Refugee life in Denmark
Who comes to Denmark and why?
In 2015, most asylum seekers in Denmark came from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq or were stateless.[i] In total, a record number of 21,316 asylum applications were handed in that year. This stands in contrast to the much lower number of 6,235 applications in 2016. Interestingly, however, the number of asylum seekers who were granted the new temporary protection status (initiated on 20 February 2015) more than doubled from 1,068 in 2015 to 2,475 in 2016.[ii]While some of these could be due to a backlog from the previous year, it might suggest that, while the number of refugees coming in has fallen, the number now enjoying a lesser type of protection in the country is on the rise.
The percentage of successful asylum applications in Denmark is relatively high compared with other European countries, partly due to the fact that Denmark receives very few ‘clearly unfounded’ cases such as Serbians and Albanians. In a European context, this means that Denmark comes in at a 12th place in the relative number of asylum applications received, while it stands at 7th in terms of refugee intake.[iii]
However, for a number of those who are granted asylum, Denmark was never their intended goal; they simply got ‘stuck’ here under the Dublin regulation as they were on their way further north to Sweden or Norway.[iv] Still, refugees’ motives for choosing Denmark have been a matter of great concern in the public debate. This has led to a series of cuts to the financial support associated with the refugee existence, from legal aid to basic benefits, in an attempt to keep numbers down. In reality, however, it is difficult to say exactly why some asylum seekers choose to come to Denmark, and the limited research that has been done suggests that reputations for things such as democracy and human rights by far trump any considerations relating to welfare spending.[v]
Accommodating refugees in Denmark
Asylum seekers in Denmark are housed in asylum centres around the country where they stay while their case is processed. As of March 2017, there are 46 asylum centres in the country. The administration of 18 of these has been outsourced by the state to the Danish Red Cross while the rest are the responsibility of the local municipalities.[vi]Asylum centres are typically placed in remote locations such as old military barracks and training camps which means that they are often isolated from the general public. Most residents at the centres share a room with 3-4 other singles of the same sex, while families get their own private space. Toilet and kitchen facilities are shared between a number of rooms.[vii]
Previously, asylum seekers had the opportunity to move out of the centres after six months if their case was still ongoing. This arrangement was recently abolished and is currently being phased out; it is still possible to move in with family members who live outside the centres but only under certain strict conditions. Even families with children who could previously move out if they were still in the country 12 months after having their case rejected now have to stay in the centres.[viii] Additionally, while Amnesty International suggests that about half of asylum seekers have been victims of some degree of torture, only one centre in the country is specialised in receiving individuals with additional vulnerabilities. This is also an issue for many women, who are often in the minority, as well as religious and sexual minorities who experience harassment from other residents at the centres where they live.[ix]
Since November 2015, a number of single male asylum seekers have also been accommodated in tents in a purpose-built camp in the north of Jutland. The opening of the camp received a lot of media attention and was criticised by the Danish Red Cross CEO Anders Ladekarl, who explained that there were still free spaces at the centres already in use.[x]In addition, although some municipalities have refused to run asylum centres within their local authorities, investigations have shown that the centres are often beneficial for the economy as it creates jobs and volunteer opportunities for the local community.[xi]
Asylum seekers in Denmark are not allowed to take on paid work while living at the centres. Every fortnight they receive a small amount of cash money, popularly known as ‘pocket money’, as a personal allowance to cover necessary items such as toiletries, haircuts and phone bills. How much this is depends on a variety of different factors, but will generally not exceed DKK 4,000. (€ 530) for a whole family of four and can be as little as nothing in some circumstances. Health care is available through a small clinic at the individual asylum centre and is limited to pain relief and necessary treatments.[xii]
After being granted asylum and moving out into private accommodation, refugees will often go on to receive the controversial ‘integration allowance’. This is in place of the general Danish unemployment benefits, but counts for only about half the amount. This measure was introduced in September 2015; four years after a similar arrangement was abolished by the previous government. In theory, integration allowance is meant for anyone (regardless of nationality) who has not spent at least seven of the last eight years in Denmark, but was changed to be assessed on an individual basis for Danish nationals, ensuring these full benefits if they could demonstrate an acceptable level of ‘connection’ to the country (usually having grown up there). Integration allowance has been met with criticism from many sides and has been accused of being against both EU and international law as well as unconstitutional.[xiii]
Other than the monthly allowance, the level of support refugees get upon establishing themselves in their new homes greatly depends on the local authority to which they are allocated. Some municipalities provide refugees with a set amount of money to get started in their new home, while others buy a ‘starting kit’ from Ikea with furniture and domestic appliances. How much money is actually spent varies from place to place, leading to differential treatment of refugees, and organisations have been calling for clearer guidelines on the issue.[xiv]
Education and labour market integration
Refugees are allocated into three different Danish language preparatory courses; DU1, DU2 and DU3. Which one the individual person will attend depends on their previous educational level and whether they have suffered trauma that affects their learning ability. Typically, DU1 is for those who have no or very limited schooling, DU2 for those who have been through ground school and DU3 for those already with a further or higher education. The three are parallel to each other, and all finish with a final exam, meaning that DU1 does not lead to DU2 etc.
