UK activists protest Syrian refugee returns to Danish ambassador

Syria activists meet Danish ambassador to UK amid continued outcry over refugee deportation policy
4 min read
09 May, 2021
Syrian activists and their supporters have met the Danish ambassador to the UK to protest threatened deportations of refugees to areas around Damascus where they could face torture and detention.
Activists told Lars Theusen (left) that his government left Syrians 'in legal limbo' [Steve Eason]

Syrian activists and their supporters in London met with the Danish ambassador to the United Kingdom on Friday to protest against Denmark’s plans to pressure Syrian refugees to return to unsafe areas of their home country.

Denmark last month refused to renew residency permits for at least 189 Syrian refugees, drawing widespread condemnation and anger from human rights and refugee advocacy groups.

It is the first Western country to revoke residency permits for Syrian refugees.

The activists presented Danish ambassador Lars Thuesen a letter signed by eight Syrian organizations based in the UK. Among the signatories was Waad Al-Kateab, director of the award-winning documentary film For Sama.

The letter in particular condemned the Danish government’s decision to declare Syria’s Rif Dimashq province, which surrounds the Syrian capital Damascus as “safe”.

“This action by Denmark is based on a false assessment of the situation in Syria,  and is in breach of international law and the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm,” it read.

Syria’s Rif Dimashq province includes the Ghouta area, which was besieged and heavily bombed for most of the Syrian conflict by the Assad regime before being overrun and reverting to regime control in 2018.

Read more: Sending refugees back to Syria isn't just inhumane, it's illegal

The Assad regime killed thousands of people there in chemical weapons attacks, notably in August 2013.

The Guardian reported on Sunday that the regime’s feared mukhabarat secret police, who have tortured and murdered thousands of activists ever since the beginning of the Syrian uprising of 2011, were “thriving” in the Damascus area and that the regime had demolished properties belonging to refugees, making them homeless.

The Syrian activists’ letter pointed out that at least 638 refugees who had previously been returned to Syria had “forcibly disappeared”, according to figures provided by the Syrian Network for Human Rights in 2019, with returnees continuing to disappear.

Douna Haj Ahmed, an activist from the Syrian British Council who met Ambassador Theusen said, “Bombing and hostilities are not the only reasons that forced Syrians to flee their homes. Thousands of Syrians died under torture in the Assad regime's prisons. Every refugee who is returned to Syria is under the threat of arbitrary arrest and death under torture, or of forced recruitment.”

“Will the Danish government bear responsibility for the disappearance of any Syrian refugee deported to Syria, after entering the Syrian territories?”

The Danish government says that it will not coordinate returns of Syrians with the Assad regime and will not force them to return against their will. But its recent decision means that Syrians will be forced into “deportation camps” in Denmark if they refuse to return to Syria.

Theusen told the Syrian activists at the meeting, “We are not returning Syrians at present.”

“But you are keeping them in legal limbo,” replied Clara Connolly, a human rights lawyer and activist with Syria Solidarity UK.

While Denmark is an EU state, its claim that parts of Syria are safe for refugees to return to stands in stark contrast to statements by the European parliament and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

In March 2021, the EU Parliament passed a resolution saying that “Syria is not a safe country to return to” and calling on 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.”

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