Point of No Return? Recommendations for Asylum and Refugee Issues Between Denmark and Damascus 
April 26, 2021

Point of No Return? Recommendations for Asylum and Refugee Issues Between Denmark and Damascus 

April 26, 2021

Table of Contents

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Since late February 2021, issues surrounding Syrian refugee return and resettlement have come to the fore as a result of changes to asylum procedures for Syrian refugees in Denmark. The changes stem from a Danish governmental determination that Damascus is “safe” for refugee return, thus justifying the suspension of temporary protection status for some Damascene refugees — a first step toward eventual removal from Denmark. Pitched debate within Danish society and government has been bolstered by a public campaign lodged by rights, advocacy, and analysis organisations — including COAR — concerning the data which informed the Danish government’s decision-making process. COAR has joined other organisations in condemning the decision and criticising the misuse of our expert testimony in the processes that ultimately led to the denial of asylum for some groups of Syrians. This brief report is a response to the debate opened by these events. It assesses the claims made by Danish authorities, examines the asylum procedures employed in Denmark, and assesses the relationship between these processes and relevant local context in Syria.

In contrast with the Danish decision, this report concludes that no part of Syria is safe for return. Most notably, it finds that the recent Danish decisions concerning asylum procedures misconstrue the relationship between large-scale conflict in Syria and the security and protection conditions that relate to return. These recent developments fail to account for the increasingly localised and context-dependent nature of security risk that is a lasting and direct consequence of the protracted Syria crisis. Secondarily, the asylum procedures themselves are rife with blindspots that create undue risk for vulnerable groups in Syria, including women and children. Indeed, women are broadly disadvantaged by an international asylum framework that fails to recognise women’s protection concerns and which routinely affords women inferior or subordinate protected status. Ultimately, it is hoped that the debate provoked by events in Denmark will bring attention to the understudied security and protection concerns that Syrians contemplating return (or being forced to do so) face today and will continue to confront for the foreseeable future.


This report is based on primary and secondary research, as well as interviews and informal discussions with numerous practitioners, experts, and peer entities. Included in the analysis are qualitative data collected through semi-structured interviews with 25 Syrian Key Informants in two groups: those who recently fled Syria for neighbouring countries, and others who remain inside Syria. The interviews were wide-ranging and included questions pertaining to livelihoods, mobility, employment, security, conflict history, and other subjects. While every attempt has been made to secure a diverse sample of respondents, access limitations impeded efforts to employ a scientifically representative sample. All material cited in this report has been reviewed in its original language and, where necessary, translated by COAR.

Denmark’s Changing Asylum Procedures

In February 2019, the Danish Immigration Service and the NGO Danish Refugee Council (DRC) jointly published a Country of Origin Information (COI) report on the security situation in Government of Syria-controlled areas, touching implicitly on issues regarding return.[1] The report was based on a fact-finding mission conducted in Beirut and Damascus in November 2018, when a dozen interlocutors, subject-matter experts, and organisations — including COAR — were interviewed on subjects ranging from conflict-related security incidents and mobility, to the consequences of draft evasion and illegal exit and re-entry. The report concluded that the security situation, particularly in Damascus Governorate, “has improved significantly” since May 2018.

While the report refrained from making explicit policy recommendations, its overarching conclusion concerning the reduction in conflict-related violence in Syria echoed the prevailing political discourse in Denmark.[2] It set off a chain of events that would lead to the removal of asylum protections for some Syrians from Damascus. The Danish Refugee Appeals Board[3] — the counterpart of the Immigration Service in the asylum appeals system — subsequently[4] declared its support for the COI report’s findings.[5] At the same time, the Danish Immigration Service announced[6] a change in national protection practices,[7] and Minister of Immigration and Housing Inger Støjberg vowed that the cases of all Syrians who had received temporary protection status[8] on the basis of general security conditions in and around Damascus would be re-evaluated. In their totality, these changes meant that — for the first time since 2013 — Syrians were no longer guaranteed protection status in Denmark. In effect, the policy decisions were the first practical steps towards the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Syria.

Thereafter, in June 2019, a process was begun to reassess the status of hundreds[9] of Syrians who had been granted temporary protection status in Denmark. A test case came in the same month, when the Danish Immigration Service denied the extension of residency permits for six Syrians from Damascus, citing the improvement in general conditions there.[10] This decision was based in large part on the findings of the COI report.[11] Although the Danish Refugee Appeals Board subsequently overturned the ruling and granted asylum under another legal provision in all six cases, by the end of 2019, some Syrians were ultimately denied asylum at least in partial reference to the findings of the COI report.[12] Conditions for Syrians in Denmark became more tenuous when the Danish Refugee Appeals Board officially concluded that it no longer considered the general conditions in Damascus sufficient basis to warrant the issuance of new residence permits or the extension of existing permits.[13] According to the official website of the Danish government, these developments were prompted by the COI report prepared by the Danish Immigration Service and DRC.[14]

The COI Report’s Impact

More than two years after its release, the report has come under scrutiny anew. The Danish Refugee Appeals Board has since ratified[15] a February 2021 decision by the Danish Immigration Service to extend to Rural Damascus Governorate the previous declaration that Damacsus itself is “safe” for return. The decision sets forth that security conditions in and around Damascus have improved to the degree that there were no longer sufficient grounds for concluding that individuals will be at risk according to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights solely because of their presence in these areas.[16] As a result, between January and April 2021, 210[17] Syrians living in Denmark have had their residence permits revoked. Many more are expected to face the same fate. This is in addition to the 170[18] Syrians whose requests for residence permit extension were rejected in 2020 alone.[19]

