The Syria Campaign / May 13, 2021

Letter urging the EU to put pressure on Denmark to protect Syrian refugees

We sent this letter to the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell Fontelles

TO: Josep Borrell Fontelles
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
European Commission
Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat 200, 1049 Brussels

13 May 2021

Dear Josep Borrell Fontelles,

We are writing to urge you to publicly condemn the Danish government’s decision to revoke the residency permits of at least 380 Syrian refugees, and to use your influence with Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye and the Statsminister to ensure that Denmark extends the residency permits of all Syrian refugees. We also call on all other European countries to protect Syrians where Denmark is failing, by welcoming any refugees who Denmark forces out with this cruel policy.

Syria is not safe for any refugee to return to and Denmark’s inhumane actions set a dangerous precedent for other European countries that might also try to shun their duty to protect people fleeing persecution. To this day the Assad regime continues to arbitrarily arrest, torture and kill thousands of civilians. By ordering refugees to return to Syria in these extremely violent conditions, or move into prison-like deportation camps, Denmark is tearing families apart and putting hundreds of people at risk of the regime’s crimes against humanity. These are people who have already fled a brutal war and survived unimaginable human rights violations.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria’s report on Arbitrary Imprisonment and Detention from this March details how after a decade of conflict, tens of thousands of civilians remain forcibly disappeared in Syria, while thousands more have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention. The report shows how detention under the Assad regime is centralised around Damascus, where Denmark is now telling refugees to go back to. The 2021 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also specifically warns of the risks of the general conditions in Rif Damashq, another area that Denmark has deemed safe for refugees to return to:

“Syrians are routinely denied return to their places of origin, notably due to restrictions on access placed by the Government and fear of arrest in retaken and formerly besieged areas, in particular in Rif Damashq, Daraa, Quneitra, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.”

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO)’s September 2020 report underlines the danger of returning.

“Disappearances and arrests on return to Syria, including at the airport in Damascus, have been reported. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) noted that since 2014, they documented at least 1,916 arrests of Syrian refugees who returned to Syria; of these, 1,132 were released and 784 remained detained, of whom 638 were ‘forcibly disappeared’. SNHR documented 15 cases of returnees who were reportedly killed due to torture.

“Returnees face a lack of rule of law, widespread human rights violations and poor economic prospects […] Furthermore, the control of Syrian security sector over society is strengthening. The Syrian military and security services arrest and detain individuals to gather intelligence, to punish those considered to be disloyal, and to extract payments from families for the release of the detained. […] Returnees to recaptured parts of Rural Damascus, Dar’a, Homs and Aleppo were also asked to pay fees for water, electricity, phone, municipal and real estate taxes during the period they fled.”

We have conducted our own interviews and research that indicate that women and elderly people have been disproportionately targeted by the immigration services, as Denmark recognizes that men are at risk of forced conscription into the Syrian army if they return. Denmark is right to protect men, but women also face significant risks if they return to Syria including arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in prison. They must receive equal protections and we appeal to the office of the High Representative to remind Denmark that Syria is not safe enough to withdraw any Syrian’s refugee status based on Article 1C (5) of the 1951 Convention. By downplaying the extreme risks that women face in Syria for their political views, Denmark is stereotyping Syrian women and perpetuating the oppression and discrimination that it is so quick to condemn in other countries and cultures.

The Danish government has sought to justify its decision by referring to a report by the Danish Immigration Service that falsely claims that Damascus is safe, but 11 out of 12 of its named sources have criticised the report for misrepresenting their views and condemned the government’s policies. In its shameless denial of the ongoing dangers throughout Syria, the Danish government is showing disdain for the institutions and mechanisms established to protect refugees, and a dangerous lack of solidarity with its European neighbours. Last month the Danish minister of immigration Mattias Tesfaye even reiterated in a written comment that “the government is in dialogue with our closest partners to create the possibility of forced deportations to Syria as soon as possible,” which would require direct cooperation with the criminal Syrian regime. Even if Denmark does not carry out forced deportations to Syria, giving refugees a choice between living in limbo under inhumane, prison-like conditions or returning to a country where they can face detention, torture, and violence is no choice at all. It’s coercion.

The UN and the EU’s positions are clearly against telling refugees to return to Syria. In relation to Denmark’s actions, the UNHCR has said it “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.”

The EU’s own position after the recent Brussels V Conference is unambiguous:

“conditions inside Syria have not been met for the promotion or organisation of large-scale, safe and dignified voluntary return in line with international law […] All governments hosting refugees and asylum seekers in the region and beyond must uphold non-refoulement and commit to a moratorium on summary deportations of Syrian refugees.”

And in its resolution in March 2021 the European Parliament called on all member states to strengthen their protections for Syrian refugees. The resolution,

“reminds all Member States that Syria is not a safe country to return to; believes that any return should be safe, voluntary, dignified and informed, in line with the EU’s stated position; calls on all EU Member States to refrain from shifting national policies towards depriving certain categories of Syrians of their protected status, and to reverse this trend if they have already applied such policies”

Over 13,200 people have signed The Syria Campaign’s petition calling on the Danish government to protect Syrian refugees and calling on other European countries to protect Syrians where Denmark is failing, and international media such as the Guardian, NY Times, and Washington Post have covered Denmark’s decision heavily over the past weeks. The United States has already spoken out saying that the situation in Syria is as grave as ever, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are campaigning against Denmark putting refugees at risk.

All European countries have a moral obligation to protect Syrian refugees from Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, and the European Commission can add vital pressure on Denmark to reverse its shameful policy. Thank you and we would appreciate your immediate attention to this matter as the appeals process for many refugees is already underway.

Yours sincerely,

The Syria Campaign