Denmark should not put fear and insecurity into the hearts of Syrian refugee children | View

“I was at school when my best friend died next to me,” 14-year-old Amina told us, recounting her childhood in Syria,

“Everyone had to get under their tables, everyone was stressed and crying. Children were dying. We didn’t know what to do,” she added from the Netherlands, where she now lives.

Syria was no place for Amina and so when she was just six-years-old, she made an arduous journey to safety, along with her mother and grandmother.

Amina is just one of the 1,796 Syrian children interviewed by Save the Children for a recent report, “Anywhere but Syria”. The report found that after 10 years of conflict, 86 per cent of Syrian children living in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Netherlands cannot imagine a future inside the country in which they were born.

Syrians in Denmark have been welcomed into the country, enjoying the right to go to school, learn the language and integrate. There is no reason to think that refugee children in Denmark, like those in the Netherlands, would wish to return to Syria.

But it recently emerged that the Danish authorities are beginning to strip hundreds of Syrian refugees of their temporary residence permits, and thus of their protection. This week my colleagues at Save the Children Denmark confirmed that at least 70 children are among the people that might lose the refugee status that was introduced by lawmakers in the country in 2015.

Millions of Syrian children don’t attend school

Yet the children surveyed for our research in other countries knew what they were talking about. Syria is no place for refugees to return to.

Many children do not even have a home to go back to. We know that there are arbitrary arrests and that those who return may be detained and interrogated – one of the horrors they were fleeing in the first place.

The conflict has left the country in a deep economic crisis, with the latest UN figures showing that 60 per cent of the population doesn’t have enough to eat — the highest number since the start of the crisis.

More than two million children do not go to school. Our research also found that even among children surveyed inside Syria, one in three said they would rather be living elsewhere. More than half said they are discriminated against within their communities.

Put simply, Syria is not ready for refugees to return.

Even the Danish government has closed its embassy in Damascus “due to the security situation.” Why then is Syria deemed safe enough for Syrian refugee children, who have spent most or all of their childhood knowing only war in their country of origin while being the least responsible for it?

A worrying precedent

Refugees in Denmark face a hard choice: agreeing to go back to Syria, or refusing to go back, in which case they’ll be sent to departure centres and become “aliens” in the country where they have spent years working, studying, learning the language and its customs. They’ll end up in limbo.

This is callous for any human being. But it will bring stress and insecurity to children especially. They will be taken away from their school, their friends, their homes — everything that makes them feel safe. We know that such a feeling of insecurity is extremely harmful to their mental wellbeing and can cause long-lasting damage.

What is most worrying about this announcement is the precedent this could set. What is to stop other refugee-hosting countries from doing the same?

There are an estimated one million Syrian refugees who have integrated into societies across Europe, including children like Amina, who has been haunted by nightmares for years but now speaks Dutch, goes to school and plays with her friends.

Will someone turn to her in the near future, and tell her that the feeling of safety and belonging she’s built up over the past years is about to crumble once again?

Children should not have to live in such uncertainty and fear. Denmark was the first country to sign up to the Refugee Convention in 1951, but now risks shedding its reputation as a humane country that opened its doors to the world’s most vulnerable. The government must reverse this decision and reinstall residence permits as soon as possible.

Jeremy Stoner is Regional Director for Save the Children in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

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