Denmark Strips Some Syrians of Residency Status

Ghalia al-Asseh had just begun studying chemistry and biotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark when the country’s immigration services summoned her for an interview.

For five hours, immigration officers asked about her proficiency in Danish, which she speaks fluently. They inquired how well integrated she was in Denmark, where she has lived with her family since fleeing Syria in 2015.

During the interview, in February, officers also told Ms. al-Asseh that the security situation in her hometown, Damascus, had improved, and that it was safe for her to return to Syria, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.

Ms. al-Asseh, 27, was losing her right to live in Denmark — even as her four brothers and parents could stay, and she had nowhere else to go.

Since the Danish immigration services said in 2019 that they deemed Damascus and its surrounding areas safe, they have reviewed the residence permits of 1,250 Syrians who, like Ms. al-Asseh, left their country during its civil war. The authorities have now revoked or not extended the residence permits of more than 250 of them.

In doing so, Denmark has become the first European Union country to deprive Syrian refugees of their asylum status, even as Syria remains shattered. The bloc and the United Nations describe most areas in Syria as not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees.

Those being asked to leave include high school and university students, truck drivers, factory employees, store owners and volunteers in nongovernmental organizations. All risk being uprooted from a country where they have built new lives.

“It is as if the Danish immigration services has bombed my dream, just as Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes,” said Asmaa al-Natour, 50, referring to Syria’s president. “Only this time the bombing is psychological.”

Ms. al-Natour was speaking from the town of Ringsted, 30 miles southwest of Copenhagen, where she and her husband live. In February, the couple were told that their residence permits would not be renewed, while their two sons, ages 20 and 22, can stay. The sons were granted asylum on the basis of risking persecution in Syria.

Most of the 34,000 Syrians who have obtained residence permits in Denmark since the war began in their country in 2011 have not had their residency reviewed. Yet the move to strip hundreds of their legal status is the latest in a series of measures by Denmark that rights groups say have targeted migrants and minorities.

The authorities have imposed mandatory instruction in “Danish values” for children in low-income and heavily Muslim neighborhoods that the government labeled “ghettos,” and doubled punishments for certain crimes in these areas.

They have also overhauled the country’s legal apparatus on immigration, shifting it from integration to the accelerated return of refugees to their native countries. Hundreds of Somali refugees have also lost their residence permits after Denmark deemed Somalia safe to return to.

Per Mouritsen, an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, said the government had toughened its stance on immigration in recent years to avoid losing votes to the right wing, a dilemma that several center-left parties across Europe have faced.

“The only way to beat the right-wing in Denmark is to sell your soul to the devil and be as tough on immigration in order to have support for social welfare policies in return,” Mr. Mouritsen said.

Last year, the number of refugees leaving Denmark exceeded the number of arrivals. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has vowed to go further, saying that Denmark will aim to have “zero asylum seekers.”

Explaining the moves affecting Syrians, Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye has said that Denmark was “honest from day one” with them.

“We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary,” Mr. Tesfaye said in February.

For those willing to return to Syria, Mr. Tesfaye said that Denmark would offer “a huge bag of travel money.” The authorities say that hundreds decided to return voluntarily.

Michala Bendixen, Denmark’s country coordinator at Refugees Welcome, a nonprofit, said the policy threatened to tear Syrian families apart. “The only purpose is to make Denmark the last place to choose as an asylum seeker,” she said in an interview.

Because the Danish government does not maintain diplomatic relationships with Mr. al-Assad’s government, the authorities cannot forcibly deport refugees. Since most of them are unwilling to return voluntarily, those who lost their appeals after their residency was revoked are likely to be sent to departure centers.

The Danish authorities did not respond to questions about why the policy was implemented for Syrians and how many had been sent to departure centers.

There, they wait for months.

“People risk sitting there for the indefinite future, with no prospect of being sent back forcefully, but no chance of living their lives in Denmark either,” said Charlotte Slente, the secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council.

That would be the fate of Ms. al-Asseh, who was notified last month that she will be asked to leave Denmark if she loses her appeal this year.

The last one in her family to leave Syria in late 2015, Ms. al-Asseh obtained her residence permit months after her parents and siblings arrived in Denmark. Because she was not a minor, she could not claim asylum through family reunification and had to apply on her own.

While her brothers risk being drafted into Syria’s military, Ms. al-Asseh was the only one to be summoned for an interview with the Danish immigration services.

“I am trying my best to fit in, to contribute to the Danish society by educating myself, by paying my taxes,” Ms. al-Asseh said. She added that her family had nothing left in Syria and that she saw her future only in Denmark. But, she said, “that stigma around refugees, in particular Muslims, has been so hurtful.”

Syria is a country in ruins, with a collapsed economy and half of its prewar population displaced. Mr. al-Assad has reclaimed control of two-thirds of its territory, including the Damascus area. He has also called on Syrians to come back, but many say they won’t for one reason: Mr. al-Assad himself.

“As long as it is not peaceful and the president is still there, we don’t want to return,” said Hussam Alkholi, a 20-year-old high school student and warehouse worker living in Kolding in western Denmark.

Mr. Alkholi, who is from the Damascus area, learned in February that his residence permit in Denmark would not be extended, along with those of his parents and two sisters.

Rights groups have reported various threats against refugees who return, including conscription for men and arrest based on the suspicion that anyone who sided with the rebels who tried to overthrow Mr. al-Assad is a traitor.

Hundreds of returnees have disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the European Union’s asylum body has warned that voluntary returnees are at risk of detention, torture and death.

“The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can go back safely,” said Ms. Slente of the Danish Refugee Council.

Ms. al-Asseh, the chemistry and biotechnology student, said she had tried to focus on her studies since learning that her residency permit would be revoked. Yet she said the thought of starting over again terrified her.

“I’m not a danger. I’m not a criminal,” she said. “I just want to live here.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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