Despite losing protection status in Denmark, Syrians cannot be repatriated to Syria involuntarily. Denmark remains unwilling to restore diplomatic ties with the Government of Syria, and the principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition on forced returns remain pertinent. Nonetheless, the initiatives that have come to be known in Denmark as “The Damascus Project”[20] will force Syrians to confront a daunting dilemma. The developments require that affected Syrians abandon homes, employment, and studies in Denmark as they choose between two disconcerting options. The first is ostensibly voluntary return to Syria. The second is the uncertainty of relocation to Danish “exit camps”. These camps are former prisons that have been transformed into deportation centers. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture recently described one such centre as “one of the worst of its kind in Europe”.[21] Penitentiary-like conditions[22] in the centres include poor sanitary conditions; punishment for telephone use; inability to prepare one’s own meals; limited access to outdoor exercise; and the use of forced restraint, conditions which have been criticised[23] by human rights groups and international media alike.[24]

Those who do return to Syria voluntarily will be eligible for a repatriation support scheme[25] through which they will receive a set cash payment[26] from the Danish state in order to “go home and re-establish themselves in their country”.[27] Few Syrians have willingly returned to Syria from Denmark or anywhere. In 2019 and 2020, 237 Syrians left Denmark with support through the repatriation scheme, yet there is no evidence or systematic follow-up to determine whether they actually returned to Syria.[28] In fact, few Syrians have returned to the country, even from deeply unstable neighbouring states. For instance, UNHCR reports that in 2020 9,351 Syrians returned from Lebanon voluntarily. In the first three months of 2021, a mere 762 are reported to have done so despite the extreme privations brought on by Lebanon’s economic upheaval. Measures to repatriate Syrians means their re-establishment in a country that Social Democratic Party[29] spokesperson for foreign affairs Rasmus Stoklund described[30] as one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Stoklund’s characterisation came when justifying Denmark’s unwillingness to dispatch Danish civil servants to Syria to assist in the return of 19 Danish children languishing in al-Hol and al-Roj camps in Syria’s northeast, arguably the most stable region of the country.

Denmark’s Response

On several occasions, DRC has disavowed the conclusions of the COI report, arguing that an improvement in security conditions in and around Damascus does not in itself equate to safe conditions for the return of Syrian refugees.[31] In a recent press release,[32] DRC Secretary General Charlotte Slente stated that the view of Danish authorities appears incomprehensible when compared with up-to-date reports on conditions in Syria. According to DRC, it is both premature and unsafe to encourage Syrian refugees to return to Syria, including Damascus. These criticisms were echoed in a joint statement signed among others, by COAR, on 19 April 2021.[33] In response, current Minister of Immigration and Housing Mathias Tesfaye has remained unwilling to engage with criticisms of the report, and he maintained his confidence in the ability of Danish authorities to evaluate security conditions in Syria.[34] Both Danish Immigration Service and the Danish Refugee Appeals Board have stated that they asked sources to verify inputs and they stand by the conclusions drawn from their interviews and research.[35]

Evolving Risks in Syria

The Danish Immigration Service’s decision to declare Damascus safe for return focused on the slowdown in conflict-related security incidents, emphasising the reduction in armed clashes and checkpoints in and around Damascus.[36] Decreasing numbers of civilian casualties and their concentration within certain regions of the country also factored in the determination. However, these conclusions offer an incomplete picture of Syria as it is.[37] They elide the fact that the Syria conflict continues to evolve, and so too do the types of risks that Syrians face on the ground. Some — but not all — of the risks relate to protection and security concerns that exist on a highly localised basis; these are the lingering and direct consequences of a violent conflict that has ebbed without a sustained resolution. Arguably, better understanding these risks is the fundamental question that should inform security-oriented debate on whether Syria is safe.

In some respects, the shift toward localised conflict dynamics is not specific to Syria. Rather, it is a characteristic of protracted crises and modern conflict writ large. While the nature (and novelty) of the so-called new wars is debated, it is clear that conventional security frameworks that emphasise the military-political dimensions of conflict fall short when addressing the specific concerns that define the risk landscape of geographies akin to today’s Syria. The risks facing Syrians in Government-controlled areas are likely more complex, granular, and acute than ever. Regrettably, the media, academic, and governmental focus on large-scale conflict-related violence in Syria that was justified in earlier stages of the crisis has now become an impediment to a recognition of the context-dependent risks that have always existed. Not only are these risks less visible to outside observers, they are also poorly understood, as access restrictions make documentation and assessment more challenging and more dangerous.

Put simply, it is wrong, analytically, to equate a reduction in conflict-related violence in Syria with a return to normalcy or conditions suitable for return. Sustained and systematic human rights abuses under the Government of Syria are among the most pervasive and well-documented in history.[38] Government-controlled areas of Syria, including Damascus, continue to witnesses varying levels of targeted assasinations, arbitrary arrests, torture, and harrasment. A broad range of legal and procedural impediments effectively prohibit even apolitical forms of dissent, including agitation on fundamental issues such as LGBTQ+ and labour rights. It is therefore not surprising that KIIs interviewed by COAR cite security — namely, the fear of targeted assassination and arbitrary detention — as the top concerns motivating recent or intended flight from Syria. Arrests continue to occur across all demographics, to include refugees returning from abroad.[39] These concerns are particularly acute for Syrians who have left the country illegally. All KIIs interviewed by COAR expressed the importance of obtaining security clearances from Government intelligence agencies — typically by bribing[40] an intermediary or “wasta” — before leaving Syria, a process that otherwise requires extensive, functionally unobtainable Government approvals. IDPs returning from other regions within Syria and Syrians who have undergone the process of forced capitulation that is known euphemistically as “reconciliation” also continue to face the risk of arrest.

