9th Dec 2023


'Discriminated, dehumanised' - Denmark's Syrian refugees

  • In January, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen told parliament said that the government's goal is to have 'zero asylum-seekers coming to Denmark' (Photo: News Oresund)

When Majdaleen Abu Naboot came to Denmark in September 2015, she was told she would be "safe" in the Scandinavian country.

New set of opportunities, a secure future and some friends. Naboot was hopeful and at last succeeded in starting a new life in Denmark over the past six years, leaving behind a tumultuous past marred by horrors of civil war in Syria.

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But now a cloud of fear and uncertainty looms over her head again as her newly constructed life could end any time in the wake of the recent "hard decisions" — as she calls them — taken by the Danish government.

Originally from Daraa, Naboot tells me that most of her family back home is in prison fighting the regime. "We know Syria better than anyone. We will be killed by the dictatorial regime if we go back," she bemoans, visibly worried, at a protest demonstration in Aarhus.

"Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!" chants reverberated as hundreds showed up in solidarity in the heart of Denmark's second-largest city.

Anti-immigrant discourse is on the rise in Danish government circles, and Syrian refugees are bearing the brunt. Their lives were never easy and now with the Danish government's decision to revoke residency permits of over 200 Syrian asylum seekers and shift asylum responsibility to third countries, their prospects of coming to Denmark or living in peace here are bleaker than ever. They fear being sent back to the war-torn country.

Many have staged a sit-in in the capital Copenhagen since May that is likely to continue for the rest of June, refusing to go back. "Syria is not safe" they insist. Some shared their stories of struggle with me.

Naem Khori [name changed on the source's request to protect privacy] for nearly six years now has been living in Denmark as an asylum-seeker, trying to make the most of the available working opportunities. Khori, 26, came to Denmark in 2016 in search of a better life. "The biggest problem I faced when I first came here was settling at a place I was sent to," he recalls.

Khori shares that he was sent to Farsø, a town in Denmark, "in the middle of nowhere" to learn Danish where people were "not so welcoming" and the only residents he could interact with were other asylum-seekers; a step that in his view defeats the possibility of integration with the rest of society — a problem he feels already existed in Denmark and wasn't dealt with - leading to the current more radical steps by the government.

Khori feels pessimistic about the anti-immigrant discourse in the country's corridors of power that are only seeming to gain momentum.

"I think it is all getting worse. If you take a look at the noteworthy political parties in Denmark, the biggest argument they have is usually the immigration policy and that always keeps immigrants in the shadow of fear over what may happen next," he tells me, pointing to an environment of uncertainty.

Rihab Kassem, a 66-year-old refugee grandmother, is going through even worse.

Her residency permit has been revoked as the Danish government now considers Damascus and the surrounding areas safe to return. Kassem told Amanda Magnani and Fernanda Seavon of Al Jazeera that she has nothing in Syria, her family is in Denmark and she is the only one asked to leave. Kassem's lungs operate at 35 percent of their capacity - and since her status has changed, she is no longer entitled to healthcare in Denmark, exasperating her woes.

More 'externalisation'

The Danish government backs its externalisation plans of processing asylum requests outside and claims they are necessary for the "safety" of migrants which it states will prevent them from travelling in dinghies and risking lives in the Mediterranean.

The Danish government signed a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda — a third country — to set the framework for future negotiations and cooperation.

As far as revocation of permits is concerned, no justification has been made and no justification seems justifiable to the rational mind.

In January, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen told parliament said that the government's goal is to have "zero asylum-seekers coming to Denmark.

"We must make sure that not too many people come to our country. Otherwise, our unity can not exist. It has already been challenged," she said; a statement her critics say was aimed at pleasing populist public sentiment.

This corresponds with the decreasing number of asylum-seeking requests in Denmark that registered only 1,547 applications in 2020, a decline of 43 percent from 2019 and lowest annual number since 1998, according to official figures.

Rights activists criticise the recent steps and point towards a deeper problem concerning discrimination, Islamophobia and the fear of "non-western" values in Denmark that have been resurrected once again.

"The main issue for our politicians is Muslims. This is about Islam," Anemone Sami, a Danish activist, tells me, calling the government's policies as "racist" and urging solidarity with Syrian refugees whose faith and "non-western" background have complicated matters for them.

One thing becomes clear, Denmark is at the crossroads between the 'tolerant values' it takes pride in and the very illiberal laws its politicians are backing through dehumanisation of Syrian refugees.

If a developed country like Denmark with a long tradition of respect for human rights turns its back on refugees, it will not set a good precedent for the host countries in the humanitarian work that they are doing or are capable of.

Author bio

Allia Bukhari is a journalist based in Denmark and an Erasmus Mundus scholar.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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