Afghan, Syrian refugees face uncertain future in Denmark

UNHCR criticises Danish asylum policies as Syrian and Afghan refugees fear being told they cannot remain in the country.

Bashir Ahmad Khalil
Bashir Ahmad Khalil, an Afghan refugee in Denmark [Courtesy of Bashir Ahmad Khalil]

Six months after Denmark airlifted 956 Afghans from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of their country in August last year, they learned that their asylum is only guaranteed for two years in the Scandinavian country.

Their fear of uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that about 100 Syrian refugees have recently been told it is safe for them to return to Damascus following years of protection in Denmark.

Experts say there is an urgent need for the Danish government to change the country’s asylum system.

Bashir Ahmad Khalil, who worked as an interpreter for NATO and the US forces before being evacuated from Kabul on August 24 with his wife and five children, told Al Jazeera that he regretted choosing Denmark over the United States as his safe haven.

“I thought when we went to Denmark, we would be given permanent residency. When we were here, after 2 weeks we were told about the official law and I regretted my decision to come here and not choose the US to go to,” he said.

Constant stress

Khalil, who is living with his family in a refugee camp in Holstebro, a city in the western Jutland region, said he is living under constant mental stress about the future.

“Everyone wants to be sure about the future of their family but we didn’t get any clear answer about what will happen after two years here,” he said.

Michala Bendixen, chairwoman and founder of Refugees Welcome, a humanitarian organisation offering legal advice and advocacy to refugees in Denmark, told Al Jazeera that the country’s asylum policy “doesn’t make sense”.

She said the Afghan refugees would have to apply for protection the second time because the government created a special law that only protects the Afghan evacuees for two years.

“Why do they have to go through two different processes?” she said. “No one can imagine their situation will improve in two years.”

The Danish Return Agency said that 17 Afghan nationals were returned to Afghanistan in 2021 before halting the process in August due to the Taliban takeover.

Bashir Ahmad Khalil said he could not imagine going back to Afghanistan and would apply for permanent asylum in Denmark.

“That’s because my feeling is I came to Denmark despite having a chance to go to America. I am sure they will not send anyone back but our lives are at threat in Afghanistan, not just from the Taliban but also ISIS-K,” he said, referring to the local branch of the ISIL (ISIS) group.

“Even my brother who is in Afghanistan is hiding because of my work,” he added.

Denmark’s immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye has said that many of the evacuated Afghans chose to apply for asylum in the country.

He said they “will of course have their applications processed. I have strongly urged everyone in Danish society to welcome the evacuated Afghans and help ensure that they have a good start in our society.”

Syrians living in fear

Meanwhile, in the southern Danish town of Sonderborg, a 19-year-old high school student, Sara Aldiri has faced unwelcome news.

Aldiri and her family are among about 100 Syrian refugees who had their right to live in Denmark cancelled.

She told Al Jazeera she was the first one in her family to see the email containing the news that she “doesn’t belong” in Denmark.

“I always thought this was my country because I arrived here when I was 12, so I can’t remember anything from Syria,” she said.

Sara Aldiri, a Syrian refugee in Denmark
Sara Aldiri, a Syrian refugee in Denmark [Courtesy of Sara Aldiri]

Denmark’s immigration ministry said that “for around 100 Syrian cases their refugee status has been revoked or denied extension by the independent Danish Refugee Appeals Board because the need for protection ceased to exist”.

The decision is based on the Danish assessment that Damascus is safe, the ministry’s statement said.

It said that since 2019, about 390 Syrians have voluntarily returned to their country, taking a payment of about $30,000 per adult.

Assem Swaid, who runs Finjan, an organisation in Denmark that provides Syrian cultural support, told Al Jazeera that he knows a man who was recently returned to Damascus.

He said the man was “arrested by the regime and detained for four months and tortured. And when he went out from the prison he was in hospital for a few days before he left the country again.”

The Danish government did not comment on that allegation.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said: “We do not consider the improvements in the security situation in some parts of Syria, including in the Damascus area, to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees.”

Aldiri’s family said they are appealing the decision that strips them of their right to remain in Denmark.

Aldiri said that going back to Syria was not an option.

“My dad was a lawyer in Syria and he got threatened by the regime and ISIS. ISIS said if you’re going to stay working as a lawyer we will cut off your head,” she said. “The regime threatened him because he had to work with people who got arrested.”

Aldiri said that if they lose their appeal the family will apply for asylum in Germany.

Applying offshore for asylum

Usually asylum seekers live in Denmark while they seek protection.

But immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye said the Danish vision is for a “more fair and humane asylum system” where asylum seekers would be transferred to a country outside the EU and “their asylum application will be processed and where they will receive protection if needed”.

The minister said “protection in Denmark would be reached through legal and orderly means – for example through the UN programme for quota refugees. Not through human smugglers.”

Danish politicians visited Rwanda in 2021 to discuss the processing of asylum seekers there.

Tesfaye said in a statement that the idea was to stop people-smuggling and the suffering of refugees on migratory routes.

“Since 2014 more than 22,000 children, women and men have lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe, while human smugglers earn fortunes,” he said.

UNHCR’s Mantoo said she was strongly opposed to the offshore processing idea.

“In fact, when presented with an asylum request at a border, admission must be granted at least on a temporary basis to examine the claim,” she said. “Otherwise, the right to seek asylum … is rendered meaningless.”

Source: Al Jazeera