Ishika Garg is a law student at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. Sadly, Denmark has failed to weigh in the importance of these words. In a recent move, Denmark has become the first European country to revoke the residency permits of refugees from the Syrian regions of Damascus and Rif Damascus. This move comes in light of the recent declaration of these areas as ‘safe’ by the Danish government on the basis of a report, whose conclusion has been condemned by eleven out of the twelve experts involved in drafting it. Denmark’s immigration minister, Mattias Tesfaye, stated that such revocation is justified as the government had made it sufficiently clear to the refugees that the residence permits granted to them were temporary and contingent on the need for protection. However, the real incentive of the government behind this step is to achieve its political goal of wooing voters from the far-right. In fact, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen recently announced her commitment to the policy of making Denmark a country with ‘zero asylum seekers’. Through this post, the author shall analyse the disproportionate impact of this development on women refugees and the subsequent violations of international human rights law.
Viewing the Violation of Human Rights Through a Gendered Lens
Article 60(3) of the Istanbul Convention, to which Denmark is a signatory, requires states to develop gender-sensitive procedures for determining refugee status. However, statistics show that while male refugees are granted the ‘convention status’ which is the strongest type of protection for refugees, women are more likely to be given the weaker ‘temporary protection status’. Also, the new policy largely exempts Syrian men as the Danish authorities recognise that male refugees face the risk of being drafted into the Syrian military or punished for escaping conscription, if they are repatriated. Hence, there is a gendered nature of the refugee experience in Denmark. An EU Directive expressly requires Member States like Denmark to recognise the fact that women are often victims of multiple discrimination and strive to take measures to promote gender equality. However, in the new policy, racism and sexism intersect to aggravate the human rights violations that refugee women face.
Denmark does not recognise the Assad regime currently ruling Syria and thus, does not have a repatriation arrangement in place with Syria. Hence, Syrian refugees cannot be forced to return to Syria, if they do not voluntarily leave. Forcing refugees to return to their country of origin when it is known that they will be at a risk of human rights violation if deported would be against the international law principle of non-refoulement enshrined in Article 33(1) of the UN Refugee Convention, which Denmark was the first nation to sign. Instead, Denmark is placing these refugees in its three ‘departure centres’. These centres are aimed at achieving the government’s goal of ‘motivationsfremmende foranstaltninger’, which aims at motivating refugees to voluntarily choose to return to their home countries. The atmosphere in these centres is prison-like, with no access to education or work opportunities. Women refugees are faced with such deplorable conditions that they are made desperate to a point where they feel pressured to go back to Syria. In addition to this, Denmark has offered to give Syrian refugees $30,000 each if they choose to return to their home country voluntarily. Article 33(1) of the Refugee Convention also includes cases of constructive refoulement, which occurs when a signatory state uses indirect methods in order to force refugees to return to a country where they would be subjected to serious violations of their human rights. By placing the women refugees in such centres and incentivising them to leave using money, Denmark is clearly violating this principle and hence, is in breach of the 1951 convention. Moreover, the UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls stresses the importance of helping women refugees to make an informed choice regarding their repatriation. However, by coercing them into returning to their home country, the Danish government hampers the realisation of such an informed choice. Also, Article 16(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] recognises the importance of families as fundamental units of the society and places a responsibility on States to grant protection to them. With several women facing the risk of repatriation, there are increasing instances of broken families and Denmark is clearly failing in its duty to the families of these women.
Only the courts can overturn the government’s decision to revoke these refugees’ permits and this procedure could take months. Till then, the lives of these refugees are put on hold and the career and life they have built in Denmark over a period of several years are on a shoogly peg. Most lawyers find themselves representing cases of which 90% involve women refugees and only 10% correspond to men; these statistics highlight the discrimination women refugees are having to face. Many of these women are being advised to marry Danish citizens or permanent residents in order to continue their lives in Denmark. Article 16(2) of the UDHR stresses the importance of ensuring that individuals enter into a marriage by their own free will and consent. However, it is highly unreasonable for a country which is believed to be the frontrunner in the area of gender equality to create such circumstances for unmarried refugee women that they feel forced to make this choice.
The Ground Situation in Syria
In 1998, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a recommendation regarding the situation of refugee women in Europe. This recommendation stated that Member States of the Council of Europe, such as Denmark, should take steps to eliminate any gender-based discrimination among refugees, and shape the treatment of women refugees according to their specific circumstances and needs. However, the current government’s new policy has blatantly ignored the specific situation of women refugees. It is no secret that women in Syria face grave human rights violations. A 2021 report prepared by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees highlights the intensity of torture and harassment that women face in areas such as Damascus and Rif Damascus, which the Danish government boldly proclaims as ‘safe’. Arbitrary detention, sexual violence, rape, forced marriage and abduction represent only a miniscule of the terrors that await women refugees once they are repatriated. Article 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union requires Denmark and other Member States to ensure that no person in their territory is removed or sent to a country where they would face the risk of inhuman treatment or torture. The obvious risk of torture that the refugees shall face is reflected in a recent UN investigation which reported that civilians in Syria have been subjected to ‘unimaginable suffering’ in the past decade. Moreover, upon return, the cruel Assad regime is most likely to persecute and arrest the refugees for having fled in the first place. Once arrested by the regime forces, these women are unlikely to ever be seen again and close to 100,000 have been a victim of such ‘enforced disappearances’ since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, like Denmark, have been expressly reminded by this treaty’s body that they are required to recognise the right of women refugees who face the risk of gender-based violence and persecution in their home country, to be given asylum. Instead of promoting the safety of women refugees, Denmark is actively targeting refugee women and turning a blind eye towards the acts of violence they will have to face in Syria. There is also the issue of scarce resources such as water and electricity and the sky-rocketing food prices which will hit the refugees as soon as they return. Several women are forced to submit their bodies to assault in exchange for basic amenities. These refugees’ original homes have either been demolished or destroyed in the war and there is no property restitution framework in place in Syria to compensate these people for the destruction of their houses.
With no home or access to the most fundamental resources for women refugees in Syria, Denmark is essentially digging their grave with its new policy. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries such as Germany and the Netherlands are taking the lead in granting permanent residence and citizenship to Syrian refugees. Sweden and the United Kingdom have also concluded that Damascus and other neighbouring areas have made significant strides in terms of security, but none of these countries has deemed these areas to be safe enough for the repatriation of refugees. The Danish government has failed to fully grasp the fact that peace is not the same as security. The underlying gender dynamics and political undertones of its recent move cannot be ignored. While on one hand Denmark has pledged to send aid to women facing violence and abuse due to the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, on the other, it is acting as an instrument to put Syrian women refugees through the same persecution. Such a paradoxical situation cannot be allowed to continue and the Danish government should take a stand in line with its global image of being a staunch supporter of human rights and gender justice. Women refugees must not be treated as pawns on the chessboard of humanity.