By Nikolaj Skydsgaard
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -Despite mounting pressure from lawmakers and civil society organisations, Denmark is determined to push ahead with efforts to return refugees to war-torn Syria as it claims conditions in parts of the country have improved.
On Tuesday, the EU's top migration official expressed concern about the approach after the Nordic country decided last year to review hundreds of residency permits for Syrian asylum seekers.
In response, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Danish parliament last week to protest the move to revoke residency permits, echoing calls from NGOs and EU lawmakers, who say Syria is not safe to return to.
"Denmark has been open and honest from day one. We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist," Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye told Reuters on Tuesday.
Since 2019, more than 200 Syrian nationals from the Damascus region have had their residency permit revoked by Denmark out of more than 600 cases that were reviewed, according to the Danish Immigration Service.
The EU's migration commissioner, Sweden's Ylva Johansson, said she had raised the matter with Copenhagen, where the government assured her it would not force deportations.
"Nobody could be forced to return to Syria," Johansson told a news conference, expressing doubt that those who cannot be sent back should have their right to work or study revoked. "This is something that concerns me."
Also in 2019, the Danish government started offering Syrians money for leaving the country, around 175,000 Danish crowns ($28,427) per person. At least 250 Syrian nationals have voluntarily returned to Syria with such support since then.
"When the conditions in their home country have improved, former refugees should return to the home country and re-establish their life there," Tesfaye said.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, EU-lawmakers on Friday expressed regret at Denmark's efforts to "expel Syrian refugees" and urged Frederiksen to make a "180-degree turnaround" in the country's asylum policy.
"Deportations to a country at war must never be normal. Denmark should not take a vanguard role here," said the letter signed by 33 lawmakers from 12 EU countries, including Germany and France.
Sweden and the United Kingdom have also concluded that the general conditions in Syria's capital region have improved.
But the Danish Refugee Council, an NGO, said Denmark was the only country in Europe to start systematically rescinding Syrian refugees' residence permits on those grounds.
Both the European Council and the European Parliament have issued declarations saying conditions are not in place for the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees.
Similarly, the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, has called on states not to forcibly return Syrian nationals to any part of Syria, even those areas controlled by the government, such as the capital region. ($1 = 6.1560 Danish crowns)
(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Angus MacSwan)