How should refugees be treated? It’s a fundamental question that is threatening to tear apart the EU. Denmark thinks it has the answers: that it is is fairer to deter more arrivals by talking and acting tough than to offer generosity that may encourage more to come.
The recent controversial Danish proposal to seize asylum seekers’ possessions to pay for their stay is just one of the 34-law package dubbed ‘asylpakke’ (See the bottom of the page for the full list of the initiatives).
It’s being pushed by the centre-right government to tighten asylum rules and the bills, 13 of which have already been passed, are attracting considerable domestic and international scrutiny.
Many fear Denmark’s new policies constitute a ‘race to the bottom’, infringing on human rights and international laws.
“This package is of great concern for us,” Amnesty Denmark General Secretary Trine Christensen told Euronews.
Instead of the “problematic” strategy of attempting to dissuade asylum seekers to come to Denmark, the NGO urges a common European solution to the challenges created by the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Those working closely with asylum seekers fail to see positive sides to the package which aims to “ tighten the conditions for asylum and reduce the access to Denmark."
“Worsening conditions and rights for people already here will not stop new people from coming,” says Michala Clante Bendixen, the chairwoman of Refugees Welcome Denmark. “They have to be somewhere – they can not stay in their home countries.”
This is a feeling echoed by Morten Goll, the director of Trampoline House, a community center in Copenhagen:
“Punishing people here [by tightening regulations] will not deter more to come,” he told Euronews in a phone interview. “Danish politicians think they can control the flow of refugees by changing Denmark but they can’t control the situations in war zones.”
Goll, who has worked with refugees for the past five years, said he had met hundreds of asylum seekers and not one of them wanted to exploit the system. The tightening though will make asylum seekers’ lives more miserable, he added.
Trampoline House is a unique structure in Denmark. It calls itself an ‘independent community centre that provides refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark with a place of support’. It allows them to follow language classes, receive legal counsel, have help with childcare or take part in ‘democracy and action’ workshops. The director notes the bitter irony that ‘if you want people to embrace democracy, you should make them feel equal to Danes’, which, he says, the proposed asylpakke fails to do.
No asylum seeker or refugee frequenting the house agreed to speak with Euronews, for fear of their safety and their families’ back home. So it is hard to gauge this community’s feelings.
However, Johannes Bech Dalsgaard, a Danish teacher at Trampoline House, provides some insights: “Most of my students are very concerned, most of them still don’t have asylum (…) They keep up to date [with the news about the asylpakke], sometimes more than me.”
Dalsgaard, who has been volunteering for six months, told Euronews his pupils now face harder criteria and less time to pass Danish language tests; a failure results in a reduced or revoked educational allowance.
Dalsgaard’s students come mostly from Syria and Eritrea, he says. Unsurprising given almost 80 percent of the asylum seekers who arrived in Denmark between January and November 2015 came from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, according to official sources. Syria alone accounts for 42 percent of the total numbers of demands.
The extension of the delay for family reunification for refugees to three years instead of one is one of the most criticised measures of the asylpakke. “This will create impossible situations for refugees,” explains Amnesty’s Christensen. “Do they take their family on life-threatening journeys across the Middle East and Europe, or do they leave them in their home countries” for three years? Neither is safe.”
The NGO considers this measure a violation of the right to family life, as enshrined in the Article 8 of European Convention of Human Rights, which could lead to a possible condemnation of the country at European level.
To the edge of the conventions
Official voices warn of such. The measure “is a significant violation of the rights of [the affected asylum seekers]” says Jonas Christoffersen, the executive director of Denmark’s Institute for Human Rights. “We are talking about children who have to wait three years to be taken to safety and see their father or mother again. Three years is an unreasonably long time in a child’s life.”
The state-funded Institute is Denmark’s national human rights institution. It has a mandate to advise the government, the parliament, ministries and public authorities when new legislation is suggested. Its statements are, however, not binding.
Christoffersen, who has headed the institute since 2009, says, after careful review of ECHR rulings, ‘we have a very safe basis for saying that [this measure] is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights,’ contrary to what the draft law states.
The institute recommends that the parliament does not adopt the new rules for family reunification.
It also judged harshly the rest of the measures: “We have been critical towards a proposal that was passed in November in which the government is granted authorisation to detain asylum seekers to determine their identity, to suspend the time limit for detention, and to suspend the time limit for asylum seekers’ right to judicial review of detention.” These measures are to be used if Denmark has a sudden influx of asylum seekers in great numbers, Christoffersen said.
The government’s elected spokersperson on immigration and integration issues did not reply to Euronews’ repeated requests for comment regarding some of the measures’ legality. The ministry’s website listing all the measures merely states: “All initiatives proposed by the government are compatible with the Danish constitution and Denmark’s obligations under international law.”
