Ghalia al-Asseh had just started studying chemistry and biotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark when the country’s immigration service invited her for an interview.
Immigration officials spent five hours asking about her level of Danish, which she speaks fluently. They asked how well she was integrated in Denmark, where she has lived with her family since fleeing Syria in 2015.
During the February interview, officials told Ms. al-Asseh that the security situation in her hometown Damascus has improved and that it is safe for her to return to Syria, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.
Ms. al-Asseh, 27, lost her right to live in Denmark – although her four brothers and parents could stay and she had nowhere else to go.
Since the Danish immigration authorities declared in 2019 that Damascus and the surrounding area were safe, they have been reviewing the residence permits of 1,250 Syrians who, like Ms. al-Asseh, left their country during the civil war. The authorities have since revoked or not extended the residence permits of more than 250 of them.
This makes Denmark the first country in the European Union to withdraw their asylum status from Syrian refugees, even if Syria is still shaken. The bloc and the United Nations describe most areas in Syria as not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees.
Those asked to leave include high school and college students, truck drivers, factory workers, shopkeepers, and NGO volunteers. Everyone is in danger of being uprooted from a country in which they have built a new life.
“It’s like the Danish immigration service bombed my dream, just like Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes,” said Asmaa al-Natour, 50, referring to the Syrian president. “Only this time the bombing is psychological.”
Ms. al-Natour spoke from the town of Ringsted, 30 miles southwest of Copenhagen, where she and her husband live. In February, the couple was informed that their permits would not be renewed, while their two sons, aged 20 and 22, could stay. The sons were granted asylum because they were at risk of persecution in Syria.
Most of the 34,000 Syrians who have been granted a residence permit in Denmark since the start of the war in their country in 2011 have not verified their residence permit. The move to deprive hundreds of their legal status is the latest in a series of measures by Denmark that, according to right-wing groups, are directed against migrants and minorities.
Authorities have imposed compulsory instructions in “Danish values” on children in low-income and heavily Muslim areas known by the government as “ghettos” and doubled the sentences for certain crimes in those areas.
They have also revamped the country’s legal apparatus on immigration, shifting it from integration to accelerating the return of refugees to their home countries. Hundreds of Somali refugees also lost their permits after Denmark found Somalia safe to return.
Per Mouritsen, associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, said the government had tightened its stance on immigration in recent years to avoid losing votes to the right wing, a dilemma faced by several center-left Parties across Europe were faced.
“The only way to beat the right in Denmark is to sell your soul to the devil and make immigration as tough as possible in exchange for support for social policy,” said Mouritsen.
Last year the number of refugees leaving Denmark exceeded the number of arrivals. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has vowed to go further and stated that Denmark will not seek “no asylum seekers”.
Immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye explained the steps affecting the Syrians, saying Denmark was “honest from day one” with them.
“We made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is only temporary,” said Tesfaye in February.
For those ready to return to Syria, Mr Tesfaye said Denmark would offer “a huge bag of travel money”. Authorities say hundreds have chosen to return voluntarily.
Michala Bendixen, Denmark’s country coordinator at Refugees Welcome, a nonprofit, said politics threatened to tear Syrian families apart. “The only purpose is to make Denmark the last place where an asylum seeker can decide,” she said in an interview.
As the Danish government does not have diplomatic relations with the government of Mr. al-Assad, the authorities cannot forcibly deport refugees. Since most of them are unwilling to return voluntarily, those who have lost their appeal after their residency is revoked will likely be sent to departure centers.
The Danish authorities did not answer questions about why the policy was implemented for Syrians and how many had been sent to departure centers.
They wait there for months.
“People risk sitting there indefinitely without the prospect of being forcibly returned, but also without the chance to live their lives in Denmark,” said Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council.
That would be the fate of Ms al-Asseh, who was informed last month that she would be asked to leave Denmark if she loses her calling this year.
As the last in her family to leave Syria at the end of 2015, Ms. al-Asseh received her residence permit months after her parents and siblings arrived in Denmark. Since she was not a minor, she was unable to apply for asylum due to family reunification and had to apply herself.
While her brothers are in danger of being drafted into the Syrian military, Ms. al-Asseh was the only one invited for an interview with the Danish immigration authorities.
“I try my best to adapt and contribute to Danish society by educating myself and paying my taxes,” said Ms. al-Asseh. She added that her family had nothing left in Syria and that she only saw her future in Denmark. But she said, “the stigma surrounding refugees, especially Muslims, was so hurtful.”
Syria is a country in tatters, with a collapsed economy and half of the population displaced before the war. Mr. al-Assad has regained control of two thirds of his territory, including the Damascus area. He has also urged Syrians to come back, but many say they won’t for one reason: Mr. al-Assad himself.
“As long as it is not peaceful and the president is still here, we do not want to return,” said Hussam Alkholi, a 20-year-old student and warehouse worker who lives in Kolding in western Denmark.
Mr Alkholi, who is from the Damascus region, learned in February that his residence permit in Denmark was not going to be extended, as was that of his parents and two sisters.
Human rights groups have reported various threats against returning refugees, including compulsory military service for men and arrest on suspicion that anyone who campaigned for the rebels who tried to overthrow Mr. al-Assad is a traitor.
Hundreds of returnees have disappeared, according to the Syrian Human Rights Network, and the European Union’s Asylum Service has warned that voluntary returnees are at risk of detention, torture and death.
“The lack of fighting in some areas does not mean people can return safely,” said Ms. Slente from the Danish Refugee Council.
Ms. al-Asseh, the chemistry and biotechnology student, said she had been trying to focus on her studies since learning that her residence permit was being revoked. Still, she said the thought of starting all over again frightened her.
“I am not a danger. I’m not a criminal, ”she said. “I just want to live here.”
Rick Gladstone contributed to the coverage.