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94 is 94 Too Many: Denmark Aims to Return Syrian Refugees to “Safe Damascus”

Tracy Jawad
Lebanese Journalist and Political Researcher
April 12, 2021
Refugees will continue to face the perils of their journey, chasing a future stolen from them back home.

In the first week of March, Denmark’s intended deportation of 94 Syrian refugees broke the news with little commotion. British dailies, The Independent and The Telegraph, were among the few international media, besides MENA-based news outlets, to report on the anticipated return and the Danish government’s assurance that Damascus was safe.

Mattias Tesfaye, a member of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party and the country’s immigration minister, said at the start of 2021 that the Danish government “made it clear” to Syrian refugees that their residency permits were “temporary” and could be withdrawn should conditions in their home country improve.

Alan Kurdi’s body on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea

Accordingly, Tesfaye recommended them to “return home and re-establish a life there.”

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, which marked its decennial on March 15th of this year, the world has closely followed the unravelling of the Assad regime and the country’s ravenous destruction by internal and external forces.

For many people, the Syrian refugee crisis served as a political awakening and moral compulsion, and a means to an end for neo-imperialists and anti-imperialists alike.

Descent into fascism

Alan Kurdi’s body on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea made its rounds on international media and social media platforms, as activists, celebrities and world leaders called for urgent humanitarian assistance and global attention.

International organizations from the United Nations to Médecins Sans Frontières, have relentlessly campaigned for private and public funding by putting the devastation on display for all to see.

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Beheadings went viral, Palmyra’s temples and towers were levelled, and centuries-old monuments turned to rubble and dust. The mass circulation and consumption of graphic videos and images, and the abundant accounts of human suffering, introduced the world to the crises of the Levant.

However, it also paved the way for a descent into fascism in a region so often lauded for its commitment to human rights and prosperity.

Utopia

Take Denmark’s Nordic model. Revered by liberals and leftists alike for its unique blend of collective bargaining, social security, and mixed-market capitalist system, Denmark presents itself as a vibrant, social democratic utopia.

Maternal and paternal leave coupled with subsidized daycare facilities; public healthcare schemes that cover, or partially reimburse, the costs of medical specialists and treatment; educational assistance and incentives in employee remuneration: what is a basic provision in Denmark is still a far-fetched manifesto in other parts of the developed world.

But as with all utopias, deception looms

Leftist discourse, particularly of the postcolonial persuasion, about why and how the Nordic model functions so efficiently and equitably, dares to take a closer look at what upholds it.

In the global North/South divide, the former fuels its habit of overconsumption with the cheap labor of the latter, which has accelerated its environmental destruction.

Subjugation and control in the 21st century do not manifest in overt domination but has rebranded itself in a globalized free market where the winner takes all.

Whilst Denmark’s labor unions trail-blazed the way for the proletariat, its industries have trampled on the rights of wage laborers elsewhere. But how does the transnational corporations’ disregard for human life elsewhere manifest itself in a social democrat government?

Windrush Scandal

In the United Kingdom, Theresa May’s Conservative government tried to keep immigrants out and marginalized those who managed to stay in. The 2018 Windrush Scandal exposed the wrongful detention and deportation of long-term residents from the Caribbean.

At the time of writing, Charlotte Rubin of the Network for Migration Matters reported that Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that asylum seekers, who must “legally” enter the country, will only receive a temporary status that will be regularly assessed: removal will occur unless a “genuine” need for protection can be demonstrated.

In the United Kingdom, Theresa May’s Conservative government tried to keep immigrants out and marginalized those who managed to stay in. The 2018 Windrush Scandal exposed the wrongful detention and deportation of long-term residents from the Caribbean.

At the time of writing, Charlotte Rubin of the Network for Migration Matters reported that Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that asylum seekers, who must “legally” enter the country, will only receive a temporary status that will be regularly assessed: removal will occur unless a “genuine” need for protection can be demonstrated.

Even Denmark’s socialist utopia is not shielded from xenophobia and disdain. In 2018, Denmark enforced a ban on face coverings in public, popularly dubbed the “burqa ban.” Unsurprisingly, the ban targeted and criminalized Muslim women, whose traditions the Ministry of Justice deemed incompatible with Danish values.

One year later, a new law targeting the country’s “hard ghettos”––residential areas characterized by high unemployment rates, and criminal convictions, low educational enrollment, and household income––compelled housing associations to either sell or redevelop public housing estates. 

