Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Feature

Third-time lucky for one Syrian grandmother in Denmark

  • Rihab Kassem has had her case reopened. Now she is allowed to stay in Denmark for up to 12 months while her case is reviewed. (Photo: Amanda Magnani)

As she sits in her studio apartment in Sønderborg, Denmark, Rihab Kassem's bare feet show the tan marks left by 43 days of protesting in Copenhagen. For her, showing up every day for the Syrian sit-in protest in front of the parliament paid off.

Since the country became the first in the EU to declare Damascus and the surrounding area safe, refugees are having their legal status reviewed, and risking being sent back to the war-torn country.

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After being rejected twice (by the Danish Immigration Service and by the Refugee Board), Kassem's lawyers managed to have her case reopened.

Up until that point, her story was very much the same as that of hundreds of other Syrian refugees in Denmark.

But Kassem's case was met with a happy ending - or rather, with a new beginning.

On 28 June, a few days before she was supposed to either leave for Syria or be sent to a deportation camp, her case was reopened. Now she is allowed to stay in Denmark for up to 12 months while her case is reviewed.

Kassem didn't know her case had been reopened. She was asleep when someone called with the news. "I didn't want to answer it, I was very tired. But then I did and she [the friend who called] congratulated me. I couldn't believe it was true until the next evening."

According to lawyer Helle Holm Thomsen, who has been working with immigration and asylum since 2008, there are different reasons for a case to be reopened.

"It's not easy, but it happens. Normally, it's if some new information comes to light, or if there was something clearly wrong stated in the decision. There has to be a really good reason".

For Kassem, according to her eldest son, the court had chosen to ignore many points in the case.

Helle says that it sometimes takes between six to eight months for the reopening of a case to be considered, in which the refugee maintains an illegal status, being required to wait out of the country.

Kassem was an exception. "The decision was made very quickly, and her case has already been reopened. Now, Kassem is allowed to stay in Denmark while waiting for a new hearing", says Helle.

Women and children (and the elderly) first

The types of asylum foreseen by the Danish Immigration disproportionately exclude Syrian women, children and elderly.

The three categories, known among the refugee community as 7-1, 7-2 and 7-3, offer protection, respectively, to those individually persecuted due to race, religion or political opinion; those at risk of facing torture or inhumane treatment upon return; and those who fled their home country due to the general situation of violence against civilians.

The third category only offers temporary protection. In the Syrian case, that means people from the Damascus area, now considered safe by the Danish government, would no longer need protection.

While men ages 18 to 42 fall under the first two categories, most women, children and elderly fall under the last one - which is precisely the type of asylum being revoked.

"This problem is difficult to address, because it's not really a case of discrimination", says Helle. "The decision is based on the objective reason that all men in that particular age group are individually at risk, since they would be obligated to serve in military training and join a war they don't want to fight".

That leads to a situation where women and elderly have to be able to prove there are other individual circumstances putting them at risk.

Helle adds that "there's background information that a single woman without men is at great risk when returning back to Syria, but the refugee board doesn't recognise that".

In a note published on their website, the Danish Refugee Council declares it "disagrees with the decision of the Danish authorities and agrees with UNHCR's position that Syria is not safe for refugees to return, in the Damascus area or anywhere else".

Anne Gerd Petersen, a retired school teacher who volunteers with Danish Refugee Council says women and elderly people being sent back is very worrying for several reasons. "They do not have anything to return to in terms of homes, money, a job or any kind of network. They may be at risk for having fled the country and, on arrival they may be arrested or have their valuables confiscated".

Although Kassem got a second chance, most Syrian refugees are still struggling with uncertainty. She also doesn't really know what will happen in the next twelve months. "I hope I'll be able to stay. Right now, there's nothing I can do, but wait".

Author bio

Amanda Magnani is a Brazilian journalist and photographer in Aarhus, Denmark.

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