With a series of anti-migrant policies pursued under successive governments, Denmark is turning its back on the human rights tradition that made it the first state to ratify the Refugee Convention. Against all evidence, the Danish government has concluded that it is safe for Syrian asylum seekers to return home. Its decisions are tearing families apart and forcing refugees to make an impossible choice between staying in refugee camps where they are denied rights or returning to Syria where they face grave danger. It’s time for Denmark to decide what kind of country it wants to be and re-embrace the principles that once gave it a reputation as a compassionate and cooperative international citizen.

Denmark was once recognised as a pioneer in the international protection of refugees: it was the first country to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, a key international treaty that prevents asylum seekers being deported if they risk torture or persecution in their home countries. Seventy years on, the country has again made history, but this time for the wrong reasons: as the first European Union (EU) nation to strip asylum seekers of their temporary protected status with the aim of eventually forcing their return to their country of origin. The main victims of this policy are Denmark’s Syrian refugees.

In March, the Danish authorities deemed Syria to be ‘safe enough’ for refugees to return. The basis for this assessment was that the area around Syria’s capital, Damascus, was now under the control of the Syrian government, and therefore deemed safe. This was at odds with the assessments of the United Nations (UN) and many other governments with no plans to return Syrian refugees. It missed the obvious point that government control means the opposite of safety for those forced to flee Syria for opposing the government.

The government followed up quickly. That same month, it revoked the temporary residence permits of 94 Syrian refugees who would subsequently be sent to deportation camps and returned to Syria on a ‘voluntary basis’; while not forced to leave, if they chose not to, they would have been forced to stay indefinitely in the camps.

Syrian residents in Denmark with expired residence permits are now presented with a grim choice: staying in refugee camps where they are denied rights or heading back to Syria where they face danger. Some have already fled to other European countries, such as the Netherlands: in those cases, the Danish government may regard the matter as a problem solved, although leaving their communities once again is hard on refugees and may ultimately lead to tougher policies in the countries to which they flee.

Refugee policy: a race to the bottom

Denmark received numerous refugees in 2015, including in response to the Syrian conflict, but as documented by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, its share of asylum applications has declined in recent years. Flying in the face of this reality, anti-migrant rhetoric has continued to intensify, and immigration policies have become increasingly tougher.

The decision to revoke the residency status of Syrian asylum seekers did not come out of the blue: it was the result of years of erosion of humanitarian values fed by a rightward nationalist populist turn that shifted public discourse against human rights.

The decision to revoke the residency status of Syrian asylum seekers was the result of years of erosion of humanitarian values

As in other EU member states, the Danish nationalist right wing have been growing politically stronger by taking advantage of people’s anxieties about diversity, religion and race, and fuelling animosity against migrants and so-called ‘open’ borders. Even in countries like Denmark where right-wing populists have not taken control of government, moderate parties have adopted anti-migrant rhetoric and policies in efforts not to lose electoral ground. The political spectrum has shifted rightwards as a result.

When a centre-right party was in power in 2015, the Danish government launched a new temporary type of humanitarian status that included a three-year waiting period to apply for family reunification – a piece of legislation that separated thousands of refugees from their families for years.

That same year, the Danish parliament passed a law to enable immigration authorities to seize jewellery and other valuables from refugees as a contribution towards their costs. The Social Democrats, the largest centre-left party and then in opposition, supported this, in what seemed a clear manifestation of the phenomenon dubbed ‘left-wing xenophobia’. This emphasises the potentially negative effects of migration on the generous social welfare and good-quality healthcare enjoyed by working-class Danes.

The Social Democratic party came back into government at the head of a centre-left coalition in June 2019. Although no substantial changes were announced, immigration advocates expected a softening of the enforcement of restrictions on asylum seekers with temporary residence status. For some time, the new government avoided taking a firm position on the issue; evidently eventually it felt compelled to do so to fend off challenges from the right.

Denmark recently offered razor wire to Lithuania to keep out refugees crossing from Belarus – a gesture that a migration expert described as ‘a new form of externalisation’ of immigration control.

Denmark’s retreat from human rights commitments

Just as the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported on disappearances and detentions and called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, Denmark’s immigration department announced its new policy based on the assumption that Syria’s capital is now safe – an assumption contested by the Danish Refugee Council, whose secretary general pointed out that cessation of fighting in some areas did not mean it was safe for refugees to return.

