Marie Juul Petersen and Nikolas Feith Tan are senior researchers at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. They are authors of the report “You can never feel safe,” which examines Denmark’s practice of revoking refugee protection.
“It was as if I had built a house, and they tore it down in a minute.”
This is how Maryam, a young Syrian woman, described the day the Danish Immigration Service informed her that her residence permit had been revoked — and Maryam isn’t the only one.
Denmark’s decision to end the protection of Syrian refugees dates back to 2015, when the parliament introduced a new temporary protection status — one that doesn’t exist in other European countries and carves out a particularly “thin” form of protection for asylum-seekers fleeing generalized violence, primarily from Syria. This means that as soon as the human rights conditions in their home country improves slightly, protection can be withdrawn, even if the situation remains “serious, fragile and unpredictable.”
In 2019, the parliament then adopted further amendments that made all refugee protection temporary. And under this new approach, unless it would breach Denmark’s international obligations, immigration authorities are required to end protection of refugees.
These legislative changes — referred to in Denmark as the paradigmeskift (paradigm shift) — have fundamentally altered Danish refugee policy, moving it away from permanent protection and integration toward temporary protection and a view to returning individuals home as soon as possible.
Unsurprisingly, the consequences for both individual refugees and the European Union have been immense.
The right to family life
Since 2019, more than 1,000 refugees from Damascus and the Rif Damascus province have had their need for protection reassessed — and, so far, around 100 have had it revoked. We expect refugees from other areas in Syria, as well as from other countries, will have their residence permits similarly reassessed in the near future.
“My brother can stay. But how can we leave him? And how can he stay here alone, knowing that his family is back in Syria?” 23-year old Laila asked us.
Her brother, who just turned 18, had been granted asylum, as he’s at risk of being drafted for military service. Meanwhile, Laila and the rest of her family have had their permits revoked and must now leave Denmark
It stands to reason that the fear of having their families torn apart is now a common and legitimate concern among Syrian refugees — and it exists despite the fact that this practice risks breaching Denmark’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights; more specifically, the right to privacy and family life under Article 8.
For one, current revocation procedures don’t ensure an overall assessment of a family’s connection or attachment to Denmark during the appeal stage — which is a prerequisite for a correct assessment under human rights law. Instead, a refugee board handles the refugee’s case, while an immigration appeals board separately addresses family members’ cases.
Additionally, by applying a narrow definition of what counts as “family life” — disregarding whether elderly parents may be dependent on their adult children, or that young adults can have close family relations with their parents — Danish authorities fail to recognize that some may have a family life that’s protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Complicated and lengthy process
Meanwhile, the process Syrian refugees go through when authorities reassess their residence permit is both complex and lengthy, with processing times often lasting far longer than a year — to the detriment of the refugees involved.
For example, despite having her residence permit revoked by the Danish Immigration Service, and the revocation then being confirmed by the Refugee Appeals Board, Maryam still succeeded in having her case reopened. And after an almost two-year process, she was finally granted permission to stay in Denmark.
However, Maryam still suffers from depression and has trouble sleeping at night. “So yes, I came out of this, but there are still things that are holding me back,” she said.
As for others, the process can be so cumbersome that they give up even before they’ve received a final decision from authorities. Hundreds of Syrian refugees have left Denmark simply to seek asylum in other EU countries.
Aida and her family left as soon as they received the decision from the immigration service, without waiting for the appeals board’s decision. “We thought it would be a waste of our time. If the authorities did not believe us the first time, why would they believe us the second time?” she said.
But when her family applied for asylum in another EU country, they were rejected and sent back to Denmark, where they will now have to start over from scratch in the asylum system there.
Undermining EU solidarity
Leaving aside the immense consequences this paradigm shift has had for individual refugees — as well as the risk of Denmark breaching international human rights obligations — it’s important to note that the country’s strong focus on revoking refugees’ residence permits is also unique among EU countries. And Danish asylum rules provide a significantly lower level of protection than in other EU member countries.
As such, the practice risks undermining EU solidarity when it comes to asylum; while also raising questions of effectiveness.
Of the approximately 100 Syrians who have received final revocation decisions, thus far none have actually been forcibly returned to Syria, as the Danish government lacks any diplomatic relationship with the country’s Assad government.
This means that apart from the fact that these forced returns are not being carried out, Denmark’s approach is also causing the onward movement of hundreds of former Syrian refugees to other countries in the bloc. This essentially shifts the responsibility from Denmark to its EU neighbors, where they cannot be forced to return home.
The good news is that as Denmark’s new trilateral government settles in, early signs indicate they may try to carve out some exceptions to the paradigm shift, as the new government agreement states that if a Syrian refugee is studying in an area where there is a shortage in the Danish economy, they will be able to retain their residence permit. However, Denmark still faces a pressing political question: whether this aggressive revocation practice will continue.