Denmark: Fear and anxiety among Syrians awaiting deportation

Syrian refugees at risk of deportation in Copenhagen, Denmark – November 2015 (Simon Læssøe / Ritzau Scanpix)

Syrian refugees at risk of deportation in Copenhagen, Denmark – November 2015 (Simon Læssøe / Ritzau Scanpix)

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas | Lujain Mourad

About seven years ago, Asmaa al-Natour (aged 51) arrived in Denmark as a refugee like many other Syrians, who fled their country accompanied by fear and distress in search of safety and stability. Even though the international humanitarian law guarantees the right to asylum, al-Natour and dozens of other Syrian refugees are at risk of deportation from Denmark at any time, which makes their fate linger in the unknown.

Al-Natour was photographed while saying goodbye to her Danish neighbor before being taken to be deported. She is now forced to leave the safe haven that helped her get over her sad and harsh experiences in the Yarmouk camp area to the south of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Back in Syria, al-Natour witnessed the bombing of the Yarmouk camp and its residents’ displacement, including herself and her family, who fled for fear of prosecution after evading mandatory military service. 

On 26 October, the Danish authorities started the deportation proceedings against al-Natour and ordered her transportation to one of the return centers in preparation for her expulsion from Denmark.

Issues of illegal immigration, asylum, and integration into new societies have become pressing matters for Europe, with refugees being present in issues directly affecting European citizens’ lives. This prompted some European Union (EU) countries to deal with the refugee file in isolation from legal controls, which some see as an introduction to future political convergence with the government in Damascus while ignoring the ethical responsibility towards this issue. 

Anxious wait for deportation news

“My return to Damascus is a reflection of Amnesty International’s report (You’re Going to Your Death). There is no way for me to head to my death.” With these words, al-Natour described to Enab Baladi her fears from being deported outside Denmark after the Danish authorities have reassessed hundreds of residence permits granted to Syrian refugees, based on a 2019 report, in which Denmark designated some regions in Syria as “safe.” 

Al-Natour referred to Amnesty’s report, published in September, that talked about violations committed against a number of Syrian refugees after returning to Syria. The reported victims faced arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, and rape by Syrian regime forces, proving that it is not safe for Syrian refugees to return to their country. 

Al-Natour and her family obtained the humanitarian residence permit nine months after their stay in one of the special refugee camps. However, the Danish authorities have withdrawn the residence permits of the entire family living in Denmark since 2014 on the ground that “Damascus is safe” for the return of refugees.

Several Syrian activists demanded that Danish authorities revoke the deportation decision and about 52 thousand Danish nationals signed a petition demanding authorities to stop the expulsion of refugees. Still, al-Natour and her husband were stripped of their residence permits and then transported to one of the deportation centers several months later.

According to al-Natour, once in a deportation center, refugees have only two options: staying and living in the center with restricted liberty and minimal living necessities or returning to Syria. 

The (You’re Going to Your Death) report by Amnesty International specifically criticized Denmark, Sweden, and Turkey for restricting protection and putting pressure on refugees from Syria to go home. The report also named Lebanon and Jordan, which have the largest number of Syrian refugees after Turkey, among countries pressuring Syrians to return to their country. 

“Sunny Syria”

In November 2014, Bilal al-Qalaei, 50, arrived in Denmark after leaving Syria to seek refuge in Europe.

He told Enab Baladi that he could no longer bear living in Syria after being deprived of his rights and dignity when he was a detainee in the city of Qudsaya in the Damascus countryside. 

“Denmark thinks of Syria as a sunny country. They don’t know how much suffering we’re going to face when we return ‘unwillingly’ to Syria. I don’t know what has happened to my house. I don’t know where I’m going back. My family’s life will be in danger,” al-Qalaei said.

Al-Qalaei spends his days in fear, knowing that the Danish authorities will move him to a deportation center in less than ten days without having any solution or means to fight this decision.   

Al-Qalaei referred to a poster erected last April by the extreme-right group Generation Identity instructing refugees to go back to “sunny Syria.” 

The poster aimed to encourage the Danish government to deport Syrian refugees coming from Damascus back to their homes. 

In Denmark, al-Qalaei established his own business, as he founded a delivery company serving customers between different Danish cities to fend for his four children.  

Al-Qalaei is one of the thousands of refugees searching for a safe haven anywhere in the world away from conflicts affecting innocent civilians. 

From dreams of stability in Europe to nightmares of returning to Syria

The deportation orders against al-Natour and al-Qalaei remain unaddressed, as both Syrians could not find a lawyer to help revoke the decision or a human rights organization to defend their right to asylum. 

“A considerable segment of Danish lawyers show racism against refugees by refusing to defend them in cases of deportation. I searched a lot for a Danish lawyer to represent me, but I found none. As for Arab lawyers, they don’t know the procedures here,” al-Qalaei said, adding that his dreams of stability were replaced with nightmares about returning to Syria.

