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These Syrian Refugees Can’t Stay in Denmark, but They Can’t Go Home

IKAST, Denmark — Haitham Kurdi, a 61-year-old asylum seeker from Syria, has been languishing for nearly six months in a deportation center in Denmark, where relatives say he has grown depressed and barely eats. He suffers from tics and has started talking to himself.

Mr. Kurdi fled Syria’s civil war in 2015, following his adult son, Mohammad, who arrived a year earlier. Initially he was granted temporary asylum, but the authorities revoked his residency permit last year after deciding it was safe for him and others from the Damascus region to return home.

“Being here is like dying slowly,” Mr. Kurdi said in a recent interview from his tiny, dilapidated room at the Kaershovedgaard center in the town of Ikast in northern Denmark, where some asylum seekers who have been rejected are held. But the prospect of returning to Syria is so terrifying, he said, that he would never go back.

As hundreds of thousands of Syrians found refuge in Europe around 2015, Denmark took in more than 30,000 of them. But since then, no European country has gone as far as Denmark to make Syrian refugees feel unwelcome.

With a new refugee crisis swelling in Europe, the warm welcome for Ukrainians fleeing a Russian assault has evoked both sympathy and bitterness in the Middle East and Africa, where many feel that European nations have taken a much more compassionate stance toward the newcomers than they had in recent years toward Arab, Muslim and African asylum seekers trying to reach the safety of Europe’s shores.

In 2019, the government began sending out letters to more than 1,200 people from the Damascus region, saying that after granting them residency permits, it was reassessing their temporary asylum status. Since then, more than 100 Syrians like Mr. Kurdi have had their residencies revoked and have exhausted the appeals process, essentially making it illegal for them to stay in the country.

Some of them have been sent to several deportation centers around the country, where their movements are tightly controlled. But Denmark cannot deport them because it does not have diplomatic relations with Syria.

So dozens of Syrians have ended up stuck in limbo, facing indefinite detention with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

In revoking the residency permits of some Syrians, Denmark has become the first European country to rule that they no longer merit asylum despite the dangers back home.

Security and human rights experts say Denmark’s assessment of the security situation in the Damascus region grossly misrepresents the risks of returning while the dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power. Returnees have faced extortion, torture, sexual violence and forced disappearance, according to human rights groups.

The United Nations’ refugee agency has called on governments around the world not to return Syrians “to any part of Syria.” Denmark’s measures have alarmed many European lawmakers, and some European countries, like Britain, have explicitly said that Syria remains unsafe for returnees.

“My clients are taken hostage by the Danish authorities in order to send a message to the world that Denmark is the worst place to go as an asylum seeker from Syria,” said Niels-Erik Hansen, a lawyer based in Copenhagen who is representing Mr. Kurdi and other Syrians.

Rasmus Stoklund, a government spokesman, said no Syrian should be sent back if they face danger.

“You’re welcome here as long as you need protection,” he said. “As soon as you don’t need protection anymore, then you’ll have to go home.”

All of the Syrians who have had their residency permits revoked have the right to appeal the decision, and several times a week, a three-judge panel in Copenhagen rules on those appeals. Those who exhaust all legal avenues are usually sent to deportation centers like the one where Mr. Kurdi now resides.

His center, a former prison, is surrounded by fences and under guard and Mr. Kurdi is only allowed to sleep outside the center twice a month.

Denmark’s goal is to deter asylum seekers from coming or staying, said Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, a Danish professor of refugee law at the University of Copenhagen.

“Indirect deterrence has become a systematic response of European states in connection with the current political crisis over asylum in Europe,” Mr. Gammeltoft-Hansen said. “Denmark has been a front-runner and a source of inspiration for others.”

Other European countries have also toughened their policies on Syrian refugees. Germany has lifted a ban on deportations to Syria for those convicted of serious crimes, and Sweden has stopped granting residency permits to some Syrians.

But none have gone as far as Denmark.

Most of the Syrians who got residency permits in Denmark can stay for now, as the measures only affect those who came from the Damascus area. But the Danish authorities are now reassessing the security situation in other parts of Syria, meaning thousands more could be at risk.

Denmark’s immigration ministry says that nearly 400 Syrians have returned home voluntarily, and they were offered $30,000 to leave.

Yet among the more than 250 Syrians who had their residency permits revoked and filed appeals, more have now won than lost.

One of those who won an appeal is Sami al-Dyab, a 50-year-old factory worker in southern Denmark who fled Syria in 2014. He was joined by his wife and five children a year later and they bought a house in 2019. Soon after, Mr. al-Dyab lost his residency permit.

On a recent afternoon in Copenhagen, he emerged from Denmark’s Refugee Appeals Board, pumping his fists in the air in victory. After drying his tears, he called his employer.

“All is good,” he said. “We are staying here in Denmark.”

The government measures against Syrians have crystallized tensions between Danes who favor anti-immigrant measures and those against them. About 80 percent of Danish voters now disapprove of the measures, according to one recent survey.

Mattias Tesfaye, the country’s immigration minister, said in the European Parliament earlier this year that Denmark had to protect itself from problems caused by the integration of too many immigrants. He insisted that those who returned to the Damascus area would not be endangered.

Mr. Tesfaye declined multiple interview requests, but said in a statement that he wasn’t responsible for the security assessments of Syrian regions, nor for the decisions on asylum applications.

For many who have lost their residence permits, going back to Syria is out of the question.

“We won’t go back as long as Bashar is there,” said Asmaa al-Natour, a 51-year-old Syrian who was sent to an asylum center in the northern town of Holstebro with her husband, Omar. “But we’ll go back as soon as he is gone.”

Unlike the deportation centers, the center in Holstebro is for newly arrived asylum seekers, or for those like the al-Natours who have appealed the revocation of their residency permits and are awaiting a final decision.

The asylum center has better conditions. Ms. and Mr. al-Natour have a car, can study, and receive a monthly stipend of $320 each.

Denmark’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers have split up many families.

Mr. Kurdi’s 28-year-old son Mohammad, who is married to a Danish woman and has two daughters, obtained refugee status in Denmark because he risks being drafted into Syria’s military. That means he can continue to live in the suburbs of Copenhagen with his family.

The Kaershovedgaard center, where Mr. Kurdi is detained, holds about 250 people — some of them awaiting deportation to countries other than Syria. He is allowed to leave twice a month to meet his family or lawyer.

On a recent visit to the center, some of the common areas were filled with garbage. Another center was infested with rats, according to pictures seen by The New York Times.

Faced with no future in Denmark, Mr. Kurdi tried to leave last year for Germany, only to be rejected and deported back to Denmark. His son Mohammad said Mr. Kurdi regretted his decision to move to Denmark.

“My dad has no future here,” he said. “He is waiting for nothing.”

Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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