“The Integration Minister has said that she is willing to ‘run the risk’, which she called a ‘procedural risk’ that they may [violate the European Convention on Human Rights]. They are knowingly going right to the edge of the conventions,” Emily Cochran Bech, an adjunct professor in political science at the University of Aarhus, told Euronews. “I think the government is willing to do it because it considers the protections of family life to be a risk for the Danish welfare state’s sustainability – and they are willing to prioritise the latter.”
Lower levels of government are conflicted. Municipalities in Denmark fund expenses for refugees once they are granted asylum. So, for Niels Arendt Nielsen, head of office at Local Government Denmark, a lobby group representing all 98 Danish municipalities, reducing the numbers of refugees will reduce ‘the practical and economical pressure on the municipalitities’. However, he warns of hidden social costs: “The suggested postponement of the right to family reunification for refugees can have the effect that it will be harder for the municipalities to successfully integrate the refugees in society. We know that sadness, distress and anxiety concerning the well-being of their families plays a negative role in the integration process for refugees.”
An unsustainable flow?
The strain put by the flow of asylum seekers on Denmark’s welfare state, and its sustainability, is at the heart of the government’s arguments in favour of the package. A “pressure mounting day by day” which ‘threatens the cohesion’ of Denmark is one of the main reasons presented by the government for the package
And they see see no end in sight. An Integration ministry spokesperson told Euronews that, “based on figures from the Finance Act 2016, it is expected that Denmark will receive 25,000 asylum seekers in 2016 and 15,000 asylum seekers each year in 2017-2019.”
This continuous flow will add to the burden of the Danish welfare state. The Integration Ministry recently made public an estimate that the cost of housing, Danish lessons, welfare payments, medical services and other elements of integration programmes seekers will, until 2020, cost the Danish taxpayers 48 billion Danish kroners (6.4 billion euros).
Costs-cutting measures have already been put in place. Since late August asylum seekers’ benefits have been cut to various degrees by legislation passed by the new government. An asylum seeker without children now receive 5,945 kroner (797 euros) per month in benefits, a sum almost halved from the 10,849 kroner they received before. Single parents arriving from a non-EU country receive 11,888 kroner per month (1,592 euros), compared to 14,426 kroner before (1,933 euros).
However, when asked about the amount of cost-reducing effects of the asylpakke, an Integration Ministry spokesperson said it was not possible for the ministry to answer this question.
The situation causes anxiety outside of Denmark’s borders as well. Emulating her Danish colleagues, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Gauri van Gulik, said in a statement that ‘the international community must call Denmark out as it enters a race to the bottom’.
She added: “Denmark was one of the first champions of the Refugee Convention, but its government is now brazenly creating blocks to the well-being and safety of refugee families.”
On January 15, Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote a letter to Danish Immigration Minister Inger Stojberg to express his deep concern.
“I have repeatedly stressed that asylum seekers and immigrants should not be considered as criminals,” he wrote, in reference to the asylpakke proposals to detain migrants in ‘special circumstances’.
The top human rights official, whose Latvian parents lived for 6 years in a refugee camp in the American zone of Germany after 1944, added on the subject of the use of migrants’ assets to pay for their stay in Denmark: “I believe that such a measure could amount to an infringement of the human dignity of the persons concerned.”
The proposal would allow Danish authorities to seize refugees’ possessions worth above 10,000 Danish crowns (1,340 euros) to pay for their stay, excluding sentimental items such as wedding rings and basics such as mobile phones. The bar was initially set at 3,000 Danish crowns (402 euros). The UNHCR joined the criticisms and called the proposal ‘a deeply concerning response to humanitarian needs’ and ‘an affront to [the refugees’] dignity’.
Final vote on January 26
The Danish government will hold a final vote on the asylpakke on January 26. The parties in parliament which support the minority centre-right government, such as the eurosceptic, anti-immigraton Dansk Folkeparti, already agreed to back the package, meaning it is likely it will be voted in easily.
The political risk of international condemnation is mitigated by increasing domestic support: 70 percent of voters see the refugee question as the most important issue on the political agenda, according to the daily paper Berlingske quoted by Reuters. A separate poll showed 37 percent disagreed with giving more residence permits to refugees, compared with about 20 percent in September.
Over 20,000 people claimed asylum in Denmark in 2015. In neighbouring Sweden, over 24,000 sought asylum in September alone, for a yearly total of 163,000, according to the Swedish Migration Agency.
For refugees in Denmark, the future looks grim. Harsher conditions in the country, activists warn, could hinder integration ‘if they end up being treated as second-class citizens’ said Goll, but also push refugees to break down, mentally and physically. One of Dalsgaard’s students, who arrived from Syria about eight months ago with his brother, recently confided to the Danish volunteer: “If I’m not going to have any rights in Syria, and if I am not going to have rights in Denmark, then I’d rather die in my home country.”