The plan’s purpose is to “change the social and ethnic makeup of low-income projects,” which also serve as ethnic minority enclaves. Although the government has offered to rehouse tenants subject to losing their homes, it has also stated that those refusing to leave will be evicted.

The persistence of the “ghetto” and its negative connotations of disorder and crime feed into the narrative that the “other” can never assimilate into the host community, unless a greater authority steps in and disbands these communities instead of challenging the institutional barriers that alienate them.

As such, an “other” has been created to give meaning to the “citizen,” a demarcation sustained by the world’s economic and social divide. Who belongs to what land? What do the inhabitants of that land look like? What do they sound like? Do they contribute to or disrupt the collective memory or identity? Such attitudes trickle down from an institutional level to ordinary everyday discussions and comments, which often harm those who have already suffered the most.

As in all utopias, the glimmer belies the truth.

Denmark’s Decision

But none of this is new. Denmark’s hardline policy with refugees and migrants is widely known to those who have closely followed Europe’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the reactionary spike in nationalism. Anti-immigration rhetoric has disrupted democratic institutions and forced the region to reconcile with the legacies of its colonial and imperial past, laying bare the discrepancies of Western civilization.

Although the Gulf has absolved itself of all responsibility for mitigating the crisis and Lebanon has counteracted its open-border policy by making it impossible for Syrian refugees to find shelter and employment, they do not promote themselves as bastions of freedom and equality.

And herein lies the shocking truth of Denmark’s decision to repatriate 94 individuals currently being held at deportation facilities, where they will linger until they concede to a voluntary return.

The decision to mark Damascus as a safe zone for return is comical when confronted with the thousands of individuals that were abducted and detained at the hands of government forces.

Furthermore, the Assad regime has demolished abandoned homes, redeveloped “informal settlements,” and forcibly exiled remaining inhabitants in a bid to socially engineer the city, narrowing the capital down to a community that solely consists of pro-Assad supporters and the elite.

Safe Zone

Voluntary or not, refugees returning to Syria are not safe from persecution or enlistment in the army. Instead of addressing the meager resources left for Syrians to return to and “re-establish their lives,” the Danish immigration ministry believes that the measly 100,000 repatriates in 2019 – out of 6.1 million refugees worldwide – reflects Syria’s safety.

“Marwa,” a 22-year-old woman who fled with her family to Lebanon when she was only 12 years old, was raised in her host country. She went back to her hometown Al-Tadamon, near Damascus, to help rebuild the family home in 2019 only to return to Lebanon a year later. Upon her arrival in Syria, she found that securing necessities, such as bread, water, electricity, and gas, proved much more difficult than in Lebanon.

“All I care about is securing my rent and the finances necessary to raise my child, which I couldn’t do in Syria,” Marwa said. “Prices are high everywhere, but for somebody who doesn’t have much, life is drastically limited.”

“That is why the Syrian people are leaving: we need to secure better lives for ourselves, our families, and our children.”

Marwa has opted to live in Ouzai with her husband and son, whilst the rest of her family resides in her childhood home, which has been rebuilt. However, she is still the family’s breadwinner, working as a mobile nail technician in Beirut, navigating life under COVID restrictions and hyperinflation.

There is no doubt Denmark’s announcement is misguided and misinformed. In addition to material concerns, Syrian refugees are subject to the very violence Assad’s regime has perpetrated over the last decade, which Western states have repeatedly condemned and even used to justify further attacks on the country. 

As Laila Lalami argues in Conditional Citizens, the Syrian people do not control their political destiny, but the citizens in their host countries can, at the very least, hold their governments accountable for putting an already depleted people under even more stress and uncertainty.

If anti-immigration rhetoric justifies removing the residence permits of the 94 individuals, because they no longer require “genuine protection” and the state cannot bear the weight of any more outsiders, then multiculturalism as a social and political project has failed. Denmark is the first European Union country to send back refugees but make no mistake: other countries will follow suit as soon as the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Whatever benchmarks these individuals needed to meet to qualify for a return back to a country hanging by a thread illustrates how borders, and modern nation-states, merely exist to delineate an ‘other’––a faraway land one can disappear off to, restoring peace and ease to the ‘self.’

However, as history has shown us time and time again, humans are migratory species, especially under a globalized free-market capitalist system that dictates where opportunities can be found and where rewards are to be reaped.

Refugees will continue to face the perils of their journey, chasing a future stolen from them back home. Until countries such as the United Kingdom and Denmark acknowledge this reality, they will be clawing away at themselves until, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, all that is left in their reflection is the portrait of a monster.

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