Syrian refugee on hunger strike to protest Danish deportation policy
A Syrian refugee in Denmark entered the eighth day of his hunger strike on Tuesday in protest of the Danish government's hardline policies against Syrian refugees.
Samir Barakat, a refugee from Aleppo who arrived in Denmark in 2014, has been holding a sit-in protest outside Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, with dozens of other Syrians and their supporters.
Approximately 70 people have been camped outside the palace since last week, with scores more joining the sit-in during the daytime.
Barakat accused the Danish government of pursuing "racist" policies against Syrian refugees in Denmark.
"I have suffered a lot from the Assad regime and the Assad family and I came here to a country of freedom, democracy and institutions but now I've seen that a racist government has come to power and is implementing all kinds of racist policies against us," he told The New Arab.
Since 2019, Denmark has been ruled by the Social Democratic Party, which is considered left-of-centre. However, the party has tried to win votes by taking a tough stand against immigration and refugees and Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has previously said that she wants Denmark to eventually receive "zero asylum seekers".
In February 2021, the Danish Refugee Appeals Board said that Damascus and Syria's Rif Dimashq province were "safe" enough for refugees to return to.
Approximately 35,000 Syrian refugees live in Denmark and hundreds of them now face an uncertain fate as the Danish government refuses to renew residence permits.
Barakat accuses Danish politicians of tricking Syrian refugees, saying that he and other refugees were not informed by the government when they were given asylum in the country that their stay there would only be "temporary".
This claim has often been repeated by Danish politicians.
"Danish parties are now competing against each other over who can be harsher to refugees – we Syrians are like a cheap commodity for them," Barakat told The New Arab. "Animals have more rights than Syrians do."
How 'safe' is Damascus?
Ahmed Baroudi, another Syrian attending the sit-in protest, said that a Syrian regime officer influenced the Danish government's decision to consider Damascus and the surrounding area safe.
"Damascus is not safe. Denmark is the only country that says [it is]… the report they received about this was based on the testimony of twelve people. One of them was an officer in the Syrian regime's Air Force Intelligence," he told The New Arab. "Can you trust the word of a regime intelligence officer?"
Baroudi added that he had spent two years in the Syrian regime's prisons for taking part in the pro-democracy protests, which began in Syria in 2011. He said that some Syrians who had also taken part in protests against the Assad regime were not having their residence permits by the Danish government.
No other European country considers any part of Syria to be safe, and human rights groups have expressed outrage over the Danish government's decision.
Rif Dimashq province is today under the control of the Assad regime, which relentlessly bombarded opposition-held areas of it over the course of the Syrian conflict, killing 1,400 people in the Ghouta area in a single night in August 2013 after launching missiles loaded with the chemical agent sarin onto Moadamiyeh, Darayya, and other towns in the area.
Syrian refugees who have been forced return to Syria from other countries have been detained, tortured and killed by regime forces, while the Syrian regime has destroyed or taken over the property of many of the refugees from Damascus and Rif Dimashq province.
However, on 6 May, the Danish parliament voted in favour of recognising the Refugee Appeals' Board's assessment of these areas in Syria as safe.
Barakat, who is 55, said that on Sunday he had been taken to hospital after losing consciousness due to going without food for five days.
Children facing an uncertain future
He said that although he was forced to eat a small meal and take vitamins and a serum at the hospital, he resumed his hunger strike immediately afterwards and went back to his tent outside the Danish parliament, adding that he was doing this for Syrian children in Denmark.
"I'm prepared to sacrifice my health in order to get a result. Syrian children are really depressed and are suffering because of the decisions being taken against us. They've lived here for four or five years and tasted freedom, and they now know what duties they have towards other people and what duties others have towards them," he said.
"How can you tell me that Damascus is safe and send my children there? How are they going to live? They've learned and studied in Danish."
Barakat said he feared that his own daughter, who was studying at university in Denmark, was under threat.
"Would I be able to tell my daughter that the Danish government has decided to send us to Syria, to a criminal, killer regime?"
Although the Danish government has so far only considered Damascus and the surrounding area to be "safe", Baroudi told The New Arab that he feared that the Danish parliament would soon declare other parts of Syria, including the provinces of Hama and Latakia also to be "safe".
'Prison-like' return centres
Although the Danish government says it is not planning to return any refugees to Syria against their will, at least 39 Syrians have been placed in "return centres" after their asylum appeals were exhausted.
Baroudi said that refugees placed in the centres faced punishingly harsh conditions.
"If your appeal is rejected you have 30 days to leave Denmark. Where you're supposed to go, they don't know… If you don't leave they take you to a camp which is like a prison. They give you a limited amount of food – three meals a day at specific times, but if you miss the time you don't get fed. You can't work or study or travel – you're like a prisoner to them."
Danish activists from the Refugees Welcome group have given similar descriptions of the government's return centres.
While the Danish government does not have diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime and says it will not deal with it, Baroudi accused it of preparing to cooperate with it to return people to Syria.
"They don't know how long they're going to keep people in these camps – until they are able to cooperate with the Assad regime and return people to Syria," he said.