Still, whether the individual refugee completes one level as opposed to another can have direct influence on his or her wider circumstances. For instance, there are financial bonuses associated with having passed a minimum of DU2, and one’s chances of permanent residency and family reunification are affected, too, as well as possibilities for further study. This, in reality, means that someone with no prior education or who has been severely traumatised gets limited access to important rights through no fault of their own. The official reasoning behind these policies is that they will ‘motivate’ refugees to integrate faster. However, due to the structure of the preparation courses, this bears little logical sense, and politicians have been accused of not understanding the system or outright abusing it to look ‘tough’ on integration.[xv]
With regards to the actual labour market integration of refugees, there are still vast improvements to be made. In 2013, only 26% of refugees were in employment after 10 years in the country (compared with 73% of Danish nationals).[xvi]This has often led to the impression that refugees per definition are a burden on society, but a 2016 white paper from the Danish consulting firm QUARTZ suggests that this should be quite the contrary. Through a list of 29 concrete recommendations they touch upon some of the issues already covered in this report, such as the remoteness of the asylum centres and the lack of streamlining between local authorities.[xvii] In March the same year, a tripartite agreement was reached between trade unions, employers’ associations and relevant political authorities, pledging to make a greater effort to increase employment among Denmark’s refugee population.
Refugees’ experience of prejudice and hate in Denmark.
Research around the public debate surrounding refugees in Denmark has shown that many opinions are based on feelings rather than facts. In other words, prejudice is playing an important role in how refugees are viewed by Danish nationals. According to June Dahy, lecturer of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, people do not necessarily possess a fixed idea of what a refugee should be like, but rather what they ‘should not’. [xviii]This results in refugees being met with scepticism if they, for example, wear branded clothes or have an expensive smartphone. Likewise, a study has shown that the refugees who are the most integrated experience the most discrimination in society.[xix] While it may not come as a surprise that those who engage the most in the public sphere also expose themselves more to other people’s (hostile) reactions, it reveals the lack of reasoning behind the prejudice they face.
At times, prejudice against foreign nationals has resulted in direct hate crimes against the refugee population in Denmark. In 2015, a middle-aged man was charged with racism and violence after he spat down from a motorway bridge onto a group of asylum seekers walking below him.[xx] On more than one occasion, asylum centres have been subject to vandalism and arson, with perpetrators leaving behind neo-Nazi propaganda along with threats of further assault and instructions to ‘go home’.[xxi] In August 2015, a young asylum seeking man was attacked and beaten by three masked men when he was cycling on his way back from football practice. The incident was reported to the police, but no one was convicted of the crime.[xxii]
Michala C. Bendixen, Founder and Director of Refugees Welcome
You are very active in the fight for refugee rights in Denmark. What drives you?
It is first and foremost a desire for greater justice. I feel very lucky and privileged being middle class Dane, and I think it must be one of the most terrible things for a person to be forced to leave their country, family, language, culture, job, status … and arrive in a foreign place and ask for permission to stay there. Many refugees have even seen their homes be destroyed, they have been imprisoned and tortured, have been subjected to rape and other assaults, or have seen their loved ones be exposed to it. And they are very often separated from their loved ones for years.
When I found out that there was a huge need for someone to explain to them the Danish system and help speak up on their behalf, I started to familiarise myself with rules and practices. And I realised that I could really make a difference – change decisions and influence media and politicians. It is a great satisfaction to feel that you can push things a bit in the right direction.
Personally, and at a human level, I have also gained an incredible amount from working for refugees. I now have close friends from all over the world and it is so much more interesting than having friends with the same background as you. You are always learning something new and you see your own culture from the outside – being forced to think about why you do what you do and what you can do better.
But it is also very hard emotionally. You get so frustrated by the unfair rules that hit good people hard. And often one can do nothing but explain to people that that is what the rules are like.
However, I have also gained a better understanding of the system over the years – they are difficult decisions and there are people who lie. At first I was quite black and white, now I see the nuances and dilemmas.
How do you look at the development in Danish refugee politics over recent years?
The two most frustrating things are that we now openly and without concern set other rules for immigrants/refugees than for Danish citizens and that we have begun to consider refugees as people who only have to stay here for a few years and then go back again. These two things are so misunderstood and they undermine everything. We must not accept discrimination; we do not want the Denmark of A-citizens and B-citizens that we have got with the integration allowance and many other rules designed to hit foreigners. We will also completely fail at integration if we focus on sending people back home.
I have been warning about the new alliance between the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democrats for several years. And in my opinion, it represents the Social Democrats’ move away from solidarity and the protection of the vulnerable, which has led to a broad majority among both the general public and members of parliament who now agree that immigration is an evil and that we just have to take care of ourselves. Denmark has made a head start in the race to the bottom in Europe, where we have deliberately made the country as unattractive for refugees as possible, in the hope that they will choose other countries instead. But it is a party game where you are just pushing people around and destroying refugees’ chances of becoming equal citizens which is something that would benefit all of us.
Imagine if Denmark had joined forces with the other Nordic countries and Germany to pull together – get housing and jobs, speed up language tuition etc. We have huge resources that we could use completely differently if we wanted to. Sweden has tried, but one country cannot do it alone, so in the end they also had to throw themselves into the race to the bottom.
If you could give one piece of advice to the Danish government, what would it be?
To recognise that refugees have come to stay and that more will come – their home countries will not become safe in the near future. We have to invest in them and see them as children of some kind (moreover, over half of refugees in Denmark are actually under 18 if you count family reunions) – if you treat children with respect and love and give them good opportunities to develop, they will end up being an asset to society. Refugees want to work, they want to learn Danish, they want to get to know the Danish culture – they just need a fair chance.
Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, MP and Spokesperson on Immigration, Integration and Naturalisation for the Red-Green Alliance
As the Spokesperson on Immigration, Integration and Naturalisation for the Red-Green Alliance, how do you feel about the current Danish government’s policies on refugees?
The Red-Green Alliance is of the basic conviction that the current government’s refugee policy is too restrictive. An example: for many years, the largest government party, Venstre, argued that UN quota refugees who came to Denmark for resettlement under arrangement with UNHCR were ‘real’ refugees, and that it was better to provide them with protection rather than letting primarily those refugees who could afford to pay criminal human smugglers gain access to Denmark. Then in 2016, the government decided to suspend the intake of quota refugees.
Both the former government under Helle Thorning-Schmidt and, in particular, Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s government have tightened refugee policies beyond what’s humanely defensible. Here, I am referring in particular to the new category of ‘temporary protection’ from section 7(3) of the Aliens Act where refugees lose the right to family reunification the first three years after receiving leave to remain in Denmark. It is obviously harmful for the integration of refugees in Denmark that they have to focus on spouses and children who may find themselves in dangerous situations in Syria or in poor conditions in one of the neighbouring countries, rather than being able to look ahead at their lives in safety in Denmark.
It is also deeply problematic that the criteria for how safe the home country has to be before refugees can be returned have been significantly lowered. Thereby, we risk destabilising vulnerable countries that are under reconstruction.
This is not to say that the Red-Green Alliance wants to provide protection to millions of refugees in Denmark. Support within the local region is crucial, and if Denmark and other countries in time – immediately after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in 2011 – had provided assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries and to the neighbouring countries themselves, there would not have been over a million refugees coming to Europe in 2015. Stabilisation and long-term support inside the region is a prerequisite for any qualified effort to help refugees in situations such as the Syrian.
As long as neither Europe nor the world has found an effective and humanitarianly sound alternative, Denmark and the European countries must live up to their obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Why is the topic of asylum important in contemporary Danish politics?
Compared to other parts of the world, the Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway and Denmark – have a relatively high level of tax funded welfare. If, as an asylum seeker, you had the choice between travelling to Italy, Romania or Denmark, many would choose Denmark. If hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Denmark in a short amount of time, you could imagine that the welfare state would be challenged.
About 21,000 people sought asylum in Denmark in 2015 and fewer in 2016. The welfare state is not challenged with the current level, and Denmark has no financial difficulties in meeting its constitutional obligations in relation to people seeking protection in Denmark and being recognised as refugees.
But it is imperative that we get our education system, healthcare system and labour market organised so that refugees have the best opportunities to get by and contribute to society.
The right wing populist Danish People’s Party has succeeded in focusing on the negative aspects of the refugee presence in Denmark. And several of the dominant parties in Denmark have strongly contributed to maintaining a negative focus on, for example, the crime committed by a small minority of refugees or refugees who for various reasons have not found a job.
If you could give one piece of advice to the Danish government, what would it be?
Stop isolating from the outside world and drop your declared goal of going to the limit of what the UN Conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights allow. Instead, play a constructive role in the UN and other international forums. Denmark, as a relatively resourceful country, has a responsibility to help people seeking refuge in Denmark and to make an active effort globally – diplomatically and economically. This is crucial for international cooperation if the problems are to be solved. It is not only lack of solidarity but also unrealistic to believe that they can be solved nationally.
Eva Singer, Head of Asylum and Repatriation at the Danish Refugee Council
The Danish Refugee Council was founded in 1956 to support Hungarians fleeing to Denmark during the Soviet invasion. What role does the organisation play for those seeking asylum in Denmark today?
There are a lot of tasks we have in Denmark. If we look at it historically, back then we were an organisation, as you say, that worked with integration in Denmark. Then in 1999, an Integration Act was made for the first time, which greatly changed the tasks of DRC, because until then we were basically in charge of the first three years’ integration programme for all refugees. That was passed on to the municipalities at that time in 1999, and what happened then was that we started working much more internationally, too. As time went by, it was quite clear that the municipalities needed some help, so that’s why we actually still work a lot with integration today, even though it is the municipalities who have the primary responsibility.
So, what we do today, with regards to asylum seekers in Denmark, basically from their arrival, is that we have advice in different forms; legal advice taking place in this department, the Asylum Department. You can say that three tasks that our department has are general advice, then legal aid, and also advocacy, which of course flows through everything that we do.
For those who are granted a residence permit we have these integration programmes that we do for the municipalities. We have a very large network of volunteers who help the individual with their integration; then we have language schools that help with Danish language, and we also give advice, here in this department, on repatriation for refugees and immigrants who have a residence permit but who wish to make use of the special options available under the Repatriation Act. Those are decisions that ultimately lie with the municipalities, but where individuals stop by us to get clarification as to whether they have planned everything well enough; if they are resolved in terms of what it means to repatriate and thus give up their residence permit in Denmark. That’s the speeded-up version of what it is we do in Denmark.
Why are your domestic activities still important?
You can say that all the tasks I have just mentioned are important. The first part in relation to the newly arrived asylum seekers; it is important to ensure that their rights are respected, but also that the advice we can give the individual applicant helps them understand what is happening in Denmark. And we can contribute both with the expertise that we have and the very long experience that we have.
And then in the area of integration, of course, they are other challenges that refugees face today than they did in 1956, but not so terribly different. There is still need for help to be integrated into the Danish society. And, additionally, we can say that everything we do is very solution-oriented, so we have the very practical tasks and we have the advocacy tasks, but it is always with a view to say: ‘What do we do here? How can we come up with solutions, either that we can carry out ourselves, or that the authorities can implement?’
