Denmark is the first European country to tell large numbers of Syrian refugees to go home. While it hasn’t begun deportations, nearly 400 Syrians from in and around the capital, Damascus, have been stripped of their residency permits and the right to work since 2019.
Few of those affected have risked going back on their own to Syria, where human rights groups have recently documented the torture and disappearance of returning refugees. But they are under increasing pressure, and hundreds have left Denmark in search of refuge in other EU countries.
The Danish government – which has taken one of the hardest lines on asylum and migration in Europe in recent years – justified its decision by saying there had been a decline in armed conflict in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs.
Its key piece of evidence was a 2019 “Country of Origin Information” (COI) report co-written by the country’s immigration service and Denmark’s largest NGO, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). In addition to its impact on Syrians in Denmark, the report was a propaganda coup for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, with Syrian state media describing the Danish decision as a political victory.
The decision to revoke residency permits dovetails with a broader trend of countries across Europe implementing hard-line policies to block access to asylum and erode protections.
Nearly 11 years after the war in Syria began, advocates and rights groups worry that Denmark’s decision is also a sign of what’s to come as more and more European countries choose to focus on the reduction in armed conflict when calibrating their asylum policies – as opposed to ongoing human rights abuses committed by the al-Assad regime and the continued threat they pose.
Many governments and international organisations produce COI reports – like the one used to support Denmark’s decision – to gather information on refugees’ home countries to help guide immigration authorities in their asylum decisions. They often consult civil society, but Denmark is unusual in paying DRC – an NGO whose mandate is to protect refugees and their rights – to join fact-finding missions and co-write reports, according to experts.
Established in the 1950s as an umbrella organisation for Danish refugee groups, DRC has a long history of working closely with the Danish government, which is also one of its largest funders. This particular report on Syria created a fierce debate within the organisation about the benefits of its close relationship with the government, which openly states that its goal is to have as few refugees in the country as possible.
The New Humanitarian interviewed nine current and former DRC officials about the report, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. On one side of the internal debate are staff who believe DRC can positively impact policy from the inside by maintaining its close relationship with the government. On the other are those who believe DRC’s participation was used to legitimise Europe’s harshest policy on Syrians and did little – if anything – to help protect refugees.
The story of DRC’s involvement in drafting the report – investigated by The New Humanitarian through interviews, public records, and freedom of information requests – provides a stark example of the dilemmas that arise when the mission of a humanitarian organisation and the politics of its government partner (and funder) sharply diverge.
DRC says its relationship with the government doesn’t influence its work on COI reports, and The New Humanitarian’s reporting did not turn up any evidence of political manipulation in the drafting of the Syria report. But, considering the overall context, some current and former DRC officials believe it’s time for a rethink.
“Given the way in which this area has become increasingly politicised, I question whether DRC should continue producing reports on asylum in cooperation with the authorities,” Christian Friis Bach, a Danish politician who was secretary general of DRC when the Syria report was produced, told The New Humanitarian. “This was an open and important discussion at the time. We were balancing on a knife’s edge about this question,” added Friis Bach, who was fired by DRC in 2019.
In 2015, as a record number of Syrians escaped war to Europe, Denmark passed a law establishing a temporary status for people fleeing indiscriminate violence – rather than individual persecution, which was eventually applied to around 4,700 of the approximately 35,000 Syrians in Denmark.
Under the law, those with temporary protection risk losing their status as soon as there’s any improvement in security on the ground back in their home countries, even if the situation remains “fragile and unpredictable”.
By 2018, the Syrian government, with the support of Russia and Iran, was gaining a decisive upper hand in the Syrian war. The Danish Immigration Service asked DRC to join a trip to Damascus to assess the security situation in March of that year.
Despite a recent string of victories, al-Assad’s government was still battling opposition fighters in the Damascus suburbs, and the fact-finding mission noted that security in the capital had “deteriorated” compared to 2017.
However, two months later, the Syrian government declared that it had full control of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs for the first time since the war started in 2011.
Before their earlier findings had been made public, the Danish Immigration Service requested a second assessment “as quickly as possible”, according to emails obtained through freedom of information requests. The return visit by DRC and immigration service personnel in November 2018 then found security in Damascus had improved “significantly”.
“There might have been a momentary improvement in the security situation, but that shouldn’t necessarily lead to any conclusions,” said Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, a professor of international migration and refugee law at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s clear that the [Danish] government was eager to exploit the possibility of that moment in time.”
The consequences for Syrians in Denmark were immediate. “I am pleased that conditions in parts of Syria have improved,” said Inger Støjberg, then the Danish immigration minister, as she announced the report’s release in February 2019. “When there is no longer a need for protection, one must travel home and help with the reconstruction of one’s homeland.” Støjberg was later impeached, and last month handed a two-month prison sentence over a different hardline migration policy.
“It’s clear that the government was eager to exploit the possibility of that moment in time.”
- The New Humanitarian