Reconciliation without Reprieve

Reconciliation is perhaps the most wide-reaching tool used by the Government of Syria to bring into being what Bashar al-Assad has described as a “healthier and more homogeneous society in the true sense”, and it remains a fundamental aspect of vulnerability today.[41] From 2016 to 2018, and sporadically since then, the Government of Syria has re-asserted military dominance over opposition-held areas through a process entailing protracted besiegement and resource denial. This process has inevitably concluded with a community’s surrender and the large-scale forced displacement of local populations to northwest Syria. Through reconciliation, Syrian Government authorities have systematically reshaped community demographics and dismantled structures associated with the political or armed opposition. This process has forcibly displaced individuals linked to virtually any donor-funded activity that is seen as directly or indirectly undermining the supremacy of the state, including aid work, journalism, local councils, and civil society organisations (see: What Remains?: A Postmortem Analysis of the Cross-Border Response in Dar’a). Suspicion concerning participation in such activities persists, as do associated risks.[42]

Implicitly, reconciliation has served as the primary mechanism intended to reintroduce Government of Syria authority over formerly opposition-held communities and populations. However, neither reconciliation agreements nor the various amnesties put forth by the Government of Syria for military service evasion or illegal flight, guarantee safety. This raises doubt whether any mechanism or process currently in place allows Syrians to meaningfully guarantee their personal safety and protection status in areas where the state security apparatus holds sway. The Government of Syria and its ally Russia, which served as guarantor of some reconciliation deals, have repeatedly failed to uphold the agreements’ terms, including the release of detainees, restoration of state services, and improved mobility.[43] A January 2021 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the continued persecution and detention in Damascus of individuals on a seemingly arbitrary basis, adding to a substantial body of evidence indicating that guarantees are not honoured at the regional, local, or individual level.[44] Repeatedly, KIIs interviewed by COAR describe such promises as “meaningless”.

The absence of open conflict and the decrease in security incidents in Damascus does not mean that Syria — or any portion of the country — is safe for return. Past criticism of the Syrian state, unauthorised flight from the country, and involvement with the political or armed opposition are all factors which expose Syrians to the threat of persecution, harassment, and violence. In the case of Syria, a more relevant indicator will be to ask: At what point will Syria be safe for those who have resisted the continuing rule of Bashar al-Assad?

Women and Children First?

Moving beyond a state-centred approach allows for a fuller recognition of who will be affected by actions like the immigration procedures set in motion in part by the COI report. In this case, it is especially worrying that the decisions will disproportionately affect women and children. The reasons for this impact are symptomatic of the outmoded norms that inform asylum processes more generally. Historically, violence against women has been treated as a matter relevant for private rather than public life. It is therefore not surprising that absent deeper analytic engagement, the gendered impacts of current refugee policies frequently go unnoticed.[45] Women and men often experience contrasting drivers of displacement, they pursue different mobility strategies, and the obstacles and opportunities they encounter while living outside their countries of origin differ widely.[46] For instance, in conflict settings, as during other times, it is typically men who are active in politics, are imprisoned or tortured, or face vulnerability as a result of conflict with other social groups.[47] It is generally men who enlist or are forced into military service with national forces and rebel movements, and men are often more active and publicly involved in religious, media, and employment spheres — all areas which are more visible to outside observers.

Women are less likely to play visible roles in political opposition movements, and as a result, their fears of persecution are often deemed inadequate or unfounded according to the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, the major international convention that regulates the protection of refugees.[48] Research has shown that women’s asylum claims are often dismissed as being unsubstantiated by a personalised history of political persecution.[49] Additionally, women remain underrepresented among those seeking asylum in industrialised countries.[50] Despite the momentum growing behind inittiaives such as “feminist foreign policy” and the mainstreaming of gender, asylum systems continue to discount violence against women. For example, in Germany, asylum claims have been refused on the ground that rape is normalised in war zones, and therefore is not considered a form of targeted persecution.[51] Similar determinations have arisen in the UK.[52]

Impacts for Women and Children

The majority[53] of those who have received temporary protection status in Denmark under Article 7(3) of the Danish Aliens Consolidation Act are women, children, unaccompanied minors, and men above the age of 43. According to the most recent available[54] figures, for claims made in 2019, women account for roughly three-quarters[55] of those who receive temporary protection status in Denmark.[56] As protection status granted under Article 7(3) specifically relates to the general conditions in Syria, it also constitutes the form of protection that is most easily revoked. As a result, women and children are heavily represented among the Syrian refugees whose status in Denmark is most tenuous. In some cases, Syrian women are granted temporary protection status even when their male partners or other family members receive more robust guarantees under the Refugee Convention. This creates fault lines within families and increases the likelihood of split return. It may also pressure women to return to an area where their fathers, husbands, or brothers may still be wanted by the Syrian authorities, and where they will be vulnerable to new types of protection risks as a result.

