to live in the country rescinded.
This is all because Denmark, alone out of any Western government and against the advice of all notable organisations and authorities in the field, has determined that the Syrian capital Damascus is safe enough for refugees to return, and has begun the process of revoking residence permits.
Under a law passed by the left-leaning government in power in 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, some Syrian nationals were granted asylum due to the general levels of violence in their home country. The law also gives the government powers to re-evaluate and revoke residence permits for those people if the conditions in the place they fled from are “significantly improved.”
Last year, a report by the Danish Office of Immigration concluded that the situation in and around Damascus had improved to such an extent that refugees from the area no longer qualified for protection under that law. And as such, the centre-left but anti-immigration Social Democrat government in Denmark has started to inform people like Issa and her family that they are no longer welcome.
The situation facing Issa is Kafkaesque. Denmark does not officially recognise the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and therefore is not currently considering forced deportations. Instead, Issa and her family must choose to either return voluntarily – something she says is out of the question – or move into a deportation centre designed to make going back to war-torn Syria seem more enticing.
“I’m barely twenty years old,” Issa told VICE World News, speaking in fluent Danish. “What am I gonna do?”
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, and over the past decade more than 400,000 people have died, 6 million people have been displaced, and entire cities have been razed. More than 13 million of the country’s current population of 17 million depend on humanitarian aid to survive. By the bloody standards of the conflict, the fighting has mostly stopped, and while the government is not in complete control of the country, the regime has effectively won.
Denmark’s assessment that Damascus is safe for refugees to return to is based on the fact that the regime forces have control of the capital and its surroundings. But for those who fled the brutality of Assad and his troops, the idea of returning to an area controlled by the very same military is absurd. Peace is not the same as security, critics say.
“There is no one else in the world who thinks Damascus is safe,” said Villads Zahle, a communications officer at the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, an umbrella organisation which monitors refugee rights in Europe. Zahle said he was bewildered that Denmark would consider returning refugees to a country controlled by a regime that Denmark itself refuses to recognise.
“The very reason the general level of violence in greater Damascus has fallen is that it has come under the full control of one of the most [violent] and notoriously repressive regimes,” he said. “It makes no sense that the authorities would send back Syrian refugees to an area controlled by a government they don’t recognise and refuse to cooperate with due to their human rights abuses,” said Zahle.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN watchdog that works to protect the rights of refugees, said earlier this year that Damascus was not safe for Syrian refugees to return to. It also said that forcing people to return could constitute a breach of the UN Refugee Convention, which Denmark was the first country to sign in 1952. In a statement to VICE World News, the UNHCR Representation for the Nordic and Baltic countries, said: “UNHCR is concerned about this development as UNHCR does not consider 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. UNHCR continues to call for protection to be maintained for Syrian refugees and urge that they should not be returned forcibly to any part of Syria, regardless of who is in control of the area concerned.”
In January this year, Amnesty International sent an open letter to Denmark’s Minister of Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, warning him against going through with the decision due to the Syrian regime’s well-documented record of human rights abuses against political dissidents.
“We absolutely do not believe that the situation has changed enough to start suspending residence permits or refuse to offer them protection based on the general level of violence in Syria and Damascus,” said Lisa Blinkenberg, senior policy adviser at Amnesty International.
“There’s a risk that you can disappear with no one knowing where you are, or you can be put in prison. And we know that, in the regime’s prisons, they use abuse and torture, and some even die. This is partly because of the horrible conditions in the prisons, but sometimes because they are executed,” she told VICE World News. “So these are some of the worst types of human rights violations that we’re seeing.”
The prospect of returning to Syria clearly terrifies Issa. Her family fled from Damascus in 2015 because her father and brother were being pursued by the regime. Issa’s father died shortly after the family arrived in Denmark, and along with her mother and younger sister, she also has an older sister, as well as her brother. By a cruel bureaucratic twist, her brother and older sister are not facing deportation, as they technically arrived in Denmark as political refugees, a classification that was not extended to the rest of the family. “I know that if they send us back, I’ll never see them again,” Issa said. “They mean everything to my mom and I.”
Many other families face being separated in this way, and due to the way refugees were classified when they first arrived in Denmark, it is mainly Syrian children, women, and the elderly having their residence permits torn up. This is because younger men are legally considered victims of individual persecution by the regime, often due to them being military deserters.
If they were to return to Syria, Issa says her family would likely be persecuted by the regime for having fled alongside her brother and father, who were being pursued, and by the simple fact that the entire family is Kurdish, a group that has historically been discriminated against by the Syrian authorities and has been a key opposition force during the war.
“Everyone who’s lived in Syria knows this,” said Issa. “If one family member is in their sights, the entire family is responsible for that person. If we go back, they will do so many horrible things to us. They are going take us, and they are going to torture us. I’m really scared.”
She continued: “If my mom is sent back, she’ll have to account for her son and husband’s escape from the regime. My mom risks going to prison and being tortured, because they want to punish her for her family fleeing.”
It is well known in Syria that if you are arrested by regime forces, you are likely to disappear never to be seen again. It is estimated that almost 100,000 people have been victims of “enforced disappearances” by the regime since 2011. And in 2019, the Washington Post reported that despite Assad urging refugees to return home, those who did were welcomed by the regime with arrests and interrogations, and in some cases with torture.
On top of all this, Issa’s mother is unwell, suffering from diabetes, herniated discs in both neck and back, high cholesterol, and mental health challenges too, meaning Issa would have to provide for her mother and younger sister, just 13, in Syria.
The family are currently waiting for their appeals to be heard in the only court that can overturn the decision to remove their residence permits, with a ruling expected in either May or June. Until then their lives are on hold.
Most if not all of the refugees who have now had their residence permits revoked are expected to refuse to voluntarily return to Syria, meaning that they will instead be lodged at one of three deportation centres in Denmark. There is limited opportunity for personal development at the centres, with no access to education or work, and the conditions of life there are often described as prison-like. Families face a purgatory-like existence, with no set end date, until the government negotiates an agreement with the Assad regime to begin forced deportations, or until they’re so tired of their situation that they’d rather return to Syria.
The Danish government knows well that few of the now-rejected refugees will return voluntarily, and many critics argue that the government is upending people’s lives solely to make a political point that they’re tough on immigration. The centres are part of what the government calls “motivationsfremmende foranstaltninger,” meaning initiatives and policies that “motivate” refugees to “voluntarily” return to their home countries.
Essentially, they are designed to make returning home, even to a conflict zone, more attractive than to continue living in confinement, said Natasha Al-Hariri, president of the youth branch of the Danish Refugee Council known as DFUNK.
“It’s a place where people get broken down,” she said. “These deportation centres are designed to ‘motivate’ people to travel home. They don’t exist for people to be well. They exist to make people want to either die, or to prefer a life in a warzone over life at a deportation centre.”
“Syria is hell for us,” said Nawar Alrahhal, a young mother who currently lives with her husband and 8-week old baby in Roskilde, a mid-sized city about 30 kilometres outside the capital of Copenhagen, where she’s studying to become a social and health care assistant. While her own immediate future is safe – her residence permit doesn’t run out until 2023 – her parents and sister recently received word from the authorities that their permits would not be extended. They face life in a deportation centre for the foreseeable future. Either that, or they hoped to seek asylum in a third country, on the grounds that returning to Denmark could get them deported to Syria where their lives could be in danger.
But Alrahhal doesn’t wish to be separated from her family, and intends to follow them wherever they end up, she told VICE World News, despite the risks that entails.
“Syria will be our grave if they send us back,” she said.