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Welcome to the Impact newsletter, your guide to global feminism. This week, I am very proud to share an investigation into the plight of Syrian domestic violence survivors in Denmark. This article is a product of more than two years of reporting from my colleagues and I as we sought to understand how some of the most vulnerable refugees found themselves on the wrong end of Denmark’s hardline asylum seeker policy. 

If you’re pressed for time, here are the main points in brief: 

  • Syrian domestic violence survivors who fled their country’s civil war to Denmark are having their residency permits withdrawn after the Danish government decided certain parts of Syria are “safe”.
  • While Syrian men under 45 years old are automatically given full refugee protection in Denmark due to the risk of military conscription back in Syria, women asylum seekers are often given temporary protection visas, which can be withdrawn at any time.
  • Experts say that Denmark’s anti-asylum seeker policy does not recognise the specific threats women face in civil conflict and is undermining its global reputation as a leader in gender equality. 

The following extract is published in partnership with the non-profit newsroom Lighthouse Reports and New Lines magazine

By Megan Clement and Mais Katt

In the video, Faten’s ex-husband Wael plays with an unloaded gun. He spins it around his finger. He snaps the magazine in and out of place. All the while he talks to her, speaking directly into the camera.

“You are lucky because you are in Europe,” he says. “But you will be back for sure.”

“I am in Syria, waiting for you,” he continues.

“Europe will indeed send you back.”

He places the gun against his temple and pulls the trigger: “I am going to shoot you in the head like this.”

Faten and her children live in the suburbs of a Danish city. (We are not using the real names of her or her husband, or naming the city, because of his threats against her.) Her body is still scarred from Wael’s abuse. She says that in Syria he would burn her arms with cigarettes, beat her and cut her with a knife. He tried to force her to sell sex to his friends.

Faten left him in 2011, the year the Syrian civil war began. She went to Damascus and married another man, moving with him to Iraq in 2013. “I didn’t love him,” she says of her second husband. “But I wanted to escape and be far away.”

When Faten’s second husband left her, she fled to Europe with her mother and the children she had with Wael. They arrived in Denmark in 2015, along with tens of thousands of other Syrians.

But in 2019 the Danish government announced that Damascus was now considered safe enough for asylum-seekers to return to, stripping hundreds of Syrians of their right to live and work in Denmark. The decision was widely condemned by the U.N. refugee agency, the European Commission, and international human rights groups, who documented the risk of torture and forced disappearance under the government of Bashar al-Assad. This year, Danish authorities expanded the areas of Syria they designated as safe, including the western province of Latakia.

More than 1,000 Syrian refugees have since had their permits reassessed and more than 100 have lost their final appeals since 2019. Denmark does not have diplomatic relations with Syria, so the government cannot actually return asylum-seekers there yet. Instead, those who have lost their right to stay are sent to one of three remote “return centers” in Denmark, where they cannot work or study, for an indefinite period.

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When Faten heard about the policy, she was terrified. She knew what it could mean for her — that she could be returned to a country where Wael could find her and kill her. He had been surveilling her since she left him. “He was always following my news, asking friends and relatives about me and the girls.”

When Wael heard the news, he saw an opportunity. He found his ex-wife on Facebook and began to send the threatening videos, which have been viewed by New Lines for this story in partnership with investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports.

“You are coming back from Denmark,” he says in one, while dressed in military fatigues (Faten thinks he might be fighting for the Syrian regime, or as part of a militia). “I will slaughter you.”

In March 2021, Faten received the letter she had been fearing: the Danish Immigration Service was revoking her residence permit.

The Refugee Convention, which expands the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, sets out five types of persecution under which someone can be considered a refugee: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. These categories often fail to account for the nature of the threats women experience, advocates say.

“It’s not that [women] face less risk than men — I would say sometimes the opposite — but the kind of risk is different,” says Michala Bendixen, the director of Refugees Welcome Denmark. “Conventions don’t really consider this enough. Because they were written a long time ago, and they were written by men.”

“It’s a crazy situation where you design a special status, which will be given to the most vulnerable and which will be the easiest to revoke,” Bendixen says. “So the most vulnerable are on the frontline when you have a discussion about returning.”

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Since she arrived in Denmark, Faten had repeatedly told authorities of the threat her husband posed to her if she was returned to Syria. “I showed the police here in Denmark everything,” she says of the regular interviews she has had with immigration officials since 2015.

Yet her lawyer, Helle Holm Thomsen, says the immigration officers who reviewed whether to withdraw Faten’s permit in 2021 did not believe her – they questioned whether the man in the video was actually her ex-husband, and implied she’d arranged for the videos to be sent herself, to bolster her case.

The Danish government told us that it takes incidents of domestic violence into account when considering credible threats in an asylum-seekers’ country of origin. But Holm Thomsen says in practice it’s common for women asylum-seekers not to be believed by immigration authorities. “This is how it is in Denmark, the suspicion is that they are just making these things up.”

Faten was able to appeal the decision to withdraw her temporary permit, and was eventually granted an upgraded residency permit in September 2021, one that is based on the individual threat posed by her husband.

Yet even after sharing all that trauma — from the scars on her arms to the videos of her ex-husband holding a gun — her permit was only granted for one year. While it was renewed again in 2022, each time is a reminder that her life in Denmark may be limited. And each time, she risks being called back in for an interview to go over the story for the authorities again. She now has until September next year before her permit expires.

Noura Bittar Soeborg, an advocate for Syrian refugees and women’s rights in Copenhagen, says the process of renewing residency permits is often dehumanising for women. She has been rejected for permanent residency twice, despite having completed a master’s degree in Denmark and having had a Danish daughter with her ex-husband, because she was unable to meet the continuous employment requirements due to suffering from chronic illness. She says her mother’s application is also at risk after she lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m exhausted from proving myself,” Soeborg says. “The government is doing systematic violence to us.”

If Faten had arrived in Denmark with a husband the same age as her, she would have been covered under his stronger status too. But as a single woman and a survivor of domestic violence, she has been required to prove over and again that it is precisely a man of military age who poses the greatest threat to her in Syria.

Back in Syria, “there is no government or police to go to, it’s all corrupt, even more than before,” she says. “If he wants to hurt me or my daughters, he will do that easily.”

Fernande van Tets contributed reporting. Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Charlotte Alfred. This story was produced in partnership with Lighthouse Reports. It is an excerpt of a longer investigation published in New Lines Magazine. You can read the full article here

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Impact is a weekly newsletter of feminist journalism, dedicated to the rights of women and gender-diverse people worldwide.

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Impact is edited and often written by Megan Clement. It is translated by Anna Pujol-Mazzini. Agustina Ordoqui writes the monthly news wrap and our regular news updates on social media.

Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund and is a production of Gloria Media, based in Paris, France. Gloria Media is managed by its founder, Rebecca Amsellem.

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