One Size Fits All (Men)

Broadly speaking, women’s vulnerabilities are often overlooked or treated as irrelevant to their asylum status.[57] Evidence of this is seen in the fact that the Danish COI report mentions the word “women” only twice. In substantive terms, it also fails to address gender-specific protection risks. This oversight is especially notable because Denmark has placed strong emphasis on gender mainstreaming, while issues surrounding gender equity have been a mainstay of wider debate on the integration of foreign-born persons in Denmark. Additionally, Denmark has signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, and the Danish population at-large generally espouses concerns over gender equality and gender awareness. A version of the COI report updated in 2020 references “women” 36 times. However, the treatment of gender remains superficial, and almost all of these mentions are made in reference to two dynamics: women’s preferential treatment at checkpoints and instances of women being detained as leverage against male relatives wanted by authorities.[58]

This is not to argue that women are at comparatively greater risk upon return to Syria than men. Rather, it is important to recognise because the failure to address gender-specific protection risks is indicative of a shortcoming that pervades the international asylum system and legal frameworks more broadly. The refugee as perceived by the Refugee Convention was an individual persecuted by a totalitarian regime because of his or her political views or activism. The persistence of this limited framework has important implications, and it creates gaps in the legal protections afforded to women. Factors such as these must be accounted for. Regrettably, current norms mean that the specific vulnerabilities experienced by women are often rendered invisible or irrelevant.

ltimately, gender-based violence and associated protection and security risks in Syria are important, multifaceted issues that demand a holistic, multi-sectoral response. However, they remain subjects on which research is scarce. They are also under-addressed in implementation, as they require an aid response that not only delivers services and carries out activities, but which also addresses legal, economic, and social protections for women that are extremely difficult to sustain in the current environment in Syria (see: The Business of Empowering Women: Insights for Development Programming in Syria).

The Protection of Children

Impacts for children are also inadequately addressed in the Danish process. Based on the most recent figures from 2019, roughly 45 percent of those who received temporary protection status according to Article 7(3) are under the age of 17. While data detailing the demographics of Syrians who have lost their residence permit since 2020 is scarce, it is known that children constitute a large portion of those who have had or are at risk of having their residence permit revoked. According to media sources, 70 Syrian children received a formal rejection notice[59] from the Danish Immigration Service in response to applications for the renewal of their residence permit between 2020 and mid-April 2021.[60] Some of those who were minors when they were initially granted temporary protection have now spoken publicly about their status.[61] The punitive measures that will be applied by the Danish authorities show no sign of differential treatment; children who refuse – or whose parents refuse – to repatriate after having their grounds for protection discredited will spend their remaining time in Denmark in “exit camps”. According to a report[62] by Danish Red Cross, as many as 61 percent of children who reside in one of the Danish detention centers are likely to meet the criteria for a mental illness, while 50 percent of the 11- to 17-year-olds experience PTSD. When comparing them to newly arrived refugee children, the psychologist behind the report estimates that children who live in this detention center have double the risk of developing a mental disorder.

The large majority of the children who have received temporary protection status after 2015 have attended Danish schools for the past six years. Those who lose status will be forced to resume their education at a detention center, while others[63] will be prevented from completing their education altogether. While residence in the Danish detention centres is purposefully uninviting, conditions inside Syria are far worse, including for education. A majority of the KIIs interviewed by COAR cite serious concerns for the future of their children in Syria as a push factor. At present, it is estimated[64] that more than one third school-aged Syrian children do not attend school, a number that has likely increased due to the impact of COVID-19, which has significantly disrupted education in Syria.[65] Already, one in three schools inside Syria is non-functional due to conflict-related damage, destruction, or requisition for military purposes. Children who do attend school often do so under acutely poor conditions;[66] OCHA estimates that 94 percent of children in Aleppo, Idleb, and Rural Damascus reside in areas with “challenging, extreme or catastrophic educational conditions”.[67]

While some of the appeals made by Syrian children have yet to be processed by the Danish Refugee Appeals Board, the process raises significant concerns over children’s legal footing within the asylum framework more generally. One of the ways in which a rejection by the Danish Immigration Service can be overturned is if the child in question can document that he or she is at risk of individual persecution in Syria. However, producing evidence to support such a claim can be functionally impossible for children, especially for those who have lived in protracted displacement for long periods of time. This is a perverse dilemma, given that an absence of documentary or other evidence may itself be a direct consequence of the circumstances that give rise to the need for protection in the first instance.[68] According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, most displaced Syrians lack the necessary civil documentation to return and reintegrate within their respective communities.[69] Possession of civil documentation, such as national identification documents, family booklets, passports, birth certificates, and marriage certificates, is essential to access basic government services such as healthcare and education.[70] However, gaining such documentation outside Syria is both costly and challenging, especially for women and children whose family members have died or have been detained.[71] Such documentation is also directly linked to the Syrian Government’s security apparatus; a lack of documentation can create a heightened risk of arrest or detention.

These risks are on top of continuing security concerns in Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the death of 36 children in Syria in January, including six who were killed by Syrian Government forces.[72] According to the same report, children are also at risk of arbitrary arrests by Government forces. Moreover, according to a report[73] by the European Institute of Peace, there is precedent for family members not being permitted to return as a group, with permissions given to some family members and not others. In some cases, individuals who were forcibly evacuated during so-called reconciliations report being asked to disavow family members as a condition for return.[74]

Conclusion and Recommendations

The international community remains fixated on Syrian refugee return. Regrettably, refugees have too often been treated as a wedge in international and domestic political posturing. Recent initiatives such as the Russian-sponsored returns conference in Damascus add to the politicisation of refugees as long-practised to significant effect by regional host states Lebanon and Turkey (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020). Despite the outsize attention paid to refugee issues, seldom have sustained, voluntary, large-scale returns taken place, and few if any indicators suggest that such returns will occur for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, crisis dynamics, including lingering security and protection concerns, in addition to Syria’s economic collapse and widening service gaps, suggest that further displacement of Syrians — internally as IDPs and abroad, as refugees — is all too likely. The growing pressures for refugee flight from Syria are both little-recognised and disconcertingly strong. It is hoped that this report can contribute to broader undertakings to correct the record concerning refugee return and refocus attention on the possibility that refugee outflows from Syria remain distinctly possible.

