Faeza Satouf was granted asylum in Denmark in 2015, having fled the civil war in Syria with her family.
Six years later, despite her integration into Danish society, she has been told she must go back, alone, and soon.
Denmark has become the first European country to start revoking residency permits of some Syrian refugees, a decade since the fighting started.
It deems the capital, Damascus, and its neighbouring regions to be safe to return to although experts disagree.
The Danish government argues it made clear all along to Syrian refugees that they were being offered temporary protection.
The policy follows years of mass migration to Europe, which peaked in 2015 with one million new arrivals on the continent.
‘I will be arrested upon my return’
Satouf says unlike in Denmark, there are no laws in Syria that can protect her.
“My father is sought after in Syria, so of course I will be arrested upon my return,” she said.
And she cannot understand why a country that encouraged integration is now telling her she needs to leave.
In the past six years, Satouf has learned Danish, graduated from high school with flying colours and is now studying to be a nurse while working in a supermarket.
Denmark and Syria have no diplomatic relations, so if people refuse to return there they cannot be forced.
Instead they are sent to deportation centres, which the Red Cross says are like prisons.
Single women are likely to be sent to the Kaershovedgaard deportation centre, a remote complex of buildings about 300 kilometres west of Copenhagen.
Access is strictly limited, but Red Cross photos show rudimentary infrastructure where cooking is banned and activities are restricted. Even Danish language lessons are not allowed.
“It is like a prison, but they are allowed to go out in the daytime,” said Gerda Abildgaard, who has visited the centre for several years for the Red Cross.
Men who could be conscripted into Bashar al Assad’s army are not currently being told to return.
“This is very much down the line of gender,” said Satouf’s lawyer, Niels-Erik Hansen. “When I have a male client, I will send him right away to the Immigration Service and he will get asylum within three weeks. A female client will get rejected … and we will have to take this case to the refugee board. So when I look into the pile of cases that I’m representing at the board, it’s like 90% women and 10% male.”
Change of policy
Denmark, previously renowned for its openness and willingness to take in those in need, was the first to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
The policy shift is the result of a left-wing Social Democratic-led government, whose immigration stance has veered to resemble that of a right-wing party.
Though the numbers of asylum-seekers in Denmark have plummeted since the peak of the migration crisis, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reiterated in January a vision of having “zero asylum-seekers.”
Standing in front of the deportation centre’s heavy gates, Abildgaard pleads: “But is Syria safe again? It’s only Denmark who says that. All the other European countries don’t say that. Only Denmark.”
Human Rights Watch said this week that “conditions do not presently exist anywhere in Syria for safe returns.”
Furthermore, children’s rights group Save the Children said on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” to discover that at least 70 refugee children are at risk of being expelled to Syria.
In government-controlled areas the security situation has stabilised, but entire neighbourhoods are destroyed, and many people have no houses to return to. Basic services such as water and electricity are poor to nonexistent.
Moreover, forced conscription, indiscriminate detentions and forced disappearances continue.
“This is also a lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe,” said Hansen, Satouf’s lawyer. “As the first country that starts to withdraw residence permits for these refugees, we are, in fact, pushing people to go to other European countries.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered in front of parliament to protest the deportation orders, surrounded by Danish friends, classmates and work colleagues.
A nervous Satouf told her story to the crowd, alongside others: a brother and sister facing separation, siblings whose residence permits were expiring the next day, a high school student surrounded by her Danish classmates, a single woman who couldn’t comprehend how Denmark, with its claim to uphold and defend women’s rights, could be doing this.
“They say I should marry someone who has political asylum to stay here,” said Nevien Alrahal who travelled to Denmark with her elderly father and who faces her final appeal on Friday. “That’s a choice I don’t want to make.”