As for al-Natour, who is now staying at a deportation center, she considered the placement of refugees in such centers “contrary to all human standards.” 

“The center is an old military housing unit emptied after becoming uninhabitable,” al-Natour said.

The Danish government transfers all files of Syrian refugees threatened with deportation to the Ombudsman institution and appoints a lawyer for the refugee to try to challenge the deportation order.

Enab Baladi emailed some questions on Asmaa al-Natour’s case to her Danish lawyer Niels Erik Hansen, but he refused to give any information, explaining that answering such questions could cause his dismissal from work.

The final court hearing, which will decide the fate of al-Natour and her husband in Denmark, is expected to be held in the coming week, without having any legal defenses protecting their right to asylum or preventing their deportation.

Al-Natour told Enab Baladi that the Danish authorities offered her a sum of 150,000 Danish kroner (approximately 23,000 USD), should she accept to return voluntarily to Damascus. 

Legal proceedings against deportation decisions

Denmark is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the deportation of asylum seekers whose applications were rejected and thus denied refugee status if their return is to put them in jeopardy from torture or persecution in their countries of origin.

The International Refugee Law (IRL) lists the major instruments on which international protection is based, encompassing two documents that constitute its cornerstone— the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

These documents lay out provisions that prohibit returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they could be at the risk of persecution, safeguard their right to international protection under the principle of non-expulsion, and demand that all refugees be treated according to the principle of non-discrimination.

Refugees are usually granted asylum to escape life-threatening persecution, and any decision to return them involuntarily can be contested and challenged before the European Court of Justice because the return would be an explicit violation of the provisions of [the protection agreement].

According to Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

On 1 March, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICISyria) issued a report stating that “tens of thousands of civilians arbitrarily detained in Syria remain forcibly disappeared, while thousands more have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention.”

In November 2020, the European Court of Justice issued a press release saying that in the context of the civil war in Syria, there is a strong presumption that refusal to perform military service there is connected to a reason which may give rise to an entitlement to recognition as a refugee. In many situations, such refusal is an expression of political opinions or religious beliefs or is motivated by the membership of a particular social group.

The Court, the highest judicial body in the EU States, said that a person’s refusal to perform military service is linked to the five reasons for persecution which may give rise to an entitlement to recognition as a refugee, namely race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

According to the Court, the Syrian army committed documented war crimes, and Syrian authorities could prosecute conscripts who fled military service for turning against the regime.

“It is highly likely that the authorities will interpret a refusal to perform military service as an act of political opposition,” the Court said.

The Court called on European countries’ authorities studying asylum files to examine the reason for the refusal to perform military service and whether that reason would have subjected the asylum seeker to one of the five reasons for persecution which may give rise to an entitlement to recognition as a refugee.

However, these judicial decisions and international agreements face political challenges in Denmark. Last February, a Danish opposition party suggested finding a way to cooperate with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to return Syrian refugees whose asylum applications had been rejected or who have been stripped of the refugee status, considering Damascus a “safe area to return to.”

Syrian lawyer and expert in asylum cases, Hisham Masalmeh, told Enab Baladi that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in France, is responsible for cases of deportation against refugees in Europe.  

The ECHR is an international judicial body composed of a number of judges equivalent to the number of 47 of the EU Member States that have ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Masalmeh added.

According to Masalmeh, the ECHR judges hear cases as individuals not representatives of their states, within certain procedures and legal controls. This Court’s judgments are binding, and the countries concerned are under an obligation to comply with them.

He added that anyone can bring a case directly to the ECHR in case of violation of rights and guarantees set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights, provided that the violation is perpetrated by one of the states committed to the convention.

The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits the collective expulsion of aliens.

Masalmeh added that the ECHR would not hear a case filed by a refugee unless all judicial or administrative avenues of the asylum application are fulfilled. 

Refugees are advised to hire a lawyer to bring the case before the ECHR to carry out several formal proceedings, without which the case would be dismissed before it is heard, according to Masalmeh.

He added, some cases might be put on hold for a year before the ECHR hears them. However, some cases can be rendered urgent for a court hearing, particularly in the presence of a threat to a refugee’s safety. 

If the ECHR dismisses a case, the decision is enforceable and irreversible.

But if the case was declared admissible, the ECHR would encourage the two parties (the refugee and the State which decided to deport him/her) to reach a friendly settlement. If no agreement is reached, the Court will proceed to examine the merits of the application.

However, it is not within the jurisdiction of the ECHR to execute judgments or to set aside domestic decisions of state parties. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe monitors the execution of judgments, particularly to ensure payment of the amounts awarded by the Court to the applicants in compensation for the damage they have sustained. 

The ECHR does not interfere in the authority of any state party against which the refugee filed a case.

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