Further considerations regarding asylum procedures and Syrian refugee return are offered below.

Do No Harm

Among analysts and practitioners focusing on Syria, the Danish government’s decisions concerning Syrian asylum-seekers have prompted debate about the politicisation and instrumentalisation of analysis and reporting. This is an important lesson for analysts and researchers to carry forward in future work and in other contexts. It is equally vital that institutional donors, governments, and aid practitioners remain mindful of the potential political and reputational risks created by their approaches to contexts such as Syria. Syrian state media have seized on the events in Denmark to promote the Government of Syria’s own false narrative concerning refugee return. Citing a publicity campaign in Copenhagen, the Syrian Arab New Agency noted that Danish positioning on Syrian refugees “confirms the fact that Syria became safe after most of its territories have been liberated from terrorism.”[75] Throughout the conflict, the Syrian Government has endeavoured to craft a more favourable public image by distorting minority opinion, political debate, and procedural events abroad, particularly in the West. Seldom have the Government of Syria’s spin doctors been offered such rich material for their propagandising.

The ‘Economic Migrant’ Myth

In Denmark, as in other countries where asylum and immigration concerns have become matters of pitched political and social debate, developments like Syria’s ongoing economic collapse have bolstered claims that economic concerns — not security and protection issues — are the motivating factor behind immigration. Whilst deteriorating socioeconomic conditions undoubtedly do contribute to decision-making regarding displacement, KIIs interviewed by COAR indicate unambiguously that security concerns remain the primary reason for leaving the country. Of 25 research participants, all cited security and protection concerns as the primary motivating factor in recent or intended displacement.

Some Syrians Are Too Poor to Leave

Many Syrians are simply too poor to displace, irrespective of the justified protection concerns they must confront. The high cost of bribes and transit needed to flee the country means that the Syrians who have remained in the country are likely disproportionately among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Future Displacement Is Probable

Security and protection concerns have a two-fold significance in the context of displacement in Syria. Concerns related to detention, arrest, military conscription, and other factors have routinely been identified as primary push factors driving Syrians to displace as refugees. They also remain barriers to return.[76] Therefore, the needs of current and future refugees must, to some extent, be addressed by targeting the same root causes.

Beware Bad Precedent

Bad asylum decisions create bad precedent. Denmark is the first EU member state to rule that law-abiding refugees can be sent back to Syria. Pressures elsewhere are growing, however. In December, Germany’s ban on deportation to Syria was allowed to expire, although basic protections against deportation remain in place except for Syrian nationals who have committed criminal offences or who are deemed a serious risk to public security.[77] More recently, Austrian officials have stated that they are following the progress of asylum procedures in Denmark as a potential guide for actions in Austria.[78] Waning social and political support for refugees creates a risk that other states will follow suit. Such developments may embolden regional host states to exert greater pressure concerning their own refugee populations. Actions in Western Europe may reverberate throughout the European neighbourhood.

Cracks in the Refugee Convention

The events in Denmark can erode global refugee protections even if no asylum-seeker is ever repatriated to Syria. Subversion of the Refugee Convention in the current case reveals the fragility of the underlying asylum framework, and it shows the worrying degree to which the system is susceptible to politically motivated interpretation. The shortcomings concerning vulnerability criteria for women and children in particular are emblematic of the blindspots that pervade the global asylum system, which is already at risk of being rendered meaningless in the context of the evolving norms of modern conflict.

Does Europe Trust Damascus?

The displacement of Syrians today is essentially linked to the conflict itself, which is in turn a product of misrule by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since the onset of the popular uprising in 2011, Western governments have expended considerable effort and resources supporting alternate civil society, governance, administrative, and service systems to those offered by the Government of Syria, based on the reasonable expectation that al-Assad would be forced to accede to popular demands and surrender power. Many of the same foreign governments still maintain that al-Assad’s rule is the fundamental impediment preventing them from engaging in economic and political normalisation to return Syria to the wider community of nations. Al-Assad’s persistence in office will be a paramount challenge for the Syria response and the international community for the foreseeable future. Syrians themselves will also contend with thorny considerations over al-Assad’s staying power. Those who feel justified fears over protection and security risks are unlikely to place confidence in the guarantees of safety made by the Government of Syria, so long as the international community itself remains equally unwilling to engage Damascus. Refugee host governments should not ask refugees to make leaps of faith which they themselves refuse to undertake.

[1] DIS and DRC, “SYRIA, Security Situation in Damascus Province and Issues Regarding Return to Syria, the Danish Immigration Service, February 2019: https://nyidanmark.dk/-/media/Files/US/Landerapporter/Syrien_FFM_rapport_2019_Final_31012019.pdf?la=da&hash=1D3D1379FE87D3D296B05659F0447C25B0410736

[2] Ministry of Immigration and Integration, February 2019: https://uim.dk/nyheder/2019/2019-02/flygtningenaevnets-koordinationsudvalg-har-i-dag-tilkendegivet-at-de-generelle-forhold-i-syrien-er-aendrede.

[3] In relation to asylum, the Danish appeals system is two-tiered. The Immigration Service is first responsible for assessing a claim for asylum. If an asylum application is rejected, for the most part, the case is automatically referred to the Refugee Appeals Board. Decisions made by the Refugee Appeals Board are final.