If you could give one piece of advice to the Danish government, what would it be?
That was an interesting question because we usually have a lot of things where we say it would be a good idea to do such and such and such. If it had to be only one piece of advice, and here I probably speak from the very rights-based approach here in our department, but then it would be something like; ‘Do not throw away our basic principles simply because it seems hard right now.’ And with this, of course, I mean that, in recent years, it seems to me that, not only with human rights, but also in general with discrimination, equal treatment and so on, it’s cumbersome and so we can change what is acceptable, we can relax on the requirements. But I fear that it will have consequences not only for foreigners, but also for ordinary Danish citizens if we go too far down that road.
Maja Rettrup Mørch, Head of Communication, Advocacy and Volunteering at the Danish Red Cross Asylum Department
What is Danish Red Cross’ most important job when refugees come to Denmark?
We have many different tasks when asylum seekers come to Denmark. But overall, what we want to do in the area of asylum is to give asylum seekers a safe, meaningful and dignified day-to-day life. When they arrive at Sandholdt [reception centre], it is communicated to them that they are safe here, and they get information about what will happen in the next few days.
The reception itself must also be set up in a way so that there is as much peace and quiet as possible for the asylum seekers; there is no doubt that they need to relax. And when some time has passed, and they move on to what we call residence centres, which are asylum centres where you live while the case is being processed, it’s very much about maintaining a day-to-day life that is as normal as possible, so that the residents retain the skills they have, but also so that they can start acquiring some of the skills they need if they are to stay in Denmark.
So to start with, it is the very basic things; clothes, a place to sleep and something to eat, and then later it becomes more advanced in relation to what may also be needed to learn; things that you can use if you get to stay here.
How has the so-called refugee crisis impacted Danish Red Cross’ work?
I like the fact that you say ‘so-called’ because I’m also of the feeling that I do not like to call it a refugee crisis, seen in a Danish context, because we have not been exposed to anything in that connection that Denmark could not handle, or that Red Cross could not handle. So it might be more a political crisis than anything else.
However, in the context of the large increase in the number of asylum seekers between the summer of 2014 and up to the beginning of 2016, it has of course meant a lot for us, also because we have had to expand and open new centres. We have been pressured on our organisation because it had to be expanded quickly, but we have tried that before; we have been running asylum centres since 1984. So we have a very reasonable level of readiness, and also a good model for how to rapidly open more new centres. How to take experienced employees from existing centres and move them out, and then sort of fill up with the less experienced ones at the existing centres. So it actually worked, indeed it worked really well.
And then it also had the effect that, because the political debate around the events became so quickly polarised, there were many – and many more than we had seen before – who chose to mark their position by also signing up to actually do something. So we had some days there in the autumn of 2015 where there had been these pictures on television of refugees who were walking on the motorway. We had a few days where we had people just sitting there; we had three employees just answering the phone and receiving calls from people around Denmark who would like to help in all kinds of different ways. Some who wanted to donate things, some who wanted to be more long-term volunteers and some who wanted to organise charity gigs, all such things. And of course that was very nice to see, very overwhelming. Then, of course, it is our job to take care of all those enquiries in a good way and also to try to channel it into some of the activities we know are meaningful for the asylum seekers. So it was actually a very good experience in that way, and has given the whole volunteer area at our centres a big boost.
If you could give one piece of advice to the Danish government, what would it be?
Well, I think it would be to be aware that what we are witnessing is a humanitarian disaster of quite unseen dimensions, and that it must be kept in mind, even when making policies at home, that it is a humanitarian crisis out there, and what we believe here in the Red Cross is that we must meet it with humanitarian efforts. Of course, we cannot be that political in our organisation, but the humanitarian mandate does give us a right also to talk about, for example, the longer wait for family reunification, which was introduced as a restrictive measure along the way; it’s something that’s very intrusive and very frustrating for all the people involved. So all these kinds of things.
Elizabeth Adams, Red Cross volunteer at Asylum Centre Kongelunden
As a volunteer at a Danish asylum centre, what is your impression of the conditions for asylum seekers in Denmark in 2017?
It depends what conditions you are talking about! The physical setting that I have seen at Asylum Centre Kongelunden may not be beautiful but, all in all, they are functional (if you ignore the whole mold situation). And, because it is a specialist care centre, there are certain advantages.
The conditions that are slightly less obvious, but which nevertheless can be decisive, are far less satisfactory: the lengthy processing times for asylum applications and inadequate social and legal aid and access to interpreters – and general uncertainty about people’s situations both before and after asylum decisions are given – are very degrading. I have not seen a single person who has been in the system for more than 6 months without being negatively affected. In addition, we have people who are refused because of completely inadequate knowledge about countries of origin, people returning while they are still suffering from life-threatening diseases that cannot be treated in their country of origin – and the mentally destructive removal centres that, unlike asylum centres, are specifically designed to break the human spirit, and only help to create shady parallel societies…
You might think that I am too emotional, but I cannot see how these circumstances will benefit anyone. And in the long (and often too short) run it (also) costs a lot of tax money!
Why did you choose to become a volunteer at an asylum centre?
I live almost right next to one, and had been curious for a long time. And it feels like a moral imperative, at this time – both for the sake of the refugees and of the country/Europe. One can try to keep out the influx and break both back and soul – or be compassionate and at the same time constructive. And then I got hooked by realising that very little can stretch incredibly far and by learning how to best help strangers who quickly become friends. It’s the best cure I know against the powerlessness you can feel about the xenophobic and unconstructive political discourse – it feels better to do something than just to watch. And I almost always go home from the centre in a better mood than I came, unbelievable as it may sound – you meet such lovely people…
If you could give one piece of advice to the Danish government, what would it be?
