20th Aug 2022

MEPs to grill Denmark for pushing Syrians to EU states

  • Syrians in Denmark protesting against the measures (Photo: Jessica Daly)
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MEPs are taking the EU-lead to hold Denmark to account for stripping Syrians of their residency permits, amid threats to return them to Syria.

After months of delay, a 13 January hearing is now likely to be held with Denmark's foreign and integration minister Mattias Tesfaye in the European Parliament's civil liberty committee.

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The issue has seen hundreds of Syrians leaving Denmark to find refuge elsewhere in the EU - a figure that is much higher than previously thought, according to a consortium of media outlets led by the investigative group Lighthouse Reports.

"It is with good reason that Danish Syrians travel to other member states and not to Syria. Syria is definitely not safe," said Danish left MEP Nikolaj Villumsen, in an email.

Court cases in Belgium, Netherlands and Germany have since been launched to determine whether Denmark is safe for their return under the EU's so-called Dublin rules that determine who is responsible for an asylum seeker.

Although aware of the problem, the European Commission is gripped by other priorities, like Belarus, while the Council, representing member states, has not discussed it all.

That has left a vacuum for EU lawmakers to take the stand with demands for the European Commission to challenge the socialist-led Danish state in court.

MEPs demand EU commission action

"The commission should start procedures against Denmark in order to put these policies to a halt," said Dutch Green MEP Tinike Strik.

She noted that although Denmark has opted out of EU asylum legislation, it cooperates with other EU member states under the Dublin system.

"It implies that 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 [illegal pushbacks]," she said.

Similar comments were made by Dutch socialist MEP Thijs Reuten, who described Denmark's policy as both selfish and illegal.

"The European Commission should not be shy in addressing this with the Danish authorities and take legal action wherever this is possible and needed," he said.

French liberal MEP Fabienne Keller said Denmark is undermining the Dublin system and the principle of shared responsibility.

"I consider [that] the commission should start investigating this issue," she also said, noting that Denmark is obliged to respect the Geneva Convention on refugees.

But recent comments in the Danish press by Denmark's foreign and integration minister Mattias Tesfaye suggests otherwise.

In November he told Jylland's Posten, a national newspaper, that Denmark would never ask Syrians about their destinations.

"What matters is that they leave Denmark," he said.

The same paper reported that under 40 Syrians left the country to try their luck in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

But a joint investigation by Germany's Der Spiegel, Dutch newspaper Trouw, Belgium's Knack and Le Vif magazines, Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan, Syrian media Rozana Radio and Lighthouse Reports found many more had fled Denmark.

They reveal Belgium, Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany collectively made 400 Dublin return requests for Syrians to Denmark since Copenhagen enacted the policy of revoking residency permits in 2019. It's likely that the total number of Syrians fleeing Denmark is far higher, as experts warn this data is often incomplete and more Syrians may have gone to other countries or evaded statistics.

Many more could follow given that Denmark currently hosts 4,700 Syrians with a temporary form of protection status that is currently under review.

Over 1,200 are from around Syria's capital, Damascus, which the Danish authorities deemed to be safe enough for their return.

Denmark has so far revoked 279 of their permits - of which 132 got their permits back, on appeal. Another 101 lost their appeals, according to October 2021 figures provided by the Danish immigration service.

Not discussed among EU states

The European Commission has not received any official complaint from other member states's ministries on the matter.

"We are aware there are cases where Syrians are leaving Denmark to ask for asylum in other EU states," said an EU commission spokesperson.

She also noted that a Dublin return to an EU state should not take place "if there are substantial grounds to believe" that a person risked "torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

But the council, representing member states, has not discussed it.

Belgium has not raised the issue either at the EU level, said a Belgian diplomat.

"We have no information at this stage that there is secondary migration specifically from Syrians from Denmark coming towards Belgium," he said.

The Netherlands have not raised it either at the EU level, said a spokesperson from the Dutch embassy to the EU in Brussels.

Pressed on the issue, the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, instead hopes Denmark signs up to EU-wide laws on migration and asylum.

"As you probably know, Denmark is not part of the common migration and asylum system, but they are part of the Dublin system," she said.

Denmark has special out-outs in the justice and home affairs area, including the EU's asylum system.

But it is also bound by Dublin, plus the EU's fingerprint database Eurodac, by way of an international parallel agreement.

And given that it is part of the passport-free Schengen area, it is also required to implement the EU return directive, which governs procedures on sending unwanted migrants back home.

All are being overhauled by the European Commission as part of a new EU-wide asylum and migration system, announced in September 2020.

It means Dublin will be scrapped and folded into a core piece of the reform puzzle to crack down on "unauthorised movements" inside the EU.

The European Parliament and the Council are both in the process of formulating their positions before negotiations can start.

At the council level, the talks are being held behind closed doors.

But EU internal documents from December show active lobbying by Denmark to tweak changes to the new rules.

This involves adding new phrases into the reforms, demanding that the overall aim of the EU system should be to reduce irregular migration to Europe.

Author bio

This article is part of a wider investigation coordinated by Lighthouse Reports along with Germany's Der Spiegel, Dutch newspaper Trouw, Belgium's Knack and Le Vif magazines, Denmark's Information newspaper, Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan, Syrian media Rozana Radio and Lighthouse Reports.


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