In Denmark, Fears Grow Among Syrian Asylum-Seekers As Residence Permits Are Revoked Denmark says security in Syria has improved enough for some refugees to go back. "The words 'to send us back to Syria' means to destroy our lives," says a Syrian whose residence permit was revoked.

In Denmark, Fears Grow Among Syrian Asylum-Seekers As Residence Permits Are Revoked

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been 10 years since the start of protests that turned into Syria's civil war, a conflict that has claimed 400,000 lives and pushed more than 5 million people to flee the country. Denmark is one of many nations that took them in. But a little over a year ago, Danish authorities decided that even though the conflict continues, parts of Syria are safe enough for refugees to return, and that means some Syrians now in Denmark have had their residency permits cancelled. Sidsel Overgaard has the story.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: A few months ago, Heba Alrejleh and Radwan Jomaa decided that after six years in Denmark, it was time to put down roots. So the couple found a small but pristine new rowhouse just outside the city of Silkeborg. Here, their three kids could go to a quieter school, Jomaa would be closer to his job at a pizzeria, and Alrejlah would be able to continue her studies. And then, in December, on the very day they moved in, came news that the family was being sent back to Syria.

RADWAN JOMAA: (Through interpreter) This decision means life or death. The words to send us back to Syria means to destroy our lives, my wife's life and my children's life.

OVERGAARD: Jomaa says they have nothing and no one left in Syria. And because he protested against the Assad regime, he fears arrest if he returns. The couple has appealed the decision, but for now, their lives are on hold. The walls of their new apartment remain empty, the living room almost bare.

HEBA ALREJLEH: (Through interpreter) All I can think about is the decision from the immigration service. Otherwise, I would be doing many things - continuing my studies, raising my children, dreaming about their future. But it's all at a standstill.

OVERGAARD: Alrejleh's first husband was killed before her eyes in Syria. Jomaa says he doesn't understand why Denmark would send them back.

JOMAA: (Through interpreter) The name Denmark used to be a shining example when it came to human rights. But now racism is ruining Denmark's reputation in the whole world.

OVERGAARD: Michala Bendixen, who heads the Danish advocacy group Refugees Welcome, says Denmark is deliberately trying to scare asylum-seekers away.

MICHALA BENDIXEN: By telling stories about how bad life is as an asylum-seeker here and that even if you are among the lucky ones who are granted asylum, you will be kicked out sooner or later.

OVERGAARD: Denmark's most recent hard turn on immigration is part of the center-left government's attempt to capture the populist vote from the far right. Politically, it's working. But Bendixen says in some cases, it also has Denmark on the verge of breaking international law.

BENDIXEN: They're trying to find out where is the limit actually.

OVERGAARD: But even as the U.N. criticizes Denmark's stance on refugees, Bendixen says international guidelines on repatriation are open to interpretation, making the government's policy hard to challenge. The irony is that because Denmark has not resumed diplomatic relations with Syria, rejected asylum-seekers cannot be forcefully deported.

Of the 94 Syrian refugees who lost their Danish residence permits in 2020, some are still under appeal, but Bendixen says some 30 people have already lost their appeals. The choice at that point is either to live indefinitely in a deportation center, to go back to Syria voluntarily or to go underground.

MATTIAS TESFAYE: (Speaking Danish).

OVERGAARD: Denmark's integration minister points out that Syrian refugees who go home get money to help rebuild their homeland. But last year, only 137 of Denmark's roughly 35,000 Syrian refugees took advantage of that offer. When I asked Radwan Jomaa what will happen if his family's appeal is denied, his eyes fill with tears.

JOMAA: (Speaking Arabic).

OVERGAARD: "I don't have an answer," he says. Their 11-year-old daughter, Aya, does not want to go back to Syria. Speaking in perfect Danish, she says, "Denmark is a good country..."

AYA: (Speaking Danish).

OVERGAARD: "...Because people don't go around killing each other," she says.

For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.

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