I asked my boyfriend, who is a refugee, this question – his bid was: ‘Stop being so annoying!’
But (half) joking aside – it’s hard to stick to just one piece of advice! So I give you three.
1) Processing times MUST be reduced to ensure mental well-being at asylum centres.
2) The people who process and decide in asylum cases should be better educated! I have heard someone from the Refugee Board admit/complain that cases were settled on the background of a Wikipedia page, and several cases that I have followed have been rejected despite obvious (and legally valid) reasons for asylum which the least amount research could have confirmed. Some of them eventually had the decision overturned, but only after many years of gruelling waiting time. Others were less fortunate.
3) Which brings me to the third point: do not place asylum centres so far away from (bigger) cities! While the rural location of many of the centres seems idyllic from a Danish perspective, in practice it means that applicants have far less opportunity for an active and therefore meaningful and tolerable existence while they wait. It requires a connection with the whole community, should they have any hope of learning Danish and integrating. In addition, it would cause less unnecessary concern in the wider society – people are afraid of what they do not know – so we can fight the fear simply by getting to know asylum seekers better. And if there are problems to be solved, then we will see them and solve them, instead of chasing ghosts. It’s harder to demonise one’s neighbour than a group of nameless strangers who live in a forest.
All of these things are based on common sense, and should be obvious enough to be impossible to get around for anyone who has had anything to do with the area of asylum. Nevertheless, if I were to come up with a single piece of advice instead of three, I would take the step further than my boyfriend and say ‘stop being so stupid!’ – but then I would be just as unconstructive as the government’s (dis)integration policies.
Description of what happens if they do not receive the refugee status
As previously mentioned, asylum cases rejected in the first instance are automatically appealed to the Refugee Board who will make the final decision. In 2015, 21% of rejections were overturned by the Board and asylum granted.[i]Because no further court appeal is available in Denmark, there is very limited option for those whose rejection is upheld by the Board. To reopen a case, there must have been considerable changes to the situation in the home country or to the way in which cases are handled by authorities; or new information or evidence must have been made available. Few cases are reopened and even fewer overturned if they do.[ii] Alternatively, rejected applicants can complain to an international body such as the UN Human Rights Committee or the European Court of Human Rights, but this is a very complicated process that can often take years.
Thus, most rejected asylum seekers face a choice between agreeing to a voluntary return or refusing to leave, in which case they may face detention and possible deportation. The majority refuse. Those who do not go into hiding are transferred to the custody of the Danish Prison and Probation Service who run the immigration removal centres where they are then placed. Often, the only way to get out of a removal centre is to return to the country from which a person has fled, but even deportation against his or her will can prove challenging if there is doubt surrounding the identity of the person or if the home country is unwilling to receive. As a result, people end up being stuck in the system for many years, even up to decades.[iii]
Apart from the obvious lack of future prospects for those who cannot easily be returned to their countries of origin, there are several other concerning issues around pre-departure accommodation for foreign nationals in Denmark. The immigration removal centres are basically open prisons with varied levels of control. Unlike regular prisons where inmates are supposed to rehabilitate through different types of activity, however, asylum seekers waiting to leave the country have their lives stripped of content as much as possible. Because they are not staying in the country, the authorities have no particular interest in supporting recreational activities for rejected asylum seekers, and the pain of living in isolation and boredom is even seen as a ‘motivation enhancing measure’ to make more people return voluntarily.[iv]
Moreover, asylum seekers who are not guilty of any crime, often end up sharing accommodation with other foreigners who have committed such serious crimes that they have been evicted from the country and are awaiting deportation. Lack of clarity from political side means that the distinction between rejected asylum seekers, people on tolerated stay and foreign criminals is muddled to the extent that innocent individuals feel they are viewed and treated as lawbreakers.[v]
In some instances, rejected asylum seekers can even be detained in closed prisons if there are doubts surrounding their identity or if they are suspected of planning to abscond. This incarceration should only be initiated immediately prior to a person’s deportation, but some un-convicted individuals have been known to spend months or even years behind bars.[vi] There are two closed detention centres in Denmark currently in use for rejected asylum seekers, and both have received stark criticism for the conditions in which people live. In 2013, Amnesty International published a report expressing concern over the physical and mental health, especially with regards to PTSD, of detained asylum seekers in the Ellebæk detention centre.[vii] In 2016, the ombudsman made a visit to the Vridsølille detention centre, along with DIGNITY (the Danish Institute against Torture) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. They found a profound lack of knowledge among staff at the centre and called for better assessments of the residents to identify survivors of torture.[viii]Detention of vulnerable individuals without prior medical screening and adequate accommodating measures is in conflict with both the European Convention on Human Rights and official UNHCR guidelines.[ix]
Analysis of how the media depicts the refugees in Denmark
In recent years, refugees and asylum seekers have been subject to growing levels of media attention in Denmark. The increase in coverage by mainstream media has sprung out of the rising number of people making their way up through Europe and is reflected in the number of citizens showing interest around the topic. Thus, in October 2015, seven out of 10 Danish nationals viewed immigration policies as the most important area in contemporary politics.[i] According to a white paper released by Infomedia.dk in 2016, the overall coverage in Danish media has been quite balanced in its views on immigration (with outlets evenly spread out between positive, negative and neutral). However, the readership has been considerably more negative towards the idea of welcoming refugees with almost half the population believing the government is not tough enough on immigration; more than twice as many as those who believe they have been too tough.[ii]