[4] In February 2019.

[5] “Changing Conditions in Syria,” Danish Refugee Appeals Board, 27 February 2019: https://fln.dk/da/Nyheder/Nyhedsarkiv/2019/27022019.

[6] In February 2019.

[7] “The Danish Immigration Service is Changing Its Practice in Cases Concerning the General Conditions in Syria,” Danish Immigration Service, 27 February 2019:  https://nyidanmark.dk/da/Nyheder/2019/02/Udl%C3%A6ndingestyrelsen-%C3%A6ndrer-praksis-i-sager-vedr%C3%B8rende-de-generelle-forhold-i-Syrien.

[8] In 2015, the Danish government passed a law on temporary protection status according to the Danish Aliens Consolidation Act Article 7(3) in response to an increase of Syrian asylum seekers in Denmark. The purpose of this form of protection was “to ensure that foreigners whose protection needs are temporary, can be sent back to their country of origin as soon as conditions in the country of origin allow it”.  In 2019, the focus on temporality expanded to two other forms of protection status – namely Article 7(1) and Article 7(2) – with the so-called ‘paradigm shift’ in Danish politics that introduced new immigration laws replacing policy objectives from integration to repatriation at the earliest possibility.

[9] Approximately 4,700 Syrians received temporary protection status in Denmark between 2015 and 2019 based on the general conditions in Syria according to the Danish Aliens Consolidation Act Article 7(3), which was widely used in the case of Syrian refugees.

[10] “Supplementary Written Observations in Application No. 6697/18,” The Danish Institute for Human Rights, 17 January 2020: https://menneskeret.dk/sites/menneskeret.dk/files/media/dokumenter/nyheder/indlaeg_fra_instituttet_2020.pdf; Ulrik Dahlin and Lasse Skou Andersen, “The First Syrians Have Now Been Refused a Residence Permit,” Information, 4 May 2019: https://www.information.dk/indland/2019/05/foerste-syrere-faaet-nej-faa-forlaenget-opholdstilladelse.

[11]  “Supplementary Written Observations in Application No. 6697/18,” The Danish Institute for Human Rights, 17 January 2020: https://menneskeret.dk/sites/menneskeret.dk/files/media/dokumenter/nyheder/indlaeg_fra_instituttet_2020.pdf.

[12] “Status Regarding Trial Cases of Persons from Syria,” The Refugee Appeals Board, 27 June 2019:  https://fln.dk/da/Nyheder/Nyhedsarkiv/2019/27062019; “The Refugee Appeals Board Ratifies Rejection of Asylum to Syrian Citizens,” The Refugee Appeals Board, 17 December 2019 https://fln.dk/da/Nyheder/Nyhedsarkiv/2019/17-12-2019

[13] In Denmark, residence permits for refugees are initially granted for one year. Upon expiration, the grounds for protection are reconsidered. If the refugee is still in need of protection, the residence permit can be renewed for another two years.

[14] “The Government Is Launching a Reassessment of Syrian Refugees’ Need for Protection,” The Official Website of the Danish Government, 28 June 2020: https://www.regeringen.dk/nyheder/2020/regeringen-saetter-gang-i-genvurdering-af-syriske-flygtninges-behov-for-beskyttelse/.

[15] “The Refugee Appeals Board Upholds Decisions Regarding Syrian Citizens from the Rural Damascus Area,” Danish Refugee Appeals Board, 18 February 2021: https://fln.dk/da/Nyheder/Nyhedsarkiv/2021/18022021.

[16] European Convention on Human Rights. Article (3): “Prohibition of torture: No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. For full text, see:


[17]  This figures includes Syrians who have obtained Danish residence permits through individual asylum claims as well as family reunification to Syrian refugees in Denmark. “Figures in the Area of Foreigners,” The Danish Immigration Service, 31 March 2021:  https://www.nyidanmark.dk/-/media/Files/US/Tal-og-statistik/seneste_tal_udlaendingeeomraadet_2.pdf?la=da&hash=4D7E61A285602278332D8E74C754007FAA2FCFE0.

[18] “Figures in the Area of Foreigners,” The Danish Immigration Service, 31 March 2021: https://www.nyidanmark.dk/da/Tal-og-statistik/Seneste-tal-p%C3%A5-udl%C3%A6ndingeomr%C3%A5det.

[19] “Denmark Must Not Send Refugees Back to Syria, as Conditions Are Now,” DRC, 17 February 2021: https://drc.ngo/da/om-os/presse/pressemeddelelser/2021/2/danmark-skal-ikke-sende-flygtninge-tilbage-til-syrien-som-forholdene-er-nu/.

[20] The majority of those affected by the “Damascus Project” are those who have received temporary protection status in Denmark based on the general conditions in Syria according to the Danish Aliens Consolidation Act Article 7(3)  after 2015.

[21] “Report to the Danish Government on the Visit to Denmark Carried out by the European Committee fo the Prevention of Torture adn Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” Council of Europe, 2019: https://rm.coe.int/1680996859.

[22] “Denmark,” Global Detention Watch, no date:  https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/denmark.

[23] “Reimagining Refugee Rights,” State Watch, no date: https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/news/2019/mar/uk-dk-se-reimagining-refugee-rights-asylum-harms-3-19.pdf.

[24]See for example: “Social Death in Denmark,” The Nation, 20 January 2019: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/denmark-refugees-asylum-europe/ or “Uacceptable for people: Danish Asylum Centre Slammed in Anti-torture Report,” The Local, 7 January  2020 https://www.thelocal.dk/20200107/danish-asylum-centres-slammed-in-anti-torture-committee-report/

[25] In 2019, 100 Syrians returned to Syria with support from the Danish government’s repatriation law.

