COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) – An email has brought Faeza Satouf’s world to a standstill.
The 25-year-old Syrian refugee fled the civil war with her family on an all-too-familiar journey across the sea to Europe, where they eventually arrived in Denmark and were granted asylum in 2015. Yet six years later she was told she had to go home – alone, and soon.
Ten years after the start of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Denmark became the first European country to start revoking the residence permits of some Syrian refugees, claiming that the Syrian capital, Damascus, and neighboring regions are safe. Yet few experts agree with Denmark’s assessment.
“There is no law in Syria that can protect me like here in Denmark,” Satouf said with palpable anxiety. “My father is wanted in Syria, so of course I will be arrested on my return.”
Over the past six years, Satouf has learned Danish, graduated from high school with flying colors and is now studying to be a nurse while working in a supermarket. She doesn’t understand why a country that has encouraged integration and needs nurses in the midst of a pandemic would kick her and others, mostly women, out.
For now, the decision only affects people in parts of Syria who were granted their initial asylum because they were fleeing the civil war. This does not include those who can prove a specific threat to their lives, such as men who might face conscription into Assad’s army.
“It’s very gender-related,” said Satouf’s lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen. “When I have a male client, I will immediately send him to the immigration service and he will be granted asylum within three weeks. A client will be rejected … and we will have to take this matter to the Refugee Board. So when I look at the stack of cases that I represent on the board, it’s like 90% female and 10% male. “
Because Denmark does not have diplomatic relations with Syria, those who refuse to leave the country cannot be sent to Syria. Instead, they are sent to deportation centers, separated from their families, unable to work, and removed from education programs.
Single women will likely be sent to the Kaershovedgaard deportation center, an isolated complex of buildings about 300 kilometers west of Copenhagen. Access is strictly limited, but Red Cross photos show rudimentary infrastructure where cooking is prohibited and activities restricted. Even Danish lessons are not allowed.
“It’s like a prison, but they are allowed out during the day,” said Gerda Abildgaard, who visited the center for several years for the Red Cross.
This policy is the product of a left-wing government led by the Social Democrats, whose immigration stance resembles that of the far-right parties after years of significant migration which peaked in 2015 with 1 million new arrivals in Europe. The large numbers of people coming from Africa and the Middle East energized populist movements across the continent, pushing parties that had a more welcoming stance to adopt stricter policies.
It’s a dilemma Democrats face in the United States, as a wave of young migrants on the southern border tests President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to accept more refugees than at the Trump era.
Although the number of asylum seekers in Denmark has since fallen, especially during the pandemic, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reiterated in January his vision of “zero asylum seekers”.
The Danish government argues that it made it clear to the Syrians from the start that they were only offered temporary protection.
“This is the cornerstone of our legislation … that you have temporary protection, and as soon as you no longer need protection you will have to leave Denmark,” said Rasmus Storklund, Social Democratic lawmaker and member of the Parliament’s Committee on Immigration and Integration. .
Standing in front of the heavy doors of the deportation center, Abildgaard pleads: “But is Syria safe again? It is only Denmark that says that. All other European countries do not say that. Only Denmark. “
This week, the experts who contributed to the reports on which the Danish authorities based their assessment condemned this finding, warning in a joint statement released by Human Rights Watch that “conditions currently do not exist anywhere in Syria for returns to Syria. all safety ”.
In government-controlled areas, including the outskirts of Damascus and many parts of central Syria previously held by opposition rebels, the security situation has stabilized, but entire neighborhoods are being destroyed and many people do not have a home to return to. Basic services such as water and electricity are poor or nonexistent.
In addition, forced conscription, indiscriminate detentions and enforced disappearances continue.
In a European Union without borders, the strengthening of immigration regulations in Denmark means that those facing deportation can flee to neighboring Sweden or to Germany, which has taken in refugees in recent years, but where the political will to take more is now limited.
“It’s also a lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe,” said Hansen, Satouf’s lawyer. “As the first country to start withdrawing residence permits from these refugees, we are actually pushing people to go to other European countries.”
Denmark’s approach marks a dramatic transformation of a nation that was the first to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and that has long been seen as a model of openness and tolerance.
“We were known as one of the most humanitarian countries in Europe, with a lot of freedom, a lot of respect for human rights,” says Michala Bendixen, head of Refugees Welcome Denmark, a non-governmental group. Now, she notes, Denmark’s policies are much more like those of countries with sweeping immigration policies, like Hungary.
According to Bendixen, the ultimate goal is to “make arriving in Denmark less attractive for refugees and foreigners”.
Hundreds of people gathered outside parliament on Wednesday to protest against the eviction orders, surrounded by Danish friends, classmates and work colleagues.
Addressing the crowd, a nervous Satouf told her story.
Others also spoke: a brother and sister facing separation, siblings whose residence permit expired the next day, a high school student surrounded by her Danish classmates, a single woman who could not understand how Denmark, with its claim to support and defend women. rights, could do that.
“They say I should marry someone who has political asylum to stay here,” said Nevien Alrahal who traveled to Denmark with his elderly father and is facing his last appeal on Friday. “It’s a choice I don’t want to make.”
Associated Press editors Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.