They did not speak a word of Danish yet the Scandinavian country was an outpost of calm for the siblings, who fled the destruction and death that followed the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
On arriving in 2015, it only took them a year to learn the language, and now Dania is months away from finishing high school in the Danish port of Kolding. “We were very happy at the beginning and felt safe being here,” Dania, who hopes to work in bio-medicine, said. “We [wanted] a good future, therefore we did everything [we could] to learn Danish.”
The siblings asked CNN to withhold their last name due to concerns for family members back in Syria.
Hussam, 20, described Denmark as a place of peace, a country where his family felt at home, and “a society that gives you the freedom to live the way you want.” He hoped to study engineering or medicine once he completed high school next year.
Those dreams were dashed when Denmark became the first democratic European nation to tell Syrian refugees originating from Damascus and its surrounding countryside to return to the war-torn nation.
“We disagree with the decision to deem the Damascus area, or any other area [in Syria], safe for refugees,” Charlotte Slente, the secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, told CNN.
The Danish minister for immigration and integration, Mattias Tesfaye, defended the policy in a statement to CNN, saying that “Denmark has been open and honest from day one” that residence permits for Syrian refugees are “temporary, and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist.”
“The approach of the Danish government is to provide protection to those in need of it, but when the conditions in their home country have improved, former refugees should return to the home country and reestablish their life there,” Tesfaye added.
Dania and Hussam’s family have been caught in the dragnet. The Danish Immigration Service uprooted their lives in February by refusing to extend their father’s residency permit, which their own visas are linked to, according to their lawyer Daniel Nørrung. Dania and Hussam had been told to leave Denmark by March 5, but with the help of a lawyer, the family is challenging the decision with the Refugee Appeals Board.
“It’s a bit problematic, Dania and Hussam were given a date to leave Denmark when their father’s case has not even been finalized,” Nørrung told CNN.
“We are going to languish in a center, where people are broken down, humiliated and held in helplessness and hopelessness, instead of being able to go out and contribute to society,” Dania said.
Authorities are currently reexamining the protection of more than 400 more Syrian refugees living in the country, according to figures given to CNN by the Ministry of Immigration and Integration.
This is part of a self-described paradigm shift of Danish refugee policy, said Nikolas Feith Tan, a refugee law expert at the Danish Institute of Human Rights.
The move has seen successive governments enact legislative amendments that have shifted the country’s focus from the integration and permanent protection of refugees to the kind of temporary residency permits Dania and Hussam were placed under.
After winning the election, the Social Democrat party is “locked in now” to prove it is not soft on immigration, or it risks drawing the ire of right-wing parties or the electorate, Kristina Bakkær Simonsen, an associate professor at Aarhus University, who specializes in immigrant integration, discrimination and stigmatization, told CNN.
While the Danish government “cannot carry out forced returns” as it does not have diplomatic relations with Syria, “the government’s clear hope is that this group of people will choose to return voluntarily, which some Syrians already have done,” Tan added.
But activists say Syrians are being compelled to return by the Danish government’s efforts to make life intolerable for those without residency rights. The deportation centers Dania and Hussam dread entering “are like torture, designed to break people down,” Michala Clante Bendixen, the head of Refugees Welcome Denmark, told CNN.
The centers are partially open, which means their occupants are able to move in and out freely, said Bendixen. But the occupants have to check in every evening, and have no income, rights to employment or access to public housing. One center is around four miles from the nearest bus stop, making it impossible for anyone to leave in the day.
“There are no activities, no training courses, you can’t even cook your own food,” Bendixen said, noting that even in prison there are opportunities to make money. Instead of returning to their country of origin, refugees sometimes “go underground” and flee to other European countries “where they will try and reopen their asylum cases,” Bendixen said.
Targeting immigrants and refugees
In 2017, the former Liberal Party immigration minister Inger Stojberg celebrated the passage of another law that tightened immigration controls with cake. The following year, a decade-old proposal by the right-wing populist DPP to ban face coverings in public came into force, essentially criminalizing Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa.
“For far too many years, we have closed our eyes to the development that was underway, and only acted when the integration problems became too great,” housing minister Kaare Dybvad Bek said in a statement. “We will do this by preventing more vulnerable housing areas and by creating more mixed housing areas throughout Denmark.”
But the government is not succeeding in escaping the scrutiny that “they are trying to avoid by renaming ghetto areas, when they keep prioritizing ethnicity as the prime criterion” of these policies, Simonsen told CNN.
‘Copying the far right’
Critics say the governing coalition, which is led by the Social Democrats, is copying the language of the Danish far right.
“Denmark is strong when it comes to rights and solidarity; burden sharing and economic equality; fair governance and no corruption,” Bendixen said. “In that way, it is very surprising and very paradoxical we have this growing xenophobia and also managed to make … clearly discriminatory laws” for refugees and immigrants, she said.
Some maintain that, at its core, Denmark’s identity is tied to its White heritage — something reflected in official statistics, which divides the population into three categories: “persons of Danish origins,” “immigrants,” and “descendants of immigrants.” This means that second-generation immigrants, who are naturalized Danish citizens, are not counted officially in the Danish category.
“It will provide a clearer picture of how people from 24 countries, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, who have played a major role in immigration to Denmark, cope in relation to, for example, crime and employment,” a government statement wrote.
What it shows, Bendixen said, is that there appears to be “two sets of laws” in Denmark: “One set for ‘the real Danes,’ and one set for the ‘others who don’t belong here.'”
While analysts have noted that Danish political discourse on immigrants is extremely negative compared to other European countries, the policy of removing the refugee status of Syrians has been controversial in the country.
“We agree with the UN that refugee returns must be voluntary, well-informed, and should ensure the safety and dignity of the people involved — or else they should not happen,” Blinken added.
However, neither of those nations are repatriating Syrians to the Damascus region, while the EU does not recommend doing so.
All Hussam and Dania want to do is remain in Denmark. But instead of worrying about exams and other everyday concerns like their Danish friends, the siblings now fear their family may face repercussions on returning to Syria for “turning our backs” against the regime. Hussam also stands the risk of being conscripted into the Syrian army, he said.
“Syria is not safe, and will not be safe no matter what city it is, as long as a dictator rules it,” he said.