The Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration on 13 January faced an outcry by MEPs over attempts to revoke protection for Syrians and externalise asylum. Hundreds of Syrians fleeing Denmark are appearing in other EU member states, forcing courts to consider whether Denmark can be considered safe for return under the Dublin Regulation.

Given Denmark opt-outs of Justice and Home Affairs matters at EU level, the Nordic member state is not bound by minimum standards under the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and has increasingly gone rogue on asylum policies. Latest examples include the revoking of protection for Syrians and proposals to outsource protection and hosting of asylum seekers to third countries. Vaunted as a move towards “zero asylum seekers“, the Danish policy is based in total deterrence. On 13 January Danish immigration minister, Mattias Tesfaye, representing Denmark’s Social Democratic government, faced severe criticism from members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). The tone confronting the minister was set by Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld from the Renew Europe Group who asked: “how do you sleep at night?” and referenced the tale of the Emperor with no clothes, concluding that Denmark’s policies are a far cry from its rhetoric on respecting human rights. The only support the Minister received came from Peter Kofod of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and conservative Italian MEP Nicola Procaccini. Tineke Strik from the Greens defined Denmark’s position as: “deterrent refugee policies. Depriving Syrian refugees of protection, outsourcing asylum seekers to developing countries. Paying lip service to solidarity, but in essence aiming to circumvent any responsibility”. Several MEPs questioned Danish solidarity and Dublin cooperation, some demanded action from the European Commission to halt Danish policies.

Danish authorities consider the Assad regime-held Damascus and Greater Damascus (RIF) safe for return. This is contrary to the opinion of all international experts, institutions and bodies including the European Council, Parliament, and Commission; the European Asylum Support Office (EASO); the European External Action Service (EEAS); the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria; the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR; the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and documentation by leading INGOs). 11 out of 12 experts who contributed to the Danish immigration services’ Country of Origin (COI) reports have strongly condemned the decision to remove protection for Syrian refugees. Regardless, the government in 2019 demanded the cases of hundreds of Syrian nationals be reassessed.  Up to October 2021, 376 Syrians have had their protection revoked at first instance. The Refugee Appeals Board (second instance) has examined 258 cases of which it confirmed 99 cases. In May 2021, the foreign affairs minister reiterated that Denmark “stands with the international community, demanding implementation of UNSCR 2254”, the UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian crisis. Accordingly, the government has diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, precluding forced returns. Instead, the removal of status results in the loss of the right to work, all rights connected with a residence permit and the transfer to return centres. People may be moved to a centre in another part of the country and left in limbo for an indefinite period. The only other EU state revoking protection for Syrians is Hungary, which currently faces infringement procedures for its harsh migration policies. In a limited number of cases, Hungary has referenced the Danish policies in such decisions. Further, the UK Home Office – which is too facing ongoing criticism – recently rejected a Syrian’s protection need. Meanwhile, a German court delivered a landmark ruling on state-sponsored crimes against humanity in Syria. A high ranking Syrian officer was found guilty for the torture of more than 4,000 people, as well as 27 counts of murder, rape and sexual assault carried out at the Al-Khatib detention center near Damascus. The man, Anwar Raslan, was sentenced to life in prison.

Since Denmark first redrew or refused to extend residency permits for Syrian nationals in 2019, at least 421 have reportedly fled to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. In Germany, deportation cases are decided at regional level and while some have resulted in return, other courts have put Dublin transfers on hold as they ruled that Denmark can no longer be considered safe for return. In the Netherlands, around a dozen cases are pending before the country’s highest court. One Dutch court stopped Dublin transfers to Denmark until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) clarifies whether there could be a risk of “indirect refoulement”. In Belgium Syrians are appealing their return to Denmark and few have reportedly been de facto returned. The Dublin process in Belgium often exceeds the time limits laid out by the Regulation, preventing transfers. In Sweden, Syrians from Denmark have been ordered to return and chances of winning appeals are limited even for people with family in the country.

In June 2021, the Danish parliament passed amendments to the Danish Aliens Act that foresee the transfer of asylum seekers outside the EU and the externalisation of asylum procedures and refugee protection. “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” said Rasmus Stoklund from the governing Social Democratic Party. The plan – that has been met with an outcry from UNHCR, experts and NGOs – continues a legacy similar failed initiatives since the 1980s. An article in Forced Migration Review summarises criticism of the Danish initiative, describing: “a lack of clarity about legal standards; worries about increased incarceration, deportations and use of force; the lack of realism given multiple countries’ refusal to host such extraterritorial facilities; the risk of encouraging (rather than discouraging) the use of irregular smuggling networks; and the risk of undermining international solidarity and collaboration on protection”. The recent legal amendment has very limited practical consequences, given the modest chances of the government reaching any agreements with third countries. Yet, it: “actively draws on criticism of the current refugee regime to bolster its claims and feeds a perception that it is access to asylum in Europe, rather than States’ criminalisation and deterrence measures, that causes harm to migrants”. When Denmark claimed in 2021 that it was in dialogue with African countries on externalisation, governments quickly refuted the claims and “the African Union issued a strong condemnation of the Danish desire for externalisation to African territory”.

Denmark received just 1,500 asylum seekers in 2020, the lowest number in two decades. And after years of not contributing to UNHCR-coordinated resettlement, Denmark promised 200 places in 2020 which have not been fully implemented.

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Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.