Danish authorities say Mesbah Mshleem must take three of his children, the youngest a Danish-born five-year-old, and return to Damascus, to a home that no longer stands, in a neighbourhood destroyed by the war and often shut off to former residents. There is little hope of compensation for those losses.
This investigation was prepared in cooperation between Rozana, The Guardian
, and Lighthouse Reports
within the “War Winners
“I do not know what is left to go back to. How can I protect my children there?” says Mshleem, one of more than 100 Syrians living in Denmark who have effectively lost their refugee status. His lawyer had to challenge an order for his five-year-old to leave the country immediately and alone.
Denmark has become the first European nation not to renew residency permits for the refugees, claiming some areas of Syria are now safe for families to return to. The decision stunned and terrified Syrians in Denmark, who have many reasons to fear going home.
The war is still raging in parts of Syria, which authorities in Copenhagen have tacitly recognised by giving political asylum to all men whose age would make them vulnerable to forced conscription. This has protected Mshleem’s two oldest boys, 19-year-old twins, from losing their refugee status.
The feared Syrian police apparatus, which helped spur the 2011 uprising against Assad, and tortured and murdered throughout the war, is still thriving. The economy is in free fall, making it hard for returnees, who are generally considered politically suspect, to find work or feed their family.
For the many Syrians who fled from opposition strongholds around the capital, there is another pressing reason not to return. The war and actions by the Syrian state have effectively rendered them homeless – through demolition and redevelopment plans for Damascus neighbourhoods where they once lived.
“We characterise the demolition of these properties as a war crime, because we’re still in a conflict setting, and there’s no apparent legitimate military purpose for the demolition, especially because these areas have been retaken by the government,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.
It is impossible to judge the scale of structural damage from images of buildings that are still standing, and unexploded bombs or mines can be hidden from view.
But the Syrian government has not tackled properties individually, or sought the expertise of de-mining experts, including at the United Nations, who could manage a more targeted removal of dangerous buildings and ordnance left behind by fighting.
“To destroy entire buildings at such a large scale in an above surface demolition is disproportionate for a de-mining effort,” Kayyali said.
Um Alaa, a former driving instructor who has applied to work at a hospice in Denmark, had a home in Qaboun, an area affected by one of the most comprehensive demolition programmes. The area is next to Jobar where Mshleem’s house stood.
“I would send the kids to my family’s while my husband and I carried stones around with our bare hands. We could not hire workers to help us, so we did everything by ourselves,” she remembers. For years they poured all their money into their home.
“The rooftop was turned into a beautiful terrace, with a marble, Damascene-style fountain in the middle, as well as plants and flowers,” she remembered. They were expanding the second floor for her son when they left.
The house survived years of intense fighting; a photo sent by a relative shortly before the government recaptured the neighbourhood in May 2017 showed it still standing. But the area around it was flattened by a blast between 13 and 18 September that year; Syrian state media reported a controlled explosion in the area on 14 September.
Um Alaa fears her residence permit will not be renewed; her house in Syria has been destroyed.
Um Alaa fears her residence permit will not be renewed; her house in Syria has been destroyed. Photograph: Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos
Um Alaa’s residence permit in Denmark is of the kind now being rejected for renewal, and she fears that next year she too will be asked to return a place where she no longer has a home or a community.
Satellite photos show almost half of the prewar buildings in Qaboun have now been entirely razed, and many others badly damaged. Even surviving buildings are empty because the area is sealed off on security grounds.
Draft plans suggest the government wants reconstruction to transform an informal, relatively poor neighbourhood into a playground for the wealthy, with high-rise residential towers, investment properties and a mall.
Many Qaboun residents like Um Alaa found their homes demolished with no warning or offer of compensation. Former residents in other areas have been offered shares in future developments, but the speculative tokens are unlikely to be enough to cover an apartment.
While refugees have no guaranteed right to return to their original home, their property rights should be respected under international law, said Mohammad al-Abdallah executive director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre.
“Countries should be considered unsuitable for returnees when a refugee’s home or neighbourhood is destroyed, as is the case for many Syrians from greater Damascus, unless a property restitution framework has been established that appropriately compensates for destruction of property. Such a framework does not exist in Syria, despite the government’s promises, and is another reason why refugees should not be forcibly returned".
Denmark strips Syrian refugees of residency permits and says it is safe to go home
Finding housing is therefore extremely hard, Kayyali said. The economic crisis can make it hard to earn money for rent, there is a scarcity of housing because of the war, and all contracts need approval from the security services.
“To rent or buy house in Syria, you need the security services to clear it, which is a difficult process at best. And for those people who are returning it’s just untenable to engage with the various security services to this extent".
Since Copenhagen does not have diplomatic relations with Damascus it cannot directly deport people to Syria. At least some of the rejected applicants have been placed in a departure centre, which campaigners said amounted to a prison where residents could not work, study or get proper healthcare.
Mesbah is trying to stay out of these centres as they appeal against their order to leave, and because the children are still grieving for their mother, who died of cancer last year. “Losing her was difficult for our family. The children ask to visit their mother’s grave every now and then. They go there and talk to her".