Denmark is forcing refugees to return to Syria

Zrozpaczony chłopak klęczy na trawie

Denmark is the first country in Europe to revoke residence permits of Syrian refugees. The decision to tighten the migration policy has been criticized by the international opinion and has not escaped the Danish public debate

However, the Danish authorities do not intend to give up sending refugees home. The country has a stated goal of “zero asylum seekers.” They explain the decision saying that in some parts of the country it is safe [1].

Almost 200 Syrians have been denied an extension of their residence permits

Since last summer, at least 189 Syrians have no longer been allowed to stay in Denmark. A similar situation may be faced by about 500 people from the Damascus area whose cases have been reconsidered. The Danish authorities claim that the situation in some parts of Syria has improved so much that the return is not dangerous.

The government’s policy has been criticized by the Danish Refugee Council. Referring to the reports from the United Nations and other organizations, the Council concluded that the absence of fighting in some parts of the country does not mean that it is safe there. However, the government ignored this opinion [2].

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees addressed the matter last week. He criticized Denmark’s plans to force refugees to return. He also drew attention to the perspective of the deportations. Currently, Denmark is not cooperating with the Syrian government, so they remain suspended. However, it is not excluded that the situation will change. Then, Denmark will certainly take advantage of the possibility of deporting refugees whose cases will have been reconsidered [3].

The Minister of Immigration commented on the allegations as follows: “Denmark has been open and honest from day one. We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist” [4].

Controversy was also raised by the proposal that any refugee who voluntarily decides to return to the country will receive 22,000 pounds from the government. Syrians are so afraid of returning that only 137 people took advantage of this option [5].

Such a policy is in contrast to the solutions applied in the neighboring Germany and Sweden, where it is much easier for refugees to get a residence permit.

“I don’t understand what I did wrong”

The controversy over the tightening of the migration policy began with the appearance of the 19-year old refugee on Danish television. Aya Abu-Daher, who is about to graduate from high school, wanted to tell the story of her family being forced to return to Syria. By giving the interview, she wanted to draw public attention to the case of her family and the hundreds of Syrians who might be sent back. In fluent Danish, 19-year old Aya, holding back her tears, asked what she had “done wrong” [6].

For many Syrians, returning home would simply mean getting arrested or even a death sentence.

“Just being outside Syria for as long as I have is enough to make you look suspicious to the regime. Just because your city isn’t being bombed with chemicals anymore doesn’t make it safe… Anyone can be arrested.” – explains Hiba al-Khalil, 28, who fled Syria via Turkey and Greece before getting the residence permit in Denmark in 2015. She learned the language, found a job and started a new life. She is shocked that in this situation someone forces her to return [7].

The Danish government is forgetting that some families were exposed to the Syrian regime before the war. And the regime does not forget.

“They want to put my parents in a detention centre for maybe 10 years, before Assad is gone. They both have health problems. This policy is cruel. It is designed to make us so desperate we have to leave.” – says 19-year-old Mahmoud al-Muhammed. Both of his parents are over 60 years old and his father retired from the military in 2006. Leaving Syria during the war, he received numerous threats from the army. Despite this – their residence permits were not extended [8].

Is it safe in Syria?

After a decade of war, government forces control almost the entire country. In fact, regular fights do not cover the whole country anymore – they mostly take place in the north. However, we should remember that ending regular fights is no guarantee of safety for the civilians staying there and returning [9].

One of the main reasons refugees fear returning to Syria is Bashar al-Assad’s secret police and security forces. Since the outbreak of the war in 2011, the secret services have illegally detained and tortured over 100,000 people. Arbitrary detentions and “disappearances” became common after the rebels’ occupied territories were regained [10].

The territories regained by the Assad regime are far from stable. The reconstruction of infrastructure has not even started, there is lack of access to water or electricity. A record 12.4 million people are threatened with food shortage – which is an increase of 4.5 million over the year. Supply limitations are still present. However, this is not the only problem. The World Food Programme data shows that the price of a food basket (1,930 calories for a family of 5) increased by 241% over the last year [11].

Let’s not forget that the COVID-19 pandemic is also ongoing in Syria. Due to delays in deliveries from India, Syria still has not received the first supply of vaccines and treatment remains a huge challenge [12].

Human rights versus populism

Why does Denmark want to get rid of the refugees? The answer is, of course, politics. In recent years, Denmark’s reputation as an open and tolerant country has started to deteriorate due to the policies of the far-right Danish People’s Party. In the last parliamentary elections in 2019, the Social Democrats, led by Mette Fredriksen, took power from the conservative government. However, this did not change the course of the migration policy. Social Democrats are forced to fight for the support of the working class that supported the Danish People’s Party. Without their restrictive approach to migration policy, they would also not have been able to win the elections [13].

After Aya Abu-Daher’s appearance on television, Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye stated: “The government’s policy is working and I won’t back down, it won’t happen” [14]. 

Speaking of effectiveness, it is worth asking the final question: what actually happens to people who have lost their cases and are forced to leave? Here is a problem that Minister Tesfaye does not mention. Due to the lack of cooperation with the Syrian government, Denmark is unable to carry out the deportation. Also, Denmark cannot count on the Syrians leaving alone. The refugees are therefore placed in detention centers for migrants [15]. Is this what we call an effective policy?


[1, 4, 6, 7, 8] Bethan McKernan, The Guardian, Denmark strips Syrian refugees of residency permits and says it is safe to go home,
[2, 14] Al Jazeera, Danish plan to repatriate Syrian refugees sparks controversy,
[3] Asharq Al-Awsat, UN Condemns Denmark’s Decision to Deport Syrians,

[5] Arab News, Danish plan to repatriate Syrians sparks controversy,
[9] Live UA Map – Syria

[10]  The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Recent Developments in Northwest Syria – Situation Report No. 26 – As of 26 March 2021,

[11] World Food Programme, Syrian Arab Republic,

[12] The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Syrian Arab Republic: COVID-19 Humanitarian Update No. 25 As of 5 April 2021,

[13] Michala Clante Bendixen, Politico, Denmark has gone far-right on refugees,

[15] Global Detention Project, Denmark.

Anna Słania – national and international security expert, journalist. Interested in the issues of contemporary armed conflicts, terrorism and humanitarianism in international relations. Works in the field of peace journalism.


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