An analysis published by the organisation Ansvarlig Presse (Responsible Press) in February 2017 suggests that, while immigrants have received a lot of attention in the media, they are not very well represented as a source with a voice of their own. This has caused a disparity in the media because it presents foreign nationals as individuals to be talked about rather than listened to.[iii] Additionally, the vast majority of media stories concerning refugees focus on those who have sought asylum in Europe rather than the states adjacent to conflict zones where most refugees are present – a tendency which has created myths around the distribution of refugees in the world.[iv] It thus seems that people, despite heavy media coverage, are still basing their opinions on false believes rather than facts and real understanding. This claim may also be backed up by the fact that there seems to be a higher level of xenophobia in municipalities with fewer immigrants, as suggested by research institute Voxometer.[v]
Refugee or not refugee? A question of language
The challenge around handling a sensitive topic like that of the refugee crisis has led to some debate and self-scrutiny within the Danish press. Some journalists claim to be just ‘saying it as it is’ while others acknowledge their role (or even obligation) as ‘activists’ within the current climate.[vi] The language used by the media to convey stories about refugees has been analysed from different sides, and it is especially the choice of word between ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ that has been subject to debate. Some promote more effort to be made to ensure the correct wording is always in place, pointing out that politicians are rarely challenged by journalists on the words that they use.[vii] Meanwhile, others highlight the fact that, many times, it can be difficult to tell the difference and that their foremost task is to distil an extremely complex situation without oversimplifying it.[viii]
In any case, most agree that the media carry a tremendous responsibility in giving a serious and thorough account of the refugee crisis. When journalists are vague in their language they are accused of delivering reports driven by emotion and not taking the debate seriously or downplaying the scale of the situation.[ix],[x] Worse still, they leave the job of ‘thorough explanation’ to those with their own agenda. Thus, we see opinion pieces stating that ‘[In 2014 in the EU] only one in four asylum seekers was granted refugee status. This is also often done on the basis of information from the applicants which is both fragmentary and difficult to verify. As it is normal in such situations that the applicant gets the benefit of the doubt, the proportion of real refugees is probably overestimated.’[xi] While none of this is technically incorrect, it is a good example of how facts can be manipulated to draw questionable conclusions and look like they are expanding on a topic when in fact they create a gross and unhelpful simplification that casts suspicion on all individuals in the process, refugee status or not.
Refugees as undeserving
The narrative casting doubt over asylum seekers’ genuine need for protection is repeated in the stories about dissatisfaction with the conditions they meet in Denmark. Some media single out individuals dropping their asylum applications and returning to their home countries after admitting that they only came to Europe to seek a better standard of living but finding Denmark’s asylum system to be ‘like a prison’.[xii] Others notice that ‘ungrateful’ asylum seekers are disappointed they cannot continue to Sweden but have to file their asylum application in Denmark due to the Dublin regulation – a notion also highlighted by the same Minister of Immigration who is otherwise busy proving she can ‘scare of’ asylum seekers by creating an image of a country that is tough on immigration and actively cuts back on foreign individuals’ rights, should they wish to settle there.[xiii]
The central issue here becomes the fact that asylum seekers are put in an impossible situation by media outlets who refuse to investigate whether the conditions under which people live are, in fact, substandard or not. If the story goes that ‘anyone given protection from authoritarian leaders and terrorist groups has no right to demand any more than what we decide to give them’, we create a situation where Denmark, by default, is the heroic, hospitable state offering asylum to poor, persecuted populations. In this scenario, asylum seekers have no agency of their own or control over what is to be expected from either side and, if they chose to take on the agency anyway, they are ‘ungrateful’ and probably not ‘real refugees’. Nowhere is there room to investigate whether some of the complaints are actually justified, whoever the complainant may be.
Within this context, politicians and the media have vast room to paint the picture of refugees and asylum seekers they wish to present. Indeed, there have been instances where outlets have failed to let facts get in the way of a good story, such as when a group of asylum seeking ‘fussy eaters’ allegedly went on hunger strike over the food they were served at the asylum centre where they lived. The incident made it into the national media coverage before being proven incorrect.[xiv] Another, and more common, attempt to smear refugees in the media is the tendency to use headlines to give the impression of unreasonable and demanding refugees while further down in the article revealing that experts do in fact agree with their requests. This happened in June 2016 when refugees on the aforementioned integration allowance complained they were not able to take time off during summer when their children were off school as they were expected to apply for jobs on a full-time basis and be ‘available to the job market’. The article was sold under the headline ‘Refugees protest: we want summer holidays’. However, both the Danish Refugee Council and Danish social workers sided with the refugees, arguing that the absence of free time for refugee families was in fact discriminatory.[xv]
Denmark as a country of refuge
Danish media has been the provider of several negative storylines around Denmark’s status as a host country for refugees. This report identifies three main strands.