[26] “What Support Can You Get?” Ministry of Immigration and Integration, 18 February 2020: https://uim.dk/arbejdsomrader/repatriering/hvilken-stotte-kan-man-fa.

[27] “The Government Is Launching a Reassessment of Syrian Refugees’ Need for Protection,” The Official Website of the Danish Government, 28 June 2020: https://www.regeringen.dk/nyheder/2020/regeringen-saetter-gang-i-genvurdering-af-syriske-flygtninges-behov-for-beskyttelse/.

[28] 237 Syrians departed from Denmark in 2019 and 2020 with support from the Danish repatriation scheme. While these Syrians were said to have returned to Syria, there is no evidence to support their repatriation to Syria. In fact, on 8 April on the Danish debate programme “Debatten”, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party Rasmus Stoklund conceded that Syrians who have departed from Denmark “could have gone anywhere”. See: “Debatten: Should the children return from Syria?” Debatten, 8 April 2021: https://www.dr.dk/drtv/episode/debatten_-boernene-hjem-fra-syrien_242933.

[29] Denmark is currently governed by a left-wing coalition led by the Social Democractic Party.

[30] “Debatten: Should the Children Return from Syria?” Debatten, 8 April 2021: https://www.dr.dk/drtv/episode/debatten_-boernene-hjem-fra-syrien_242933.

[31] “Danish Refugee Council: There Is by No Means ‘Peace and Quiet’ in Syria,” Altinget, 27 March 2019: https://www.altinget.dk/udvikling/artikel/dansk-flygtningehjaelp-vi-kan-ikke-sende-syriske-flygtninge-hjem.

[32]  “Denmark Must Not Send Refugees Back to Syria, as Conditions Are Now,” DRC, 17 February 2021: https://drc.ngo/da/om-os/presse/pressemeddelelser/2021/2/danmark-skal-ikke-sende-flygtninge-tilbage-til-syrien-som-forholdene-er-nu/.

[33] “Denmark: Flawed Country of Origin Reports Lead to Flawed Refugee Policies,” HRW, 19 April 2021: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/19/denmark-flawed-country-oraigin-reports-lead-flawed-refugee-policies.

[34] “Criticism of Syria Report Bounces off on Tesfaye: – Not my Job to Interfere,” TV2, 20 April 2021: https://nyheder.tv2.dk/politik/2021-04-20-kritik-af-syrien-rapport-preller-af-paa-tesfaye-ikke-min-opgave-at-blande-mig.

[35] “Refugee Board Chairman District Judge Henrik Bloch Andersen Comments on Press Coverage of Syria Cases,” Danish Refugee Appeals Board, 2021: https://fln.dk/da/Nyheder/Nyhedsarkiv/2021/20042021.

[36] Emil Høj and Ulrik Dahlin, “UN: The Security Situation In Syria Not Good Enough To Send Syrian Refugees Back”, Information, 16 March 2021 https://www.information.dk/indland/2021/03/fn-sikkerheden-damaskus-god-nok-sende-flygtninge-tilbage

[37] Hani Mowafi and Jennifer Leaning, “Documenting Deaths in the Syrian War,” The Lancet (6 December 2017): https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(17)30457-6/fulltext; “Statistics of 2020,” SNHR (no date): https://sn4hr.org/blog/category/charts/statistics-of-2020/.

[38] “Former Prosecutor: More Evidence of War Crimes against Syrian President Assad Than There Was against Nazis,” CBS News, 18 February 2021: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bashar-al-assad-syria-60-minutes-2021-02-18/.

[39] According to media sources, between January 2019 and October 2020, 237 returnees were arrested by the Syrian government upon return. Reportedly many of these returnees later disappeared, while others were tortured to death in detention centers.

[40] One KII noted that smugglers coordinate with intelligence agencies to give them clearances and  let them pass through checkpoints in exchange for bribes.

[41] Ben Hubbard, “Syrian War Drags On, but Assad’s Future Looks as Secure as Ever,” New York Times 25 September 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/world/middleeast/syria-assad-war.html.

[42] Worryingly, reconciliation has often empowered former opposition commanders as local proxies who operate with relative autonomy under the aegis provided by nominal loyalty to the Government of Syria. As a result, economic predation, physical security risks, and concerns over vendettas remain.

[43] Jasmine el-Gamal, “The Displacement Dilemma: Should Europe Help Syrian Refugees Return Home?” ECFR, March 2019: https://ecfr.eu/archive/page/-/the_displacement_dilemma_should_europe_help_syrian_refugees_return_home.pdf.

[44] “The Most Notable Human rights Violations in Syria in January 2021,” SNHR 4 February 2021: https://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Most_Notable_Human_Rights_Violations_in_Syria_in_January_2021_en.pdf.

[45] Fonseca et al., Introduction: A Gender-Sensitive Approach to Migration Dynamics, 2018.

[46] Fonseca et al., Introduction: A Gender-Sensitive Approach to Migration Dynamics, 2018.

[47] “The Danish Asylum and Integration Systems Discriminate against Women from Start to Finish,” refugees.dk 18 December 2020: http://refugees.dk/en/focus/2020/december/the-danish-asylum-and-integration-systems-discriminate-against-women-from-start-to-finish/.

[48] Fonseca et al., Introduction: A Gender-Sensitive Approach to Migration Dynamics, 2018.

