Mapping the desperate refugees and fellow EU countries facing the fall-out from Copenhagen’s decision to declare Damascus safe for returns
Since Denmark became the first major European country to tell Syrians to return to Damascus in 2019, very few have gone back. Copenhagen cannot put refugees on planes back to Syria as it does not have diplomatic relations with Damascus.
But if the aim was simply for refugees to leave Denmark, it has worked. Facing indefinite detention with the threat of deportation hanging over them, hundreds of Syrians have fled elsewhere in Europe: the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Belgium, amongst other countries.
Like the rest of Europe, these countries disagree with Copenhagen that it is safe to send refugees back to Syria. Now they have to decide whether EU member Denmark is still a safe country for Syrians.
Europe’s selective approach to solidarity over migration – cooperating over returns but not over basic standards on protection for refugees or when it’s safe to send them back – has created a dilemma.
Under the Dublin regulation, refugees should be sent back to the first EU country where they applied for asylum and in Sweden, most Syrians are being automatically returned to Denmark. But as Denmark is threatening to send Syrians to Damascus, courts in other European countries are considering whether sending Syrians to Denmark may break European rules on returning refugees to danger.
Greece and Hungary’s treatment of refugees has already tested the Dublin system – now the situation in Denmark has made it clear that major contradictions exist at the heart of the EU.
We obtained data from migration authorities in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Belgium to reach the best possible lower estimate of the number of Syrians who have fled to these countries from Denmark since 2019.
We asked national authorities in these countries how many times they had requested Denmark to take back Syrians under the Dublin regulation since 2019. We collected information on the number of requests and transfers and compared them to earlier data in order to establish that these numbers were a large increase on previous years. (The Netherlands was only able to provide the number of Syrians arriving from Denmark registered in the Eurodac database, rather than Dublin requests).
Journalists in each country interviewed Syrians who came from Denmark and followed their cases through attending court hearings, interviewing lawyers and reviewing official correspondence and legal documents.
The number of Syrians who have left Denmark since 2019, when it started revoking residency for people from Damascus, is much higher than previously known. At least 421 Syrians have fled to four European countries: Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. It is likely that the total number of Syrians fleeing Denmark is even higher, as experts warn this data is often incomplete and more Syrians may have gone to other countries or evaded statistics.
The immigration authorities in all four of these countries say Syrians arriving from Denmark will be returned under the Dublin regulation. But in practice, each country has a different response. Only Sweden is automatically sending most Syrians back to Denmark. In the other countries, many Syrians have been able to stay while their cases are heard, as the courts consider whether Denmark is following European rules and so whether the Dublin regulation should be applied.
In the Netherlands, around a dozen cases are waiting to be heard at the country’s highest court, the council of state. Earlier, one court stopped Dublin returns to Denmark until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) clarifies whether there could be a risk of “indirect refoulement” – sending refugees back to danger in breach of international law. Denmark is no longer meeting its international obligations – the so-called interstate principle of trust, Dutch lawyer Marq Wijngaarden told Trouw: “The moment an ambassador from Denmark goes to Syria, all those Syrians who have been refused asylum will go too.”
In Belgium, Syrians are also appealing their return to Denmark and few have been sent back. This follows a long history of Belgium not carrying out Dublin transfers because of the length of the decision process. (The Dublin regulation requires transfers to take place within a certain time period after which refugees can’t be sent back). No longer eligible for asylum accommodation, one Syrian woman and her son told Knack and Le Vif about their struggle for survival in Belgium while they wait for their appeal. “I am over 50 years old and my body can no longer bear to go from camp to camp, from country to country,” she said.
In Sweden most Syrians have already been ordered to return to Denmark, and have slim chances of challenging this in the courts even if they have family in Sweden, Sydsvenskan reports. “Every day I wait for the police to knock on the door,” 22-year-old Aveen, who came from Denmark to join her fiance in Malmö after losing her residency, but was denied status in Sweden as well. “I no longer know what to do.”
In Germany, there is no single policy as deportation decisions are decided at a regional level. While most Syrians have been told to return to Denmark and some have been sent back, other courts have put Dublin transfers on hold because they no longer consider Denmark a safe country for refugees, Der Spiegel reports. The newspaper spoke to one Syrian sent back to Denmark from Germany now living in grim conditions in a Danish deportation centre, where entry and exit is strictly regulated.
“They don’t care whether these Syrians can go home or not. As long as the news spreads that Denmark is the worst European country for refugees, that’s enough for them,” said Danish lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen. “Denmark is not only showing a lack of solidarity with the refugees, but also with its European neighbors. You export the problem, you make sure that all refugees go to these countries and that nobody tries in Denmark.”
The EU Observer found that while the European Commission is consumed with other priorities, European parliamentarians are taking the lead in challenging Denmark over its policy on Syrians. “The Commission should start procedures against Denmark in order to put these policies to a halt,” said Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik. Under the Dublin system, “member states must be able to trust that Denmark complies with at least the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which ensures the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement,” she said.
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