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 list of areas of Syria designated as safe, which now includes 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.

When Faten heard about the policy, she was terrified. She knew what it meant 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 the 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. Her future was suddenly clouded in uncertainty.

Faten’s future had been decided by a refugee policy that experts say has been disproportionately punitive toward women. In the case of Syrian refugees, Denmark has “gone so far with their anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies that they’ve ended up undermining their own commitment to gender equality,” says Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Of the more than 150 Syrians who have lost final appeals to keep their Danish residence permits since 2019, over 70 are women, including 49 in 2021 and 15 in 2022, according to figures provided by the Danish Refugee Appeals Board.

A spokesperson for the board that reviews appeals on asylum decisions told New Lines that it is “always aware of the current situation in the country from which the asylum seekers in each case is [sic] from, and therefore attentive to issues such as violence against women.”

This has provided little consolation for Syrian women asylum-seekers, hundreds of whom are on yearlong asylum permits that can be easily rescinded, despite the gendered risks they may face at home or indeed in Denmark.

Migration advocates were surprised when a recent ruling by the board took gender into account in a serious way for the first time. In January, the board decreed that female Afghan asylum-seekers could be granted the strongest form of refugee protection available, solely on the basis of their gender, due to the risk posed by the Taliban, who have all but erased women and girls from public life since they took power in August of 2021.

“I think we were all very happy when, finally, the Danish government did something right to refugees,” says Noura Bittar Soeborg, an advocate for Syrian refugees and women’s rights in Copenhagen, of the Afghan decision. “Unfortunately, when it comes to women from other nationalities, it’s not the same.”

Outside of a situation as extreme as that in Afghanistan, which the U.N. recently described as “gender apartheid,” refugee advocates say asylum procedures are often blind to the specific dangers faced by women asylum-seekers — including domestic violence, sexual abuse and forced marriage. In order to be granted protection, they must battle through a system designed by, and for, men.

Successive Danish governments from across the political spectrum have constructed a tiered asylum system in which women are routinely offered weaker protections. The difficulty of applying the Refugee Convention — the 1951 U.N. treaty that formalized the rights of refugees under international law — to women asylum-seekers is shared across EU countries, but Denmark’s system is uniquely harsh because the country has a specific “opt-out” from the bloc’s immigration policy.

In 2015, as Syrian refugees began to arrive in Europe in large numbers, Denmark’s right-wing then-government created a new “temporary protection” category and made it easier to withdraw permits if conditions in asylum-seekers’ countries of origin improve, even if these gains are fragile.

Figures provided to Lighthouse Reports by the Danish Immigration Service show that 64% of Syrians given this weakest form of protection are women, putting them at significantly greater risk of return.

This is because Syrian men of fighting age risk being conscripted into the military if they return and are therefore more likely to be given the strongest form of protection available in Denmark, known as “convention status” because it is based on the Convention. If Faten were a man, she would not have to go through the same process — she would instead have been granted convention status because of the threat of military conscription.

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 front line when you have a discussion about returning.”

Since she arrived in Denmark, Faten has repeatedly told authorities of the threat her husband poses to her if she is 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-seeker’s country of origin. But Holm Thomsen says that, 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.

Victoria Canning, who researches the gendered impacts of the Danish immigration system, calls this constant need to reassess asylum status “inhumane,” particularly for survivors of traumatic abuse. “You are creating a kind of egg timer, where a woman is watching time go by, counting down to potentially reentering or experiencing the kinds of traumatic abuse that she has experienced in her past and is still impacted by in the present,” she told 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.”

An unintended consequence of the policy is the splitting of families. A brother might keep his permit because the threat of military conscription means he has stronger protection, but a sister loses hers because she was given the weakest form of protection. Syrian families have already been split along gender lines within Denmark, with the men allowed to continue their new lives, while women’s permits are withdrawn.

“Syria is very unsafe for women, especially women alone,” says Soeborg, who has conducted research with dozens of refugee women in Denmark who have experienced domestic violence.

Denmark’s hard-line stance on migration began in 2015 under a right-wing coalition government that included the nationalist Danish People’s Party, but it has been embraced across the political spectrum. After taking office in 2019, Prime Minister Mette Fredericksen’s center-left coalition oversaw the removal of Syrians’ permits as part of a wider policy shift away from integrating refugees to returning as many as possible — a policy whose stated goal is to have “zero spontaneous asylum-seekers.”

