We, the undersigned analysts, researchers and other experts on the Syrian context, strongly condemn the Danish government’s decision to remove ‘temporary protection’ for Syrian refugees from Damascus. This decision used our testimonies to the Danish Immigration Service for a country of origin (COI) report on Damascus, but we do not recognise 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. We are urging the Danish government to revise its conclusions on Damascus to better reflect the ongoing risks posed to potential returnees, and to amend its current refugee policies accordingly.
We believe that conditions do not presently exist anywhere in Syria for safe returns and any return must be voluntary, safe, and dignified, as the EU and UNHCR have clearly stated. We call on Danish authorities to abide by the position outlined in last month’s European Parliament resolution, which: “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.”
In 2019, Danish authorities officially reclassified Damascus as ‘safe’ in its COI report concerning conditions in Damascus and Rural Damascus. While COI reports are regularly used by governmental and EU agencies to inform the asylum decision-making process along thematic, country-specific or case-specific lines, we feel that our expert opinion, background information and other advice to the Danish Immigration Service was underappreciated.
By reclassifying Damascus as safe, Danish authorities ultimately ruled that refugees originating from the Syrian capital who’d sought asylum and received subsidiary protection in Denmark could, in the future, have their temporary residency permits discontinued. As a result, last month (March 2021) the Danish government informed 94 Syrian refugees in the country that they would not have their residency permits renewed.
Damascus may not have seen active conflict hostilities since May 2018—but that does not mean that it has become safe for refugees to return to the Syrian capital. Many of the key drivers of displacement from Syria remain, as the majority of refugees fled, and continue to fear, the government’s security apparatus, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, military conscription, and harassment and discrimination.
The Syrian government, and its security apparatus, have consistently persecuted those who have expressed dissent or shown opposition, including through arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of critics and their relatives. Despite amnesties and declarations to the contrary, the Syrian government has yet to demonstrate any change in its conduct. Even where individuals have obtained guarantees of safety from the government, abuses have followed. There is a risk to anyone who fled the country or spoke out against the government, actions perceived as disloyalty which may result in their being treated with suspicion, punishment, or arbitrary detention.
Meanwhile, deteriorating socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in and around Damascus are such that they have produced new and worsening protection risks which do not correspond with a safe, dignified, and voluntary return. In its 2021 protection assessment, the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR) stated that it ‘considers that changes in the objective circumstances in Syria, including relative security improvements in parts of the territory, are not of a fundamental, stable and durable character so as to warrant cessation of refugee status’.
There is an urgent need to rethink policies which differentiate the risk of return posed to Syrian refugees who fled the country as a result of individual fears of persecution as well as those who fled general conflict conditions. Danish policy could lead a worrying trend in European refugee policy towards the revocation of residency and other restrictions in relation to the latter group, yet as UNHCR warns: ‘members of a larger entity, without individually being singled out, may become the target of repercussions by different actors for reason of real or perceived support to another party to the conflict’, and that ‘in those situations, the risk of being harmed is serious and real, and in no way diminished by the fact that the person concerned may not be targeted on an individual basis.’ The highly localised nature of the conflict has meant that just originating from a particular area of the capital could equate to protection risks for returning refugees, while authorities in Damascus have at their disposal a staggeringly broad range of laws, decrees and articles to arrest and detain returning refugees for perceived crimes committed since leaving the country. As such, as a matter of policy, no Syrian can presently be reasonably believed to be safe enough to remove their protected status in order to force their return to Damascus, nor to anywhere else in Syria.
Ammar Hamou, Syria Direct
Bente Scheller, Heinrich Boell Foundation
Jusoor for Studies Centre
Jennifer Cafarella (on behalf of Christopher Kozak formerly of ISW)
Omran Center for Strategic Studies
Sara Kayyali, Human Rights Watch
Suhail al-Ghazi, Syrian researcher and Non-Resident Fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy