It could be the last festival for the time being the Syrian family in Denmark celebrates together. The apartment is decorated for the Islamic month Ramadan, on one of the walls hangs a framed picture of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca. “We’ll never go back to a regime that killed my father, my two cousins, and many family members. Bashar al-Assad did not win a war, and under no circumstances did he bring security,”says Mohammed Ahmed al-Ata, who was born in the Syrian capital Damascus. He is 18 years old. The Al-Atas have made it this far, to this small apartment in the Danish town of Vejle, a good two-hour drive from Copenhagen. His mother, older brother and two younger sisters are sitting around Mohammed on colorful mattresses. On March 25, they received a letter informing them that the residence permits of the mother and the two girls had not been renewed. The three of them have to go back to Syria, to the old homeland.
“I have no memory of Syria. We don’t have a single friend there,” says ten-year-old Sahed, in fluent Danish. “I have all my friends here in Vejle” says her twelve-year-old sister Tasnim.
According to estimates by the Danish authorities, the two brothers face compulsory service in the Syrian army if they ever return. That’s why they’re allowed to stay. This does not apply to mother Sabrie and her daughters, whose husband was allegedly killed in 2012 by an Assad regime sniper. The family has lived together in Denmark since 2016. Now, five years later, they are threatened with separation.
Denmark’s government is breaking with a European consensus: Anyone who, like the Al-Atas, fled from Syria to the EU from the Assad regime, was at least safe from deportation. Because the fighting continues. And there is no security for returnees.
Now, of all people, Denmark is taking a different path, a country that has been known for its liberal immigration policy for decades. The ruling Social Democrats have been tightening the course on the migration issue for years, were enormously successful in elections. What is so far little known: Denmark is not the only country that is preparing for deportations to Syria. The German government is working on similar plans.
The Al-Ata family comes from Daraja, a suburb of the Syrian capital. The Danish Council for Refugee Affairs classified the region around Damascus as “safe” in February. Safe enough to send people back there. For some time, there has been no more fighting around the capital, civilians hardly experience any more arbitrary violence. This is the argument of the Council, which is considered an independent authority, but is subordinate to the Ministry of Foreigners and Integration in Copenhagen. By the end of the year, 500 Syrian refugees in Denmark could be affected by the new regulation.
Although the immigration authorities have not extended the residence permits of Sabrie and her two daughters, they cannot simply be put on a plane to Syria, as it is the case with rejected asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq. Because although the Danish government considers the area around Damascus to be safe, it does not want to establish diplomatic relations with the Assad regime alone and without its EU partners. However, there can be no deportations without a contact person in Syria.
Therefore, the future for parts of the Al-Ata family lies in a deportation center a long way from their home in Vejle. Mother and daughters are not allowed to leave the center overnight, and the girls are no longer allowed to go to school, for an indefinite period of time. “Still, it’s better that they’re safe here, so we can at least visit them. If our mother is sent back, she risks being arrested and tortured,” says Mohammed al-Ata.
What he and his family are currently experiencing has its origins in a “paradigm shift” that the Danish Social Democrats decided in 2019 together with several right-wing parties in parliament. With their tough stance on immigration policy, the Social Democrats under Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen helped halve the number of seats in the right-wing Danish People’s Party in the last parliamentary elections. The Danish Social Democrats consider the combination of isolation and classic social policy to be a new formula for success. The new deportation plans are the next step.
Today, around 44,000 Syrians live in Denmark. In Germany, on the other hand, 654,000 people from Syria have applied for asylum in the past few years. And usually get approval. The recognition rates were often well over 90 percent, because it was clear to everyone involved: The civil war is a real reason for fleeing, and the situation in Syria is still life-threatening.
However, researches now show that the German government is also working on deporting Syrian refugees to their homeland. It should first be about convicted criminals and Islamist threats. In Berlin government circles, there has long been talk of a “ban on thinking” that needs to be overcome beforehand: the very social consensus according to which deportations to Syria are to be categorically rejected. According to estimates, there are currently several thousand Syrians “legally required to leave Germany”.
It is the case of Abdulla H. who started the current debate. The young Syrian attacked a gay couple in Dresden with a knife on October 4, 2020, killing one of the two men and seriously injuring the other. Abdulla was already known to the authorities as a supporter of the “Islamic State”. A terrorist attack. Who (not for the first time) raised the following questions: Why is someone like Abdulla H. still here at all? Has a suspected terrorist like H. not forfeited the right to asylum in Germany?
In the aftermath of the attack in Dresden, the Conference of Interior Ministers in Germany allowed the ban on deportation for Syrian refugees to be expired in December 2020. In theory, deportations have been possible since then. So far, however, there has been little political support for this.
A 37-page confidential report from the German Foreign Office, dated December 2020 intends to serve as a decision-making aid for the interior authorities of the federal states in relation to deportation issues. At one point it is said that the “threat to individual security remains the greatest obstacle to return” and that it is “in principle not restricted to individual parts of the country.” This means that a deportation to Syria would hardly be compatible with the Geneva refugee conventions: Nobody may be deported to a country in which they are at risk due to ethnicity, gender, religion or political orientation. The picture that the report paints is harrowing. In all parts of Syria – regardless of who rules there – serious human rights violations are the order of the day. Arbitrary arrests, killings and forced recruitment are taking place in the areas controlled by the Assad regime. Anyone, who is even thought to be oppositional is at risk of being tortured or disappearing. The protection against state violence and arbitrariness is “significantly reduced”. The regime is waging a criminal war against the civilian population and IS is consolidating. A political solution is “not foreseeable”.
Nonetheless, state interior ministers of the German Conservative party CDU in particular are putting pressure on German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and his team to finally present proposals on how Syrians, who have committed criminal offenses, could be brought out of the country.
When asked, the Ministry replies vaguely: “After the deportation stop by the German conference of Interior Ministers has expired, it is currently being examined how criminals and Islamist threats with a Syrian passport can be deported. In this way, the officials want to move from a general ban on deportation to a review of every individual case in the case of criminals and those at risk.” However, numerous conversations with officials at state and federal level give a more detailed picture. In this way, only an interim status of the deliberations arises. But it proves that the federal government’s deportation plans have progressed further than previously known.
In the last few months, the officials responsible have examined the individual regions within Syria as part of the process of elimination to determine whether a deportation is possible there. They had to admit that hardly any part of the country is an option. Assad rules in the southwest around Damascus, and the German government, like the Danish one, does not want to cooperate with him. The Idlib region in the northwest is still under the control of Islamist terrorist militias, which are out of the question as partners. In the north, Turkey controls a 30-kilometer-wide strip on the border to its own national territory – but the political price for an agreement with Ankara on deportations in this part of Syria is too high for the Germans. The only, albeit very small, group of people who could be got rid of with almost no problems: In Germany, henchmen of the Assad regime were exposed who would probably have nothing to fear in the corresponding regions. For all other groups – and this is primarily about them – only the northeast on the border with Iraq would remain. The Syrian Kurds are in control there, even if the influence of the Assad regime has recently grown. At the beginning of the year, the Germans explored the situation in the Kurdish regions with the help of liaison officers from the German Criminal Police Office in Istanbul. They came to the preliminary conclusion that deportations here might be possible. A CDU-led state interior ministry also reported that the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq and Turkey are currently being considered for the deportation of Syrians.
Since Islamist threats such as the Dresden assassin Abdulla H. are often already in prison in Germany, the officials are considering offering criminals with Syrian passports a shortened term in Germany if they voluntarily agree to leave the country in return. The code of criminal procedure offers the legal possibilities for this. In recent months, however, there have been different statements about the possible target country of such an action: The people who are threatened do not necessarily have to travel to Syria, where they face torture and the death penalty under the Assad regime. Instead, third countries such as Turkey could also be considered; provided the authorities there agreed to such a deal.
The German Green foreign spokesperson Omid Nouripour is outraged by the German government’s plans: “For three years, Assad and his Russian supporters have been campaigning that the country is safe again because the regime has won. If the interior ministries argue in the same way, they will wash Assad and his atrocities clean.”
It is not yet clear which specific ideas the German Interior Ministry will present to the federal states in June. But it is already becoming apparent that Denmark is not alone: deportations to Syria are no longer a taboo for Germany either.