[49] Jane Freedman, Mainstreaming Gender in Refugee Protection, 2010: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233191017_Mainstreaming_gender_in_refugee_protection.

[50] Statistics that are available show that in Europe, for example, women make up only about one-third of the total asylum claimants (Freedman 2010)

[51] Jane Freedman, Mainstreaming Gender in Refugee Protection, 2010: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233191017_Mainstreaming_gender_in_refugee_protection.

[52] Fonseca et al., Introduction: A Gender-Sensitive Approach to Migration Dynamics, 2018.

[53] http://refugees.dk/en/facts/legislation-and-definitions/more-about-art-7-3-temporary-protection-status/

[54] For a statistical overview of previous years, please see the Danish Immigration Service website: https://www.nyidanmark.dk/da/Tal-og-statistik/Tal-og-fakta.

[55] Please see report with statistical overview for 2019 on the Danish Immigration Service website, p. 10: https://www.nyidanmark.dk/da/Tal-og-statistik/Tal-og-fakta.

[56] Figures from 2017 and 2018 show a similar imbalance between men and women in terms of the types of protection status they receive. Data on gender dispersal from previous years are not available on the Danish Immigration Service website.

[57] Jane Freedman, Gendering the International Asylum and Refugee Debate, 2nd ed. 2018.

[58] DIS, “SYRIA, Military Service,” May 2020: https://nyidanmark.dk/-/media/Files/US/Landerapporter/Syrien_FFM_rapport_2019_Final_31012019.pdf?la=da&hash=1D3D1379FE87D3D296B05659F0447C25B0410736

[59] These cases will now be processed by the Refugee Appeals Board.

[60] Emil Hoj and Ulrik Dahlin, “Syrian Refugee Children Can Look Forward to Returning Home or Mentally Stressful Conditions at the Exit Centre,” Information, 20 April 2021:


[61] The story of the 19-year old Aya Abu-Daher received significant media attention after the renewal of her residence permit was denied only three months before her gradation from Danish highschool: Aljazeera, 12 April 2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/12/danish-plan-to-repatriate-syrian-refugees-sparks-controversy

[62] https://www.rodekors.dk/sites/rodekors.dk/files/2019-04/2019.03_Sj%C3%A6lsmark_V09_Final_1.pdf

[63] Typically those who have turned 18 during their residence in Denmark.

[64] “No Lost Generation Advocacy Brief,” June 2020: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/no-lost-generation-2020-advocacy-brief.pdf.

[65] “The Most Notable Human rights Violations in Syria in January 2021,” SNHR 4 February 2021: https://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Most_Notable_Human_Rights_Violations_in_Syria_in_January_2021_en.pdf, p. 7.

[66] “The Most Notable Human rights Violations in Syria in January 2021,” SNHR 4 February 2021: https://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Most_Notable_Human_Rights_Violations_in_Syria_in_January_2021_en.pdf.

[67] Emil Hoj and Ulrik Dahlin, “Syrian Refugee Children Can Look Forward to Returning Home or Mentally Stressful Conditions at the Exit Centre,” Information, 20 April 2021:


[68] “Beyond Proof: Credibility Assessment in EU Asylum Systems,” UNHCR, May 2013: https://www.unhcr.org/51a8a08a9.pdf.

[69] “The Darkest Decade: What Displaced Syrians Face if the World continues to Fail Them,” NRC, March 2021: https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/2021-darkest-decade/darkest-decade/the-darkest-decade.pdf, p. 7.

[70] Ibid.

[71] “Refugee Return in Syria: Dangers, Security Risks and Information Scarcity,” European Institute of Peace, July 2019: https://www.eip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/EIP-Report-Security-and-Refugee-Return-in-Syria-July.pdf, p. 36.

[72]“The Most Notable Human rights Violations in Syria in January 2021,” SNHR 4 February 2021: https://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Most_Notable_Human_Rights_Violations_in_Syria_in_January_2021_en.pdf, p. 15.

[73] “Refugee Return in Syria: Dangers, Security Risks and Information Scarcity,” European Institute of Peace, July 2019: https://www.eip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/EIP-Report-Security-and-Refugee-Return-in-Syria-July.pdf.

[74]“Refugee Return in Syria: Dangers, Security Risks and Information Scarcity,” European Institute of Peace, July 2019: https://www.eip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/EIP-Report-Security-and-Refugee-Return-in-Syria-July.pdf, p. 36.

[75] “Refugees: You Can Return to Your Homeland, to Sunny Syria as Your country Needs You,” SANA, 17 April 2021:  http://sana.sy/en/?p=230158.

[76] See for example: Peace & Recovery, Policy Brief, “Returning Home? Conditions in Syria, Not Lebanon, Drive the Return Intentions of Syrian Refugees,” September 2020: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/PR%20Syrian%20Refugees%20Policy%20Brief_2020.09.25.pdf or Immigration Policy Lab, Working Paper No. 20-08, “The Dynamics of Refugee Return: Syrian Refugees and Their Migration Intentions,” 9 November 2020: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/7t2wd/

[77] Benjamin Bathke, “What the End of Germany’s Deportation Ban Could Mean for Syrians,” Info Migrants, 8 January 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/29514/what-the-end-of-germany-s-deportation-ban-could-mean-for-syrians.

[78] Raja  Abdulrahim, “Syrians  Are Stripped of Refugee Protection in Denmark: Now You Are Telling Us to Go?” 17 April 2021: https://www.wsj.com/articles/syrians-are-stripped-of-refugee-protection-in-denmark-now-you-are-telling-us-to-go-11618660800

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.