Syrian refugees in Denmark hopeful as proposals seek to strengthen protections

Denmark proposal strengthens protections for Syrian refugees
5 min read
In-depth: Denmark has faced heavy criticism for its increasingly anti-immigration policies, perhaps most notoriously pushing for the deportation of Syrian refugees. However, there may be a glimmer of hope - and humanity - in recent developments.

The argument over Denmark's hardline policy adopted two years ago regarding Syrian refugees has returned to the fore: a policy which deemed Damascus and its countryside (known as "Rif Damascus" ) "safe" for Syrian refugees resident in Denmark to return to, and which has led to the suffering of Syrians in the country ever since, as the supposedly safe haven they had found in Denmark became subject to review.

This has had clear negative ramifications for the group, especially as right-wing factions in Denmark have clamoured for their deportation.  However, there may be a light at the end of this tunnel, in the shape of a left-wing move which has the potential to end their anxiety, fear and limbo and provide them permanent residence in Denmark.

Under pressure

Parliamentary sources in Copenhagen said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is finding herself under considerable pressure exerted by her bloc's leftist parties, who are demanding a radical amendment to Denmark's "temporary protection" laws.

The sources report that the left and centre-left parties that form Frederiksen's parliamentary majority want to relinquish the harsh asylum laws introduced in 2015. According to their proposal, refugees in Denmark should retain their right to remain for "as long as fundamental, lasting and stable changes have not taken place in their original homeland".

"Thousands of Syrians and others were transformed into so-called temporary residents with changes to Danish residency laws passed in 2015"

Temporary protection: A controversial policy

In practical terms this means ending Denmark's highly controversial policies around those termed "temporary refugees", and will have a particular and immediate impact for Syrian refugees from the two regions so far which have been designated as "safe" for Syrians to be returned to (Damascus and its countryside) by Danish politicians and the Danish Refugee Council.

Thousands of Syrians and others were transformed into so-called temporary residents with changes to Danish residency laws passed in 2015. Over the past two years, these hard-line policies have allowed the acceleration of transferrals of Syrians to deportation centres.

This has happened even though the Danish police force has been unable to deport them to Damascus, because the Danish government refuses to communicate with the Syrian regime, as well as the uproar in many quarters over the fact that Syria has been deemed safe. Denmark has been subjected to much criticism regarding its human rights record from both Europe and the UN due to hard-line policies such as this in recent years.

Denmark proposal strengthens protections for Syrian refugees
A protest in June 2021 outside Denmark's Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, over the deportation of Syrian refugees. Denmark has faced a barrage of criticism for adopting a harsh stance on refugees fleeing Syria. [Getty]

Left vs Right: The struggle for refugee rights

In light of the left-wing parties' efforts to amend the asylum laws after the winter holiday this week,  the centre-left government will be under pressure not to reject their proposal – which it could do with the support of the right and centre-right bloc – but which could put Frederiksen's continued rule in jeopardy.

A significant role was played last autumn by the strict stances of the two socialist parties, the leftist Unity List and the Socialist People's Party, in preventing the continued revoking of residency rights from Syrians and Afghans.

The left-wing bloc made it clear they considered what had happened to Afghans a huge error that had caused immense suffering – that Afghanistan had been classified "safe" before the Taliban took over last August, which led to their residency extensions being frozen.

Perspectives

If the parties manage to secure a parliamentary majority for their proposal, this will bring an end to the suffering of Syrian families who have found themselves on deportation lists. Others have already been forced to leave the country after 6 years of residence, and had to restart the long and arduous process of seeking asylum once more in neighbouring countries, Germany and the Netherlands in particular.

Mattias Tesfaye, Denmark's Minister for Immigration and Integration, takes a hard stance on changing the laws, despite the protests in Danish cities and in Parliament last summer.

"Syrian refugees who came during the tragic civil war in their country should be considered temporary residents", he has stated. He justifies his country's tough stance by insisting that "Danish society cannot afford for the refugees to remain here forever".

However, Dr Peter Starup, a law professor and researcher from the University of Southern Denmark, says: "Most refugees who come to Denmark will stay permanently…the second largest group of non-Western immigrants, after Turks, is expected to obtain permanent residency".

"Denmark has been subjected to much criticism regarding its human rights record from both Europe and the UN due to hard-line policies such as this in recent years"

In order to obtain permanent residence in Denmark, you must have lived in the country legally for 8 years, be proficient in the language, and have not violated the law. For refugees, the transition from temporary to permanent residence requires them to have worked three and a half of the last four years, and have earned at least 300,000 kroner annually for two years, and have passed the Danish citizenship test.

Tesfaye has insisted that: "The cornerstone of the government's asylum policy is to consider the arrivals temporary residents, but our failure to repatriate the Syrian refugees who have temporary residence will turn them into permanent residents".

Review required in light of reality

In 2018, the previous centre-right government imposed radical changes to the residence permit system, with support from the right-wing populist Danish People's Party and full agreement from the current ruling party (the Social Democratic Party).

This move followed a shift in asylum policy which surmised that "asylum no longer aims at integration, but has the goal of preparing for repatriation". Following this fundamental stance change, Denmark was plunged into human rights arguments with European courts as well as with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But perhaps Copenhagen will have to review policies which consider thousands of Syrians to be only temporary residents even after they have been in the country for almost eight years.

Dr Gammeltoft-Hansen, a professor in Migration and Refugee Law, believes that: "As the vicious war in Syria shows no signs of ending, and therefore it is still impossible to repatriate refugees from most parts of that country, the situation of the more than 34,000 Syrians in Denmark will certainly have to be reviewed".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Original article published on 21 February 2022.

Translated by Rose Chacko.