Ten years after the war in Syria broke out, Denmark is telling many Syrian refugees who sought safety in the European country to return.
Around 500 Syrians have been thrust into a position of uncertainty and fear as Denmark prepares to cancel temporary residence permits of refugees who hail from Damascus and Rif Damascus, areas now declared “safe” by Danish authorities.
It is the only European country to have reached such a conclusion.
“I remember a lot of bad things from Syria. People died in front of me,” Sageda Salem, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee living in the southern Danish city of Odense, told Al Jazeera.
As Danish authorities reassess the residence permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees from those “safe” areas, painful memories are coming back to Sageda, who arrived in Denmark in 2016 with her mother and four sisters.
“I felt stressed, scared and sad when I read the letter from the authorities stating that my permit will be reassessed. Now I don’t even know if I should continue my studies or just leave them be.”
Many refugees are expected to refuse to return to war-torn Syria, a decision that could see them forced into deportation facilities, or “departure centres”. Some will inevitably try and flee to other European countries to seek asylum elsewhere.
‘A gigantic paradox’
Mattias Tesfaye, the Danish minister of immigration and integration, refused Al Jazeera’s request for an interview but sent a written statement.
“The decision to reassess these residence permits was based on a conclusion on the general security situation in Damascus, from the Danish Refugee Appeals Board,” the statement said.
“The conclusion of the board is that the general security situation in the area in and around Damascus has improved to such an extent that the need for protection for persons who are not individually persecuted … has ceased to exist.”
But Denmark’s controversial decision has been met with domestic and international criticism.
“It’s not in the interest of the Syrian people to pressure Syrian refugees to return to Syria, including to regime-held areas, where many fear they will be arbitrarily detained, tortured, or even killed by [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s security forces in retaliation for fleeing,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the UN Security Council in March.
UNHCR, the European Union and numerous human rights organisations have also condemned any move that pressures Syrian refugees to repatriate.