Following elections in 2022, Fredericksen’s new bipartisan coalition has doubled down on tough rhetoric, while signaling it may make exceptions for refugees in understaffed professions, following public backlash about Syrian nursing students being ordered back to Damascus.

When Fatima (not her real name) arrived in Denmark in 2016, she was going to be reunited with her husband. He had fled Syria in 2014, after the intelligence services began investigating him. Fatima had cashed in her savings in gold to fund his trip and had been caring for his two daughters from a previous relationship in his absence.

In Syria, Fatima saw the worst of the brutal civil war. She worked as a nurse treating victims of the fighting — she met her husband when she tended to his mother’s gunshot wound. A volunteer from the Danish Refugee Council, who has worked with many asylum-seekers over the years, said Fatima’s traumatic experiences in Syria were the worst stories she had ever been told.

When Fatima and her stepdaughters landed in Denmark, her husband met them at the airport. “My husband approached me and took the two daughters and whispered in my ear: ‘I don’t want you,’” she says. He had been relying on her to bring his children to Denmark; once the girls had been delivered, he tried to abandon Fatima before she could leave the terminal.

Fatima’s brother-in-law eventually managed to convince her husband to allow her to come home with him. “During the first days, he would treat me very badly — he would lock me in the room alone, he would take the girls out to eat and leave me without food at home,” she says. He began to beat her.

In the following days, Fatima was visited by the usual host of officials and volunteers who help new arrivals with processing their claims and settling into Denmark. Today, she has trouble remembering who was who.

“A woman arrived and said she was my contact person and that she would help me,” Fatima says. The woman gave her a booklet about integration in Denmark, but Fatima had bigger concerns. “I told her that my husband does not want me and wants to divorce me.”

Fatima was informed that if she divorced her husband, she would have to go back to Syria. Fighting was raging in her hometown, which we are not naming due to security concerns. “I went crazy,” she says. “I was very afraid to return.”

Because Fatima had come to Denmark through family reunification, her presence in the country depended on her being married to her husband.

Bendixen says this rule can trap women in abusive relationships, forced to decide between the risk of living with an abusive partner and the risk of being returned to a war zone. To get a new residency permit under their own names, women have to prove that they are integrating into Danish society — an impossible task for new arrivals who have not yet had the chance.

“If you arrive, and you get your permit, and then you decide to divorce right after, then you’re in trouble,” Bendixen says.

Rejected by her husband, Fatima had no choice but to take that risk. During a visit from local officials, she found a way to silently reveal the abuse she was suffering. “I stood behind my husband so that he could not see me, and I revealed my chest and legs so the women could see the blue marks on my body and the traces of the beating.”

The caseworkers helped Fatima escape her husband’s house and took her to a domestic violence shelter, where staff helped her begin the process of divorce. But Danish immigration authorities still revoked her residence permit, stating this was because she was “no longer cohabiting at the same residence with [her] former spouse.”

The only way to stay in the country was to apply for asylum from scratch, Fatima was advised. When she went to the asylum center, she was turned away at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Fatima spent the weekend sleeping in a train station, as she didn’t have the money to get back to the shelter.

“I could not talk to the police, I have been afraid of them since I was in Syria. It is impossible for me to talk to the police or ask them for help,” she says.

Fatima eventually received a new permit, which must be renewed every two years. She remains terrified that she will have to return to Syria. She still has panic attacks at the thought of being forced to leave Denmark. “Every time there is a political change or elections in Denmark, I get scared and tense because my situation is unstable and I cannot obtain permanent residency.”

Permanent residency is another often-impossible hurdle for women asylum-seekers to clear. Soeborg, the women’s rights advocate, says she herself 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.”

Today, Fatima lives in a home for people suffering from mental illness. She has been diagnosed with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, her fear of germs exacerbated by the pandemic. She has diabetes and severe rheumatoid arthritis, and needs a walker to move around. She rarely leaves her room. She has little contact with her beloved stepdaughters because she has divorced their father, and they are not biologically related.

“I told my psychiatrist that I do not want to go back, even if I am a dead body,” she says.


Fernande van Tets – contributing reporter
Amie Ferris-Rotman – Global News Editor, New Lines Magazine

Media Partners:
This story was a project of the investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and was published by New Lines Magazine (English), Daraj (Arabic) and Impact newsletter (French & English).