Firstly, there is a tendency to shift focus away from state level and onto the individual local authority when assessing the ‘burden’ refugees present to the country. It’s a common theme that municipalities simply cannot keep up with the number of new residents they receive; they lack both the money and the available housing, which makes it an impossible task to accommodate everyone who seeks asylum in Denmark.[xvi]
The underlying assumption here is that the state is accepting too many refugees, not that they are providing insufficient resources that might actually be available. An article from November 2015 by the print media BT featured a statistic for people to see how many of the refugees who were ‘streaming into the country’ had come to live in their area.[xvii] Furthermore, the article suggested that refugees had ‘chosen’ to settle down in specific areas; an impression that is in complete contrast with reality as refugees have no real choice in deciding which local authority is to host them when they receive refugee status.[xviii]
Secondly, there have been reports focusing on the ways in which Denmark could avoid the influx of refugees by instead sending asylum seekers to far-away destinations such as Greenland or Kenya. Some members of parliament have suggested that refugees be kept either in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or in state-run off-shore centres until they can safely be returned to their country of origin; anything that prevents them from settling in Denmark.[xix] On several occasions, the Australian model has been highlighted as an example to follow, even by social democratic politicians, although they have focused more on its necessity in the crackdown on human smugglers than in keeping Denmark free of asylum seekers.[xx] However, it is a common theme in the debate that Denmark must work to prevent asylum seekers from staying in the country for the simple reason that ‘refugees are not good for Denmark’.[xxi]
And thirdly, media outlets have used stories from Germany and Sweden to show the negative consequences of accepting large numbers of refugees into one country. Because Denmark is placed right in the middle of the two, they are the some countries we most frequently compare ourselves to, and, given their recent liberal attitude in welcoming refugees, they serve as the perfect example of what can go wrong when borders are opened. Thus, stories will often zoom in on individuals who are radicalised or commit different types of crime, thereby giving the impression that refugee populations contain too many troublemakers or that the risk is not worth taking. One article focusing on immigration in Germany suggests that it is the wish of ‘the Turkish, along with the many thousand new immigrants from Syria, Eritrea, Lebanon, among other countries, to Islamise the German democratic society’.[xxii]
Another article opted for a big headline laying out how many Euros refugees are costing Germany while further down explaining that even the highest estimated amount is still below 2% of GDP.[xxiii] However, the irony inherent in the coverage of Sweden and Germany within a Danish context is most pronounced when used to explain why the pressure on our neighbours means Denmark should in fact be cutting down on immigration. When Sweden sent out a plea to other European nations asking them to work for a more even distribution of refugees, the Danish Minister of Integration used it as an opportunity to showcase why Denmark needs further restrictive measures. Not because we do not have the capacity (in contrast to previous statements of hers), but because it would ‘change Denmark’.[xxiv]
Follow-up on the refugee crisis
Danish asylum policies and the ‘refugee crisis’
Hostility towards immigrants in Denmark is by no means a new phenomenon, but many of the specific restrictions discussed in this report were introduced around November 2015-January 2016 as part of a wider reformation of the asylum system. The reforms were pushed through by the centre-right government party Venstre, elected in May 2015, whose governing powers are heavily dependent on the support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party (DPP). DPP are well-known for their anti-immigration policies and have praised the Australian model where refugees are kept physically separate from the country’s population throughout the entirety of their ‘protection’.[i] They received 21.1% of the votes at the election, making them the second biggest party in parliament after the Social Democrats and bigger than Venstre itself who only got 19.5% of the votes.
The recent developments in Danish immigration politics have been strongly characterised by the firmness of the current Minister of Immigration, Inger Støjberg. This was first reflected in the controversial adverts she had published in a number of Lebanese newspapers in September 2015 which detailed how the new Danish government was taking steps to make it much harder for refugees to settle in Denmark. The ads were criticised by the Danish ombudsman, but as the first minister in history to do so, Støjberg declared openly that she did not agree with the ombudsman and so did not accept the criticism.[ii]
One law which received a lot of media attention, also abroad, was the measure introduced to allow confiscating refugees’ assets if they had a value of over DKK 10,000 (€ 1,340). Kristian Jensen, Denmark’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, had to defend the law in front of both the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council at the country’s latest UPR session in January 2016. But while critics remained vocal on the issue, little real action could be taken against the rule, especially considering Denmark’s legal reservations in its membership of the European Union.[iii] In total, the government put forward a packet of 34 new restrictions which were described by experts as ‘one long punishment and humiliation of refugees without respect for human rights’.[iv]
Denmark’s place in Europe
Denmark is in the interesting position of being physically positioned right between the two European countries that have made the most serious effort in welcoming refugees in recent years; namely Germany and Sweden. While Denmark has continued to send asylum seekers back under a collapsing Dublin regulation, it knowingly let others travel unhindered through the country if they were aiming towards a destination further north. This practice continued until the winter of 2015/2016 when Swedish authorities started to introduce increasing levels of border control. The Danish government reacted swiftly by introducing similar measures at the southern border to Germany, drastically cutting down on the number of refugees entering into the Nordic region. Since then, both Sweden and Germany have started to take inspiration from Denmark, introducing restrictive policies in the areas of accommodation, length of protection, financial support and family reunification for refugees.[v]
Moreover, Denmark’s membership of the EU means that it should adopt policies and agreements made by the European Parliament. However, because of the legal reservations already mentioned, Denmark – along with only the UK and Ireland – has the option to opt out of certain types of EU policy. When the European Parliament decided on an emergency relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy in September 2015, the Danish government chose not to participate.[vi]
Still, Denmark needs to protect its reputation as a country that stands up for justice and human rights. In January 2016, Inger Støjberg defended the Danish asylum system in front of the European Parliament where she explained how refugees were always treated well in the country, and that she took great pride in her efforts to protect those fleeing violence and destruction. Political commentators pointed out the irony in this statement, as it stood in direct contrast to the clampdown on immigration she had promised her own electorate when she presented her ideas for reform at domestic level.[vii]
In the second half of 2017, Denmark holds the presidency in the Council of Europe. The Danish government has already promised to use the opportunity to get Europe back to the ‘core of the conventions’ which, in its opinion, ‘have been removed from their original intentions’.[viii] What exactly this will entail remains unclear, but Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has stated he wants to promote a ‘modern understanding of historical conventions’ that will make it easier for Denmark to control its own immigration politics.[ix]
The subjective perspective
At a personal level, the refugee crisis has been an eye-opener and a wake-up call for me, which has shaped my life and career over the past six years. Growing up in Denmark, I was not oblivious to the xenophobia tainting the views of certain sectors of society, but I also knew of the Danish Refugee Council as the largest NGO in the country and rarely doubted our collective will to protect those fleeing war and persecution. During my teenage years, I started taking an interest in human rights as a concept, and, after having moved to London, I started volunteering in a charity teaching English to refugees and campaigning on issues affecting the refugee population in the UK.
