One-way ticket: Forced repatriation for Denmark's Syrian refugees?
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In Denmark, several Syrian families are living in fear of being deported to Syria, where the civil war continues. The Danish government considers Damascus and its region "safe" places and says the refugees must return there. Daham Alasaad followed one such family for this report.
When we met the Salameh family in their flat in Slagelse, 80 kilometres north of the Danish capital Copenhagen, we asked them how they felt. The answer was a flood of tears.
"I'm thinking of committing suicide," said the 48-year-old Syrian father Zaher, while looking at his wife Lina, 45, and three daughters Raneem, 18, Haia, 12, and Celine, 6. He continued in a sad voice: "I escaped from Syria because of war and now I'm in psychological war in Denmark."
In February 2019, the Salameh family wanted to renew its residency permit in Denmark, which was due to expire on May 11. All the usual procedures went fine and the family returned to normal life. But 20 days later, the father, Zaher, received an email saying the authorities had to interview them again.
'Damascus is safe?'
On March 27, Zaher and his family had individual interviews at the Sandholm refugee centre, lasting 12 hours in total. Most of the questions were about details of the family’s life in Damascus. The interrogator told Zaher that Damascus was considered safe to return to. "Damascus is safe? Have you ever been to the detention centres, have you heard of the disappeared people?" Zaher retorted.
"The person in charge of my interrogation wanted to know the exact day I got arrested," said Zaher, explaining that the person then interrogated his wife and found small differences in their stories and dates. "This why they want to send us back to death," said Zaher sarcastically. He added that he is eligible to serve in the military reserve in Syria but refused to join Bashar al-Assad’s army. This is why he fled.
After this new interrogation, the family’s residency permits in Denmark stopped. An official then visited them and offered them money to go back to Syria voluntarily. "He offered me 480,000 Danish kronor (€64,200) to return to Syria and said they would pay me even more for the children’s private schools, medicine and furniture if we rented a flat in Damascus." But Zaher replied: "Even if you give me one billion Danish kronor, I will not return to Syria, I will not return to death."
On June 21, 2019 the Salameh family became the first Syrian refugees to appear in court to contest their deportation to Syria. The hearing was closed to the public. In the end, the court ruled that the family could stay in Denmark. But since the government threatened to send them back home, the whole family has been plagued by mental insecurity. These psychological wounds will take time to heal. Several Syrian refugee families in Denmark face a similar fate.