Rahima remembers the demonstrations during her childhood in Aleppo. Her teachers organised them, she never questioned what was going on.
“They drew the Syrian flag on our cheeks, gave us signs to hold and told us, standing in front of our school, to shout out that we loved Assad.”
We learned, she told Euronews, the only way to live in Assad”s dictatorship is by accepting the repression.
When Rahima was 11 a bomb dropped next to her classroom. Her dad, a Kurdish doctor, came and picked her up and said it would be best to go to their cabin in Afrin in northern Syria for a few weeks until the situation in Aleppo bettered. They stayed there for three years.
“For a long time, we thought that we had to endure,” said the 20-year-old. “We had friends, we had family, we had my grandparents. You only know life in your own country. The decision to leave is not easy.”
In August 2013, the Islamic State group announced their intention to capture all of northern Syria, to seize the Kurdish-majority city Kobanî and to kill all Kurds.
Rahima’s father decided that it was time for his family to leave.
‘Every evening, falling asleep felt dangerous’
In 2013, Denmark offered a relatively speedy family reunification process, and so, after finding a human trafficker that he trusted and in order to avoid the risk of taking the whole family across the Mediterranean, it became Rahima’s father’s plan to reach Denmark on his own, just as it did for many other Syrian men during these years.
“After a year and two months, we were granted reunification,” Rahima told Euronews who now lives in Nyborg. “During this time, the Islamic State seized Kobanî and we watched them on social media telling us that they would come and kill us. We didn’t know if they would reach Afrin before we could leave. Every evening, falling asleep felt dangerous.”
Just like many others, Rahima came to Europe and Denmark in the summer of 2015. Because of their Kurdish background and because her father got in trouble with the Syrian regime, he was granted asylum according to paragraph 7.1 of the Danish Aliens Act, meaning that bureaucratically he and his family are classified as in need of protection for being at risk of personal persecution in Syria.
Arriving in Denmark around the same time as Rahima and her family were many other Syrians, many of them from the Syrian-Arab majority and a lot of them from the Damascus area. Although fleeing the same country, the same war and the same dictatorship, their right to asylum in Denmark was granted on different terms – on general grounds, coming from an area of “severe instability”, according to paragraph 7.3 of the Danish Aliens Act.
‘There’s no hope or future in Syria’
Denmark has tightened rules around refugees in recent years. In 2019 a so-called paradigmatic shift was announced by the former government, making family reunification much harder and insisting more on the temporary nature of the refugee status, meaning that once a country of origin is deemed safe and any individual reasons for persecution are gone, the residence permit is revoked.
The Danish Immigration Office and the Danish Refugee Board are now assessing Damascus and the surrounding Rif-Damascus area as relatively stable. And thus, some 500 Syrians from the area with paragraph 7.3 permits protecting them from “severe instability” now face the prospect of having to leave Denmark.
Not a single Syrian in Denmark that Rahima knows would consider going back to Syria, she told Euronews. She is part of a group chat with 15 young Syrians who all have had their residence permits revoked.
“There is no other option than to live in a departure centre, that’s why they feel anxiety. There’s no hope and no future in Syria – that’s the situation these people are put in by the Danish government.”
Because of a lack of a repatriation agreement with Syria, Syrian refugees asked to leave Denmark at the moment will be legally obliged to live in so-called “departure centres”, which are camps run by the Danish prison system. Refugees are stripped of the right to an education, work and language classes. There is also a curfew imposed. Anne Margrethe Rasmussen, Save The Children’s Denmark representative, told Euronews that putting refugees in these centres was part of efforts to get them to voluntarily leave the country.
The Danish government has insisted that the security situation in the Damascus area has changed. In response to increased media attention in Denmark around the topic, the head of the Danish Refugee Board, national judge Henrik Block Andersen, sent out a press release highlighting conclusions from the Country Guidance for Syria from EASO, the European Asylum Support Office from September 2020 amongst “more than 1,400 reports”, as a reason to assess the Damascus area as suitable for returns.
The report states: “Looking at the indicators, it can be concluded that indiscriminate violence is taking place in the governorate of Damascus at such a low level that in general there is no real risk for a civilian to be personally affected by reason of indiscriminate violence within the meaning of Article 15(c) QD.”
Not mentioned in the press release, the report also includes a chapter on Syrian civilians returning to Syria after having fled the country during the civil war. In this chapter, it is stated that three out of four Syrians who have returned to regime-controlled areas have been subject to harassment, enforced enlistment in the military or have been arrested.
Further, as independent media outlet Syria Untold has documented, there is a system of mass arrestment and disappearance in place in Damascus, a so-called detention trade, which is run by the regime and targets civilians in order to make money for the regime.
The Danish Immigration Office is using two reports to assess the security situation in Damascus and whether it’s safe for refugees to return there. The Danish tabloid BT recently reached out to the 12 main sources in the report. All of them except one — General Naji Numeir, leader of the Syrian immigration authorities — said the reports didn’t reflect their expertise and withdrew their participation. They released a statement saying: “We think the Danish practice regarding Syrian refugees doesn’t reflect facts on the ground. We — analysts, researchers and experts in Syrian matters — condemn in the strongest terms the Danish governments’ decision to revoke temporary protection from Syrian refugees from Damascus.”
What is the position of the ruling party on the issue?
Euronews spoke to Rasmus Stoklund, spokesperson for the governing Social Democratic Party, to understand the Danish move to return refugees to Syria. He said it was an independent and non-political decision.
“The reason why the conclusion has been reached that some (Syrians) can return is that firstly the Immigration Office and subsequently The Refugee Board has assessed that some of those who are not individually persecuted but have been granted asylum because of acts of war — there’s a basis for those to return to Damascus and the area around Damascus, Rif-Damascus.
“Every country can make up for themselves how they — within the boundaries of international conventions and human rights — manage their legislation. If other countries have a wish of being countries of immigration and to let people stay in their countries, then that’s completely legitimate.
“But we have legislation that says that you only receive temporary protection. And when you don’t need protection anymore, then you have to go home.”
Based on the EASO report — that said three out of four returning Syrians were subject to harassment, enforced inscription in the military or jailing — should the Refugee Board reconsider its assessment that Damascus is safe to return to?
“I am forced to refer to what I just said – that you have to ask the Refugee Board what the reasons are. They are the ones making these assessments and decisions – I am not an expert on these issues, I have a responsibility to draft the legislation, and then we have a judiciary who has the role of making decisions based on it. And this is in practice what this is – an expression of the judiciary – a court-like entity.”
‘It’s not Danish to do that’
Rahima is an optimistic person. She likes to take one day at a time and to see what life throws at her, she told Euronews. But although Rahima is allowed to stay in Denmark for now — she’s currently at high school and hoping to go on and study political science because politics has had such a huge influence on her life — she is feeling the impact of the Danish policies.
“It’s not about tightening some rules, what happens here is horrible. We send people to a place where they risk losing their lives. It’s about human rights. And that’s not Danish. It’s not Danish to do that.”
Rahima told Euronews that all Syrians in Denmark are affected and shocked by the decision to start returning people to the country.
“I see how it affects my friends who are in the same situation as me and still have their residence permits. Some of my friends are saying ‘OK, maybe we should study something that we can use in the whole world’ because they aren’t sure that they will be able to finish their studies in Denmark.
“My mother called me and said ‘Rahima, make sure you study something that you can use when we have to leave Denmark’. I said ‘mom, don’t say “when” we have to leave – I’ll fight to the bitter end to stay’.”