Last week, the Danish government stripped residency status from 94 Syrian refugees in the country, in preparation for deporting them back to Syria, after determining that the war-torn nation is now apparently safe enough for refugees to return.
The move appears to be an effort to stave off a challenge from the anti-immigrant far right in Denmark, by becoming even more xenophobic than them. The implication is that this is the first in a series of reviews of the status of the few thousand Syrian refugees who fled torture, death and chemical attacks to what they thought were safer shores, with the aim of achieving the questionable goal of zero asylum seekers within a few years.
There is no sugar-coating this travesty. If Denmark sends back refugees to Syria, it almost certainly will have blood on its hands.
It is important first to debunk this utter fiction that Syria is a safe country for returnees. Just because the conflict is no longer in the news due to the pandemic and the military stalemate, and the government of Bashar Al Assad is not right this moment actively bombing homes, schools and hospitals (although they did that again a couple of weeks ago) or starving rebellious cities to death or dropping sarin gas on residential areas does not mean the country is safe.
The UN does not consider Syria a safe country for refugees to return to. This is based on a number of different factors, including the overall security situation in the country, the significant protection risks to returnees that make it difficult to achieve what the UN describes as "voluntary, safe and dignified return", and the fact that sustainable, large-scale returns are impossible due to the absence of livelihood opportunities, shortages of food and water, lack of access to health care and social services, as well as the difficulty for children to have an education due to the fact that many schools have been bombed in the course of the conflict.
Let us unpack these factors.
First, refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those who were involved in opposition activities or come from rebellious communities, risk being arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, drafted into the military, or tortured upon their return. Several such cases have been reported by human rights organisations and media outlets.
One prominent case that was at the centre of a recent Washington Post investigation is the case of the activist Mazen Al Hamada, who was tortured by the Assad regime and fled to the Netherlands, and subsequently appeared in a documentary in which he recounted brutal torture while imprisoned for his activism. Al Hamada returned to Syria after suffering from depression and being unable to acclimatise to his new home, with the possible encouragement of regime henchmen. He has not been heard from since landing in Damascus airport, likely disappeared in the regime's network of torture chambers and dungeons where tens of thousands still languish.
Despite the government's military victory in the 10-year conflict, its absolute lack of interest in compromise has meant that a peace settlement remains a pipe dream, which has subsequently meant that no reconstruction funds have made their way into the destroyed country. The economic collapse of neighbouring Lebanon has also led to a shortage in hard currency and an economic crisis, with ordinary people unable to afford basic staples, long lines for fuel, persistent electricity cuts, extreme poverty, mass unemployment, an economy run by ascendant militiamen and warlords, and general hopelessness.
Syria is also battling an underreported coronavirus pandemic, with the country so destitute that it is unable to afford the necessary public health measures to limit infections. The prospect of widespread vaccinations is limited, and the healthcare system has been utterly destroyed in terms of physical hospital structures in the war and the flight of personnel like doctors, as well as the absence of medical equipment. The economic and political crisis has stripped the government of its ability to provide for its citizenry while also reining in the powerful militias and security agencies and structures that won the war for it.
Finally, the war is not over and violence can flare up at any time. Most of the province of Idlib bordering Turkey is still outside government control, and the regime carried out large-scale military attacks there as recently as a year ago, just at the outset of the pandemic, and its advance was only halted when Ankara intervened militarily. The prospect of violence, and its realisation, could send more refugees seeking shelter across the border.
Back in November, the Syrian government organised a conference on refugee returns that was widely derided as a joke. It was apparently a joke even to the organisers, with one attendee in a hot mic moment making the observation that most of those inside Syria wanted to get out.
But Denmark's actions are far from amusing. Though it is in line with a largely craven and hypocritical response to the refugee crisis in a number of European countries, one that gave primacy to xenophobia and the ethnic and racial purity of the continent over its vaunted enlightenment values, it is cruel beyond measure. Not letting people in is one thing. Sending them back out into the maelstrom is another.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National