The exposure of the human rights violations experienced by Syrian refugees who voluntarily returned from Jordan and Lebanon between 2017 and 2021 should serve as a cautionary tale. As reported by Human Rights Watch, many of them were subjected to kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings by the Syrian government and affiliated militias.

But this decision did not come as a surprise: it was the same policy that the Danish government had long enforced toward Afghan asylum seekers. Deportations of Afghan asylum seekers continued until the very day that the Taliban took control of Kandahar – when it was already clear that their takeover of Afghanistan was imminent. A week before the Taliban took over, the Danish government was still insisting that it was safe for deportations to continue.

Unlike Afghans, Syrians whose status has been revoked cannot be legally deported because Denmark has no diplomatic ties with Syria. Instead of being deported, Syrians are placed in detention centres. But this still breaks families apart. The move has disproportionately affected women and older people, since many young men had already been given permanent resident status due to their risk of being drafted into the military on return to Syria.

Alarmingly, in January 2021 the Prime Minister said that her country’s goal was to receive ‘zero’ asylum seekers, a statement that may have played well domestically with some voters, but that sent a worrying signal to the world. The remarks communicated a retreat from Denmark’s commitment to human rights and a shift in the international stance it has long taken as a cooperative and compassionate member of the international system.

Denmark is turning its back on international refugee law, founded on the principle that it is a human right to be safe from persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention came as a direct response to the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by the Nazis, with the aim of ensuring a safe haven abroad for those facing persecution in their own countries. This is precisely the fate Syrians fear, and the reason why they have become the world’s largest refugee population, spread over 127 countries. Now this diaspora is increasingly worried that other European governments might follow Denmark’s lead and throw them into the arms of the murderous tyranny they fled.

Civil society fighting back

By mid-April, Denmark’s new refugee policy had affected at least 189 Syrians whose applications for renewal of temporary residency status had been denied, and a further 500 people were reportedly being re-evaluated. The Minister of Immigration and Integration continued to justify this policy on the grounds that it had been clear from the beginning that residence permits granted to Syrian refugees were temporary and could be revoked if the need for protection ceased to exist.

To fight back, activists took to social media, where they sought to put a human face to the numbers, telling the stories of Syrian refugees facing deportation. They also took to the streets. In May, hundreds of people in 25 Danish cities mobilised under the slogan ‘Syria is not Safe’, joining organisations such as International Cooperation, the Danish Refugee Council Youth and Amnesty International Denmark to urge their government to stop its plans immediately. People also protested in other European countries, such as Ireland, and beyond.

Express your solidarity with Syrian residents in Denmark by signing the Syria Campaign’s urgent petition to stop Denmark’s inhumane actions.

International pressure on Denmark

Denmark’s anti-refugee policies provoked international condemnation. On the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned of ‘recent attempts’ by some governments to disregard or circumvent the Convention’s principles through expulsions, pushbacks and proposals of forcible transfers.

In its submission to Denmark’s 2021 Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, the UNCHR explicitly urged Denmark to change the short-term residence permits given to asylum seekers and ensure all beneficiaries of international protection receive a residence permit for a minimum period of five years, renewable for at least an additional five.

Others are taking the Danish government to the European Court of Human Rights for contravening its duties as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and specifically the principle of non-refoulement, aimed at guaranteeing that no person is returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.

It should surely be time for Denmark’s government to ask if all this international embarrassment is worth it. It isn’t too late to win back its compassionate reputation by doing the right thing by the Syrian refugees looking to it for protection. The more progressive parties in the coalition government should push more strongly for a policy of compassion and understanding towards those who have turned to Denmark in their hour of need.


  • The Danish government must comply with international refugee law and cease its attempts to return Syrian refugees, grant them permanent residence and provide them guarantees of safety.
  • Representatives of other European countries in Denmark should show strong leadership in defence of human rights, publicly condemning all anti-refugee actions.
  • Danish civil society groups should continue building solidarity and mobilising public support for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers and undertake initiatives to bridge the gap between newcomers and citizens of Denmark.

Cover photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images