Across Europe, Syrian refugees have largely escaped the anti-migrant wrath shown by governments towards other nationalities. Increasingly, that honeymoon period is now coming to an end.
For several years, it has become clear that European countries see Syria less as a humanitarian disaster and more as a bureaucratic problem. Much of that is due to migration.
Since the Mediterranean refugee 'crisis' of 2015, in which EU countries briefly broke with precedent and resettled hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, a new consensus has emerged - it must never be allowed to happen again.
European states have strengthened their collective and individual borders. They have picked sides in every political dispute bordering the Mediterranean. All of it designed to control the waves of people pushing up against the continent’s borders.
But these measures cannot in themselves decrease the numbers of asylum seekers who are already within European countries. For that, other excuses need to be found.
For much of the past decade, many European countries have accepted Syrian asylum seekers with an implicit generosity they have not shown to others.
The country’s civil war has been so long and so gruesome. The terrorist groups present in Syria, as well as the regime of Bashar al Assad, are good enough reason to flee the country. Anyone going back remains at risk of murder by one of the country’s armed groups, or its criminal state.
I have heard from people who worked for Britain’s Home Office – the country’s interior ministry – that, for much of the last decade, if a claimant proved they were from Syria, official protocol leant in favour of their being granted asylum.
But this policy appears to have been temporary. Now European states want to be rid of those Syrians who apply for asylum in their countries. The Guardian reported at the weekend that the Home Office declined a young Syrian man’s application for asylum.
He had fled Syria in 2017 to avoid conscription into the Syrian Arab Army, and had arrived in Britain in 2020. "It is not accepted," the man was told by the Home Office, "that you will face a risk of persecution or real risk of serious harm on return to the Syrian Arab Republic due to your imputed political opinion as a draft evader."
This story caused political outcry. Syria is not safe, especially not for defecting conscripts – they risk imprisonment, torture and murder if they are sent back to Syria.
As many activists noted, deporting Syrians who have fled the country delivers them into the regime’s hands. If they had at any stage criticised the regime, or protested against it, or ever had a bad word to be said about the country’s civil war – sending such people back to Syria is tantamount to signing their writ of execution.
It is possible this outcry surprised the Home Office. A statement that this rejection was made in error was swiftly put out on Twitter. In any case, Jonathan Hargreaves, Britain’s Special Representative for Syria, insisted, the "UK position remains unchanged: Syria is not currently safe for refugee returns. We are not sending people back to Syria."
He wasn’t lying, per se – Britain’s position has not changed. But it came very close, if there had been no outrage, to changing.
Between the Guardian report and the government denial, it seemed as though another European state, this time Britain, had followed in the footsteps of others: misstating the apparent safety of Syria to deport an asylum seeker – changing policy for cynical reasons.
Other European states have done so before. In Denmark and Sweden, for example, there are legal challenges to their increasingly established systems of deporting Syrians.
Its government first classed Damascus and its surrounds as ‘safe’ in 2019, beginning a legal path to declaring Syria as a whole a ‘safe country’ to which it was acceptable to deport failed asylum applicants under international treaties.
This effort intensified in 2021, where it was met by widespread protests. Individual Syrian test cases have already been told to leave their lives in Denmark, as their appeals against deportation have run out.
Sweden echoed Denmark’s declaration that parts of Syria were ‘safe’ in early 2021. Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, of whom there are many thousands in Sweden, now fear being told that their home country, which they know to be unsafe, awaits their prompt return.
Syria is not safe; its civil war grinds on. But that does not diminish the power of legal fiction spurred on by domestic politics.
Anti-refugee sentiment is not just the consensus of European governments; it has come to reshape domestic politics. After the Assad regime was rescued by Russian and Iranian intervention in 2015, Europe has largely accepted Assad’s survival. And in so doing, its countries have spotted an opportunity to tamper with the logic used by European asylum systems for much of the last decade.
New refugee waves are seen on the horizon: from Afghanistan, Lebanon, and from northern Africa, where terrorist insurgencies and military coups prompt fears of more mass migration.
Any opportunity to turn away asylum seekers is seized upon. They are politically unpopular – and anyway, for European politicians a little change in the rules now might send a useful message for the future.
Syria is not safe. But that is immaterial. Syrians can be exposed to danger if European politicians decide they must be. And dangers lie in Syria and outside it –in the political choices of countries not affected by Syria's civil war, but near enough to feel its effects, and willing to imperil Syrian citizens.
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