On April 17, the Syrian state news agency SANA published a story claiming that Denmark was telling Syrian refugees it’s safe to return to their home country. This was based on the appearance of advertising billboards in the Danish capital of Copenhagen with a message aimed at refugees.
“ ‘Now you can return home to sunny Syria, your homeland needs you’ is a phrase spread widely on billboards in streets of Copenhagen, the Danish capital, in a campaign that confirms the fact that Syria became safe after most of its territories have been liberated from terrorism and aims to encourage Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.”
This message is highly misleading.
The number of Syrian refugees in Denmark since the start of the war in 2011 is just over 32,000, although some estimates put the figure as high as 35,000. On April 14, reports emerged that the Danish government refused to renew the temporary residency permits of at least 189 Syrian refugees.
Danish authorities justified this based on their claim that safety in Syria had “improved significantly.” According to a BBC report, on April 19, Denmark is examining the cases of 461 refugees from the Damascus area, and 350 from the surrounding area.
But the billboards are another matter.
They appear to have been designed by a movement called Generation Identitaer (Generation Identity), whose name and logo appear at the bottom of the ads. Both the name and logo are associated with Generation Identitaire, a French far-right party that spawned affiliates in several European countries beginning in 2012. The Danish group’s website features stories about the billboard campaigns as well as articles urging the Danish government to send Syrian refugees home.
The movement was accused in several hate crimes and even tried to prevent European coast guard vessels from rescuing incoming refugees at sea. The French organization engaged in a number of confrontational stunts such as occupying the roof of a mosque under construction in Portiers and blocking the road between the town of Calais and the large migrant camp near there known as the "Calais jungle" in 2016. France banned the group in March of 2021. None of that is mentioned in the SANA article.
Regardless of the source, is Damascus really safe for refugees?
While it is true that the Syrian capital is no longer a front-like area in Syria’s 10-year civil war, many refugees have something else to fear – retaliation from the state’s security services. A 2019 report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights states that from the beginning of the war in 2011, nearly 100,000 Syrians were “disappeared” into the state’s prison system, where they face torture and denial of medical care.
Many of those targeted by the regime’s secret police were in places recaptured by the regime’s forces, which include areas around Damascus. Males also risk being drafted into Assad’s military.
In addition, the Syrian economy is in shambles. There has been very little reconstruction, and food prices have skyrocketed. Many homes lack basic utilities.
The Danish government’s decision to return refugees on the basis of Damascus and its surroundings being “safe” ignores the fact that many refugees were not only fleeing the fighting, but the Assad regime, its militias and secret police. The relative peace in and around the Syrian capital does not necessarily mean refugees will be safe.
On April 19, a group of Syria experts and analysts published an open letter via Human Rights Watch, criticizing the Danish government’s decision.
“We, the undersigned analysts, researchers, and other experts on the Syrian context, strongly condemn the Danish government’s decision to remove ‘temporary protection’ for Syrian refugees from Damascus,” the letter begins.
The writers claim the Danish immigration service cited their work on Syria to justify its decision that refugees would be safe, but that this is not an accurate reflection of their conclusions.
“Damascus may not have seen active conflict hostilities since May 2018 – but that does not mean that it has become safe for refugees to return to the Syrian capital,” the letter explains.
“Many of the key drivers of displacement from Syria remain, as the majority of refugees fled, and continue to fear, the government’s security apparatus, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, military conscription, and harassment and discrimination.”