For Syrian Refugees, EU Citizenship ‘Ultimate Protection’ from Assad

Mahmoud Nafakh

In addition to freer travel, EU passports guarantee Syrians the highest protection against return to Syria and normalisation of Assad’s regime. However, while conditions and requirements for citizenship vary considerably in each EU member state, some Syrian refugees have to wait (much) longer than others.

Between 2014 and 2020, the number of Europeans of Syrian descent increased exponentially. At least 130,000 Syrian nationals were admitted to citizenship in six EU member states, open-source data of the same period shows. 

This is a direct reverberation (a possible last stop of the exile journey) of the 2015 EU “immigration crisis” when 1.3 million people –a majority of whom were Syrians fleeing the regime’s violence and arbitrary detention– sought international protection in mostly Western European states. 

In Sweden and the Netherlands, where the naturalisation procedure is said to be among the least strict in Europe, almost half of the Syrian refugees who claimed asylum between 2014 and 2016 are now Europeans. 

In other EU member states like France, Belgium and Germany, the numbers are lower highlighting large discrepancies in refugees’ access to citizenship among different EU states.

Prior to his arrival in Sweden in October 2014, Abdallah, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee, was an active member of many community organisations in Lebanon working to lift the burden on Syrians, outside and inside the country. Having successfully completed language and integration courses in Malmö where he currently lives, he is now on the verge of naturalisation. 

He is particularly impatient to receive the Swedish Migration Agency’s decision. When he learned of the death of his father in Syria 4 years ago, he was so powerless that he could not be of any help to his grieving mother — whom he hasn’t seen for 8 years. With a Swedish passport, he will finally be able to go to Lebanon and reunite with her, thanks to visa-free entry. 

Since 2015, 121,000 other Syrians like Abdallah have sought and obtained international protection in Sweden. With requirements such as a certain length of continuous residency and integration courses having been fulfilled, many of them are now eligible for nationality. 

Infographic: Syrian asylum seekers in Sweden 

Relatively similar to the post-war situation of Iraqis from 2010 to 2015 [Also visible in the chart below], Syrians who sought asylum in Sweden are proceeding to citizenship at a rate higher than that of any other country in Europe. Since 2010, a total of 72,442 nationals from Syria have obtained a burgundy Swedish passport.

Infographic: Naturalisation of Syrian refugees in Sweden

Refugees in Sweden, as in any other EU state, hold a “Refugee Travel Document”, with which they can move freely between 26 EU states (except Ireland). However, as soon as Syrian refugees exit EU frontiers, they face the same visa restrictions applied to Syrian passport holders. 

Since 2019, the Syrian passport, which ranks the third lowest globally according to the Henley Passport Index, has been the most expensive passport in the world. In order to obtain one, some Syrians, especially in neighbouring countries, have to pay the regime’s consulates €265 for a Standard delivery passport, up to €705 for an emergency one. 

In addition to wider participation in political life in Sweden, Abdallah said citizenship embodies “ultimate protection, physical as well as psychological, against uncertainty surrounding the future of Syria’s regime”. 

Negotiations aimed at a political transition based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 have stalled, and the media’s attention has shifted away from Syria to more pressing global news. On March 18th 2022, Assad visited the UAE in his first trip to an Arab state since 2011’s Syrian revolution. 

Both the UAE and Bahrain decided to reopen their embassies in Syria respectively in 2018 and 2021, and many other Arab states expressed wishes to reinstate the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League. 

For Syrian refugees living in Syria’s neighbouring countries, these normalisation efforts are particularly troubling news. Despite uniquely harsh living conditions, the majority of these refugees refuse to return to Syria where they risk oppression. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented horrific violations against refugees upon their return to Syria, including arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and disappearances. The presence of 3 million Syrians in Turkey is increasingly blamed by politicians for the country’s economic hardship. 117,000 Syrians have so far obtained Turkish citizenship. 

Fear of forcible return to Syria continues to regain impetus after Denmark’s decision last year to classify Damascus as a “safe zone”, the only EU state to do so. This resulted in stripping hundreds of Syrians in Denmark – where there were only 93 naturalisations between 2014 and 2020 – of their refugee status. 

For those who are now European Syrians in the Netherlands, there is no longer a risk of return. Nael, 26 years, remembers his excitement and relief learning about the positive decision for his naturalisation request. “On October 10th 2021, I received the most amazing news, exactly 6 years, day for day, after my installation in the country”. 

According to the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service IND, applicants are required to live in the Netherlands for 5 consecutive years with a valid residence permit before requesting citizenship and the application fee is €945

Normally, 5 years would have been sufficient for Nael to receive citizenship, but the response to his permanent residency, which was obligatory for citizenship, was delayed because of Covid19. 15,000 Syrians obtained Dutch citizenship in 2020, a number ten times higher than that of 2015. 

Infographic: Naturalisation of Syrian refugees in The Netherlands

The number of Syrians who sought asylum in the Netherlands rose sharply after 2013. In 2015, it peaked at almost 19,000 Syrian asylees, a number higher than that of any other asylum-seeking nationality. This was to become the norm for all following years since.

In other parts of the EU, Syrians must wait a little longer and meet more criteria before obtaining citizenship. Although France has scrapped the fulfilment of residency length for all refugees, the process of naturalisation is notoriously slow and very dependent on long-term professional and financial stability. 

Recently in France, a few freshly naturalised Syrians have taken to social media to share their first ever participation in a democratic presidential election. 

“Today, for the first time in my life, my voice counts!  After being naturalised, I voted! I, who come from Syria, a dictatorship. It’s so moving.”

However, others who obtained international protection in France have many obstacles on the path to French citizenship. Only several hundred Syrians have been naturalised French in the last decade.

Applying for asylum has been an obligatory passage for Syrians, as well as other nationalities, who sought safety in Europe. Unlike the almost 5 million refugees who fled Ukraine after the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24th 2022 and benefited from automatic temporary legal residence in the whole EU, refugees from Syria had to wait months for a response on their immigration status and whether they would be allowed to remain in their respective hosting countries. 

Rifaat Zuraiq is a 34-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in Thuringia, Germany in late 2015. As a fluent German speaker, he has been logistically helping his fellow Syrians aspiring to obtain German citizenship with their paperwork. “Many of the Syrians I have encountered now qualify for citizenship in Germany but fail to get it because particularities related to their refugee status are widely disregarded by immigration officers”. 

In Germany, where candidates for naturalisation must have completed 8 years of legal residence, numbers are taking off timidly. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of naturalised Syrians was 22,029, which is likely to rise in upcoming years. Syrian is now the second most naturalised nationality in Germany, behind Turkish. 

Infographic: Naturalisation of Syrian refugees in Germany

Rifaat say the processing of nationality applications can vary from one German state to another. Finalising his studies as a computer science, Rifaat is certain of his eligibility to apply for citizenship but fears that his application will be rejected due to his unemployment. 

The situation is somewhat similar in Belgium where almost 5,000 Syrians have obtained citizenship. Although processing of citizenship applications is slower in Belgium than elsewhere, Syria comes 4th behind Morocco, Romania and Afghanistan. 

However, despite issuing the third lowest ranking passports, one country is still out of reach for newly naturalised Syrians. Nael says having EU citizenship leaves one obstacle. “If ever I were to come back to Syria while Assad is still in power, I would be arrested upon arrival”.

*The investigation was done under the supervision of the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism – SIRAJ, published on SIRAJ and DARAJ.

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