It was 2011; the year the war broke out in Syria, and my first year at university. As the crisis unfolded, I became aware that I had involved myself in something that was not the ‘agreeable’ area of humanitarian activity I had first (perhaps, naïvely) believed, but what was to become the great debate of the decade. And, as news on the political development in my native Denmark started ticking in, there was no turning back; we were facing an uncomfortable reality which was not going to confront itself. So, when I learned that IWB for Refugees was looking for a researcher from Denmark, I took the opportunity to become more systematic in finding out what was actually going on back home; findings ultimately culminating in this report.
Denmark is a small and historically homogenous country with little immigration to consider before the 1960s. But it is also historically progressive and has often led the way in promoting social inclusion and protecting minority rights. As the country saw a sudden hike in the influx of people from ‘foreign cultures’, these two timelines clashed, and conflict erupted. This is put very simply, but, I believe, goes some way to explain the political polarisation we have witnessed in recent years. As hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers grows, we downsize the rights and liberties that underpin the very territory we are claiming to protect. As such, we see the policy restrictions outlined in this report; the introduction of temporary protection and the loss of rights associated with it, the lack of expertise and specialisation within the asylum system and controversial measures such as confiscating people’s assets.
It is this way that we end up at the ‘edge of the conventions’ in an attempt to cut down on the number of individuals entering the country; an attempt that, to some extent, has achieved its intentions, but that has also had catastrophic consequences for some of those who have been allowed in. And these consequences, this author will argue, are beneficial for neither the refugees nor the rest of the population. The discourse of ‘what is good for the refugee is bad for us’ seems scarily prominent and has given birth to a logic dictating that the harder we make it for someone, the greater an effort they have to make and, in turn, the better a citizen they will become. In reality, what we are seeing is the emergence of a group of individuals who are not given the same chance to succeed as their fellow residents, and a rising hostility between those who are for and against that outlook. Meanwhile, more refugees are being produced around the world, more human traffickers are profiting off people’s attempt to escape the neighbouring countries where resources are rapidly running out and more governments are cracking down on ‘illegal immigration’, often with violent fallouts.
Many things need to be done to handle the current situation, in Denmark and abroad. European countries must develop a stronger mechanism to redistribute refugees and stick with it. More effort to support neighbouring countries hosting refugees and more humanitarian visas should be used to tackle criminal smugglers, and peace and stability in refugee-producing countries must be top priority to combat the push-factors creating refugees in the first place. However, it wouldn’t be fair of me to end this conclusion before taking a stab at the same question I presented to all of my interviewees in this report; if I could give just one piece of advice, what would it be?
For me, it would be to rethink the integration of refugees, putting human rights at its core. If we recognise that integration is a genuinely two-way process, it must be more than a quid pro quad scenario which at its core suggests that each part has to lose before it gains, and where the host country is in control of what is both given and demanded in return. MIPEX, the European Migrant Integration Policy Index, uses the social and political rights in different policy areas such as health and education as indicators of the level of integration foreign individuals living in a given country enjoy.[i] Seen in this light, integration is not something we demand from refugees before they have proven ‘deserving’ enough to enjoy basic civil rights; in fact, rights are the very foundation necessary to enable any integration in the first place.
And if treated as such, I believe, we would be in a much better position to challenge many of the restrictive measures within Danish asylum policy outlined in this report. Access to education and the labour market should be promoted to encourage the social and economic contribution of refugees. But less obvious links such as the negative impact the lack of access to family reunification has on someone’s ability to hold a job must be taken equally seriously. Policies should be streamlined in accordance with stronger national guidelines to avoid unequal treatment. And the ugly notion that someone can be ‘undeserving’ or ‘ungrateful’ for demanding their rights must be eradicated. A rights-based approach promotes the active agency of individuals affected by particular processes that they go through. As such, refugees should be consulted on the issues affecting their lives in the host country; both because it is their democratic right and because they are the best experts available in securing a good and lasting integration.
Just giving refugees more rights is not going to automatically solve everything, of course. More issues will persist and require further study and expertise to secure the protection of refugees, both nationally and globally. The debate around determining someone’s refugee status will remain, but certainly not become any clearer if we do not take studies and recommendations from international experts seriously. But it is my hope that, if we learn to focus more on rights within refugee integration, we will see actual improvements making us less likely to fear immigration in general. And, crucially; it could bring us closer to having the prerequisite knowledge and understanding to respect people’s right to seek asylum in the first place.