No Longer Welcome: Syrian Refugees in Denmark Face an Impossible Choice


In March 2011, in cities and towns across Syria, people took to the streets in massive protests, demanding change. The Arab Spring had taken hold in the country, and the Syrian uprising had begun. Syrians seized the moment to at long last break free from the shackles of the Assad regime that had ruled them with an iron-fist for more than 40 years.

In the 10 years since, Syrians have been victims of violent sieges on their communities, arbitrary detention, targeted bombings of their schools and hospitals, and never-ending displacement. Millions have had to flee their homes, leaving behind all they have ever known, in search of safety. This act takes tremendous courage. It is brave to choose to live when it seems the entire world is conspiring against you to not make it another day.

The millions of Syrians displaced by the grinding decade-long war have sought out safety far and wide, in safe havens within the country, in neighboring countries in the region, and further afield. Those who managed to reach Europe often did so against the odds and often after experiencing displacement more than once. Believing to have finally settled in a place where their human rights would be upheld and protected and their safety guaranteed, many in fact live in precarious circumstances for months or even years, unable to acquire or renew residency papers or awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, and struggle to meet their basic needs.

Now, one of these countries, Denmark, is taking away from Syrians living in its borders the protection they so desperately sought and still need and, with it, the tiny bit of hope that they have worked so hard to preserve. Recently, Denmark deemed Damascus and its suburbs to be safe on the grounds that most of the fighting in Syria today is concentrated in the country’s North, far from the capital. However, this decision totally disregards the human rights situation in the country, the lack of civil and political rights, and the risk of the death penalty, torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment that these Syrian individuals will surely confront upon return. Syrians did not only flee the armed violence, they fled daily humiliation and imminent threats to life, freedom, and other basic rights.  

Ironically, Denmark was the first country to join the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and today it has become the first European nation to revoke the residency permits of Syrian refugees. As Denmark does not have any diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, it cannot technically deport Syrian nationals. Instead, it is giving Syrian refugees a choice between two dreadful options: either return voluntarily to Syria and await your fate or be forced to reside in a so-called “return center” or deportation camp.

Denmark’s decision has far-reaching implications as it could set a precedent for other countries that host refugees to do the same, which in turn could upend the cornerstone of international refugee law: the principle of non-refoulement. This principle guarantees that any person seeking asylum who has a well-founded fear of persecution cannot be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment or other irreparable harm. The Danish government, however, maintains it is not breaching this obligation, but rather merely asking asylum-seekers whose residency documents will not be renewed to return to Syria or move to a deportation camp.

These individuals, many of whom have integrated into Danish society, have jobs, and have learned to speak fluent Danish must now make an impossible choice. Going back to Syria would inevitably result in their detention or imprisonment, which we all know too well often means forcible disappearance. On the other hand, moving to a camp, where they will be unable to work, study, or most importantly hope, would be a life of marginalization and without meaning.

Syrian asylum-seekers in Denmark, who believed until very recently they were safe and protected, now find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place and soon-to-be displaced once again. If a mature and prosperous democracy such as Denmark will not guarantee the safety and dignity of its roughly 40,000 Syrian refugees, how can we ever hold countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which host millions of Syrian refugees and grapple with myriad economic and political challenges, to these same obligations?

PHOTO: Exhausted and uncertain about the future, Syrian refugees line up to register at an impromptu registration center set up by UNHCR and its partners just outside Arsal, Lebanon. (UNHCR/ M. Hofer)