Weaponising ‘safety’: Laws of displacement and the crisis faced by Syrian Refugees in Denmark

In March 2021 the government of Denmark announced that the Damascus region of Syria, a state still gripped by the civil war which broke out in 2011, was ‘safe’ for human habitation. The claim not only shows Denmark’s support for Assad’s regime which now controls the territory but has enormous implications on the status of the 35,000 Syrians who fled to the Scandinavian state to restart their lives in the wake of the violence. In lieu of the capital’s ‘safety’ Denmark is revoking the residency of many Syrians and embarking on schemes of deportation and repatriation, generating outcries from global charities advocating for the rights of the displaced. As of early October 2021, stories are appearing in Middle Eastern newspapers claiming that those fearful of being sent back to Syria are fleeing Denmark for the Netherlands and becoming, once again, displaced. As claims to asylum are reportedly being made against Denmark itself due to the verdict, the situation raises questions which those concerned in the histories of international migration and human rights law must address; is the host-state’s right to declare a refugee’s homeland ‘safe’ ever appropriate? Does current legislation confine refugees to a permanent state of flux? 

Firstly, it has been claimed that the Danish government’s decision defies the principle of non-Refoulement embedded in international human rights law. Following the drafting and implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, international legislation forbids states from deporting refugees to countries in which the ‘danger of persecution’ would still pose a threat to their life. Under Denmark’s claim that Assad’s Damascus is ‘safe’, such a principle would not apply, but activists within the Syrian diaspora and global rights agencies are denying that this ‘safety’ is a material reality on the ground. UK-based international justice chamber’s Guernica 37, for example, released a statement in July which claimed that Syrians forcibly sent to Syria would no doubt face scrutiny and even violent punishment from the ruling powers. They also worriedly noted the ‘precedent’ of acceptability  such deportations may set and the implications that this would have on all of those displaced globally. 

A sculpture named “The Refugee Ship” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt. Credit: Jens Galschiøt via Wikimedia Commons

We must therefore acknowledge that the crisis faced by Syrians in Denmark is reflective of the possibilities for misuse allowed for within current international rights legislation. The Danish government’s ability to declare a region ‘safe’ and deport residents accordingly, despite said ‘safety’ not being accepted on the international stage, shows the worrying potential for a weaponised notion of ‘safety’ in state’s dealings with asylum claims. 

It is important to consider the theoretical issues raised by the deportation of Syrian residents from a state in which their presence had previously been accepted. If those with accepted claims to asylum who have built livelihoods, raised families and become members of vibrant communities can have their right to remain in their new home stripped away so easily, the question remains as to whether international legislation is really doing enough to protect them. The act of deportation is a conscious distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but to suggest that Danish Syrians had not viewed themselves as part of the same community as their fellow Danes is a reductive view of national identity. Their status as legal Danish residents went from being unquestionably accepted to being stripped at the whim of a declaration of their previous place of residence’s ‘safety’ by the state in which they made their new home. One cannot imagine the emotional turmoil caused by such a situation, and the proactive conversations which centre Syrian voices emerging across the diaspora must be taken into consideration by those considering the legality of the situation. 

By George R. Evans, Summer Contributor

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