By Andrea Visentin, 21st May 2021

On April 21st 2021, about 1000 people gathered outside the Danish parliament to protest against the government’s decision to revoke residence permits of Syrian refugees from the area around Damascus. Between 2020 and 2021, Denmark has revoked or not renewed 380 residence permits of Syrian refugees. Why has one of the historically most virtuous countries become the first European country to expel Syrian refugees?

Source: Sushil Nash / Unsplash


On the 11th of January 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has released a recommendation to Denmark commenting on the latest developments of the country’s immigration policies. First of all, it acknowledges the important contributions of Denmark to the issues around refugees: back in 1951, Denmark was one of the first signatories of the Refugee Convention and it is also a State party to the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions; the country has also always had good relationships with UNHCR.

But the recommendation shows concerns for the trend of the past decade. During the migration crises of 2015, Denmark has introduced restrictions that were intended to deal with the exceptional situation, but they have remained in place even now that the situation has normalized. In fact, in 2020 Denmark registered only 432 new refugees, the lowest number since 1998 (when the current counting method was introduced), while in 2015 there were more than 21.000. According to the Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, this number is still too high: she declared that the aim of the government is to reach zero asylum seekers.

The recommendation cites several controversial Danish laws on which the UNHCR has already submitted observation: the introduction of a temporary subsidiary protection category, confiscation of valuables from asylum seekers, restrictions on family reunification, reduced social benefits for refugees, introduction of short-term residence permits, mandatory regular review of protection needs, increased use of cessation, restrictive criteria for permanent residence and the temporary halt of the resettlement programme.

Denmark’s decision

In 2019, Denmark reclassified Damascus as “safe”, and therefore started to revoke residence permits of refugees that used to live in the Syrian capital. In February 2021 the area considered safe for return was expanded to include Greater Damascus, so now even more permits are being reassessed. About 380 refugees have been affected by these decisions, which were based on two Country of Origin Information (COI) reports that have been misinterpreted. On the 19th of April 2021, 11 out of 12 analysts and experts that created these reports signed a joint statement in which they strongly condemn the decision of the Danish government to remove temporary protection for Syrian refugees from Damascus. “We do not recognize our views in subsequent government conclusions or policies, and neither do we consider that Denmark’s Syrian refugee policy fully reflects the real conditions on the ground”, they wrote.

Although there has been no active conflict in Damascus since May 2018, the area is still definitely not safe and this can be easily understood just by reading the executive summary of the 2020 COI report: the number of targeted killings and assassinations of military and security service officers and affiliated officials increased during 2020; the same applies for kidnappings and ransoms; remaining explosives from the conflict continued to result in casualties in certain areas; the Israeli airstrikes against the positions of the Syrian government and Iran-backed forces continue. Even if you say that these problems don’t affect civilians (and they do), there are other issues related to the economic situation of the country: Syria is in deep economic crises; in most areas of Damascus and Rural Damascus governorates there is access to water, electricity, basic healthcare and schools, but the services are under pressure and there are daily power and water cuts; there is no shortage of food, but food prices are high and the amount of food provided at subsidised prices can barely cover the people’s need.

If all this is still not enough, we can turn to the European Parliament resolution of 11th March 2021, which clearly states the position of the Union on the matter: to quote, the European Parliament “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”.

To add on this, the position of the United Nations is also very clear. On 10th March 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres has released a press statement in which he talks about the situation in Syria. He stressed the continuous need to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian people, as the situation in the country does not allow for civilians to live a peaceful and serene life. “Compounding the suffering, is an economy collapse and soaring poverty caused by a combination of conflict, corruption, sanctions, and the COVID-19 pandemic”, he said. Even more importantly, he added that the UN stresses the importance to find a political settlement to “create the conditions for the necessary return of the refugees in safety and dignity”, meaning that those conditions are today not in place.

To sum up, with this decision Denmark is going against the opinion of most of the world.

The situation of Syrian refugees

Denmark doesn’t have diplomatic ties with the Syrian government. This means that the refugees that have lost their residence permit cannot be forced to move to Syria. Denmark relies on “voluntary” return, and in the meantime the refugees are sent to deportation camps where they cannot work nor receive education – precisely because they don’t have a residence permit – and they are forced to stay there indefinitely, until diplomatic relations are put back into place.

Furthermore, the whole process of integration is undermined by the policy of temporary permits. First of all, refugees live in fear that their permit could suddenly be revoked, and long-term plans become unsustainable. Secondly, it is really hard to find a permanent job if people know that you could be expelled from the country at any moment. Integration is not a short process, it needs time. But by only giving out temporary protection to refugees, the government is basically saying “we don’t want you here, and as soon as we can get rid of you, we will”.

Another problem is that often women are the ones that are being stripped of their residence permit, because men have an higher chance of being drafted into the Syrian government’s army and therefore need more protection. This not only seems to argue that women would be safer than men in Syria, which doesn’t seem very believable, but it also can easily lead to family separation.

What about the European Union? Unfortunately, the EU cannot do much to stop Denmark in the current framework. But this is why the new Migration Pact on Migration and Asylum has been proposed last September: with a shared, holistic, European plan this kind of problem would not exist anymore. This is the time for the Union to step up and take action, in order to avoid rushed decisions from Member States and to come up with a better solution for everyone. This is the ground on which the effectiveness of the new Plan will be tested.