Last month, when Denmark became the first European country to revoke residence status for more than 200 Syrian refugees, it faced condemnation from EU lawmakers, the UN refugee agency, and human rights groups.
Authorities in Copenhagen are arguing that parts of Syria are now safe enough for refugees to return.
But the issue has proved divisive, and activists and community groups have planned protests in several cities in support of the refugees.
For a country with a liberal reputation, Denmark has become known for repeatedly tightening its immigration policies in recent years.
In a separate move, it recently signed a migration agreement with Rwanda, leading to speculation that it intends to open an asylum-processing facility there.
More than a decade after conflict broke out in Syria about 35,000 Syrian nationals live in Denmark.
Over the past year the immigration service has been reassessing the cases of refugees from the Damascus region. “The conditions in Damascus are no longer so serious that there are grounds for granting or extending temporary residence permits,” it said.
The government says it has always been clear the protections it offered were temporary.
According to preliminary figures, the Danish Immigration Service has decided on 300 cases since January. About half resulted in new or extended permits while 154 refugees had their status revoked. 100 more had it withdrawn in 2020
Mohammed Almalees, 30, will be able to stay, along with his brothers. But his parents and sister have been told recently they will have to leave. He is adamant if they are forced to return, they will be imprisoned.
As Denmark has no diplomatic ties with the Assad regime, it cannot carry out forced deportations. The options are either to return voluntarily or face an extended limbo at a “departure” centre, says Michala Bendixen, head of Danish charity Refugees Welcome.
“The whole idea of establishing those camps was to pressure people to go back. You have no income. You can’t work. You can’t study,” she says. “Even Danish prisons are much better in many ways.”
As members of Denmark’s Syrian community held a protest outside parliament on Tuesday, the immigration minister defended the government’s decision to revoke the residence status of hundreds of them.
In 2015, a peak of more than 21,000 asylum seekers arrived in Denmark. Asylum policies were tightened significantly that year and again in 2019, moving away from integration to focus on temporary protection and repatriation.
Successive Danish governments have pursued aggressive anti-immigration campaigns, including the seizure of assets such as jewellery from asylum seekers.
Last year the number of asylum seekers fell to 1,500. Only 600 people were granted asylum, the lowest in three decades.
“That’s really good news,” Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye said in February. “Corona, of course, plays a role, but I think first and foremost, it’s because of our strict foreign policy. Many of those who come here do not need protection at all.”