During a stay abroad in China as part of her studies at the Nanjing Agricultural University, the life of Danish student Anna Caroline Nørregaard took an unexpected turn in the spring of 2016, as she fell in love with Senegalese co-student, Muhammed.
After several visits to each other’s home countries during the following years, the couple decided to move to Denmark to start their life together.
However, things did not turn out quite as they expected.
With little prospect of receiving any kind of permanent residency within the first eight years of living together in Denmark, the young couple decided to move to neighbouring Norway, where the right to free movement within the European Economic Area (EEA) would assure the stability of a five-year visa for Muhammed.
Apart from easily obtaining a visa here, their stay in Norway would significantly facilitate the process of obtaining permanent residency in Denmark, as they will be allowed to apply under EU law, when and if they return to Denmark.
“The choice to move to Norway in order to eventually apply under EU law was based on the prospect of the uncertainty and risk related to applying under Danish legislation,” says Anna Caroline.
“As we plan to have children in the future, the prospect of only being able to receive temporary residency for the first eight years of living together in Denmark would make our life together so unstable, that we see no other option than to try applying under EU law instead, even if it requires a move to another country first”.
Ranking 35 out of 38 countries on family reunion according to The Integration Index, Denmark is estimated to have the least favourable family reunion policy amongst all European countries listed except the UK, Ireland and Cyprus, leading some Danish nationals to rely on laws originally aimed at other European citizens.
With a total of 68 significant changes made to the immigration laws in the country between 2002-2016, according to the Danish Refugee Council, her concerns seem not entirely unfounded. As of this date, the requirements for bringing a non-European partner to Denmark as a Danish citizen includes raising a deposit of 13,410 euros in financial security, a marriage certificate or the proof of sufficient cohabitation, appropriate housing and meeting 4 out of 6 so-called integration requirements, a significantly larger set of requirements than seen in neighboring countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and Sweden.
Although requirements in these countries include financial security, adequate housing and valid marriage or cohabitation, there are no requirements as to expected integration adeptness, the maximum amount of social benefits received in past years, or proof of affiliation to the country in question, as was the rule in Denmark earlier this year.
According to statistics from the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration, approximately 5,179 foreigners have been denied family reunion rights with their spouses under Danish law since 2010, approximately 22% of all such applications during this period.
For Anna Caroline and Muhammed, both 25 years old, it is not only the difficulties associated with obtaining residency that concerns them, but equally the effects this legislation will have on their future at large.
“I feel very limited by the rules in Denmark, because if we want to move to Senegal for a while, something we are considering, it would negatively affect our prospects of obtaining residency for Muhammed in Denmark later on”, Anna Caroline argues.
Applying under EU law will allow the couple to obtain a five-year visa by meeting requirements only involving sufficient financial funds, valid relationship and adequate housing, the same requirements they now have to meet in Norway. Furthermore, a permanent residency can be obtained after only five years.
The European Union rules stating that ‘when an EU national is working abroad in another EU country, family members also have the right to reside and work in that country, regardless of their nationality and without having to meet any other conditions’, has makes it easier for other European nationals to move to Denmark with a non-European spouses, than it is for Danes to do the same.
As a result of an "internationalization strategy" backed by the government, the number of Danish students who chose a stay abroad as part of their studies has almost doubled in just 5 years, increasing from 8.222 in 2012 to 15.295 in 2017, according to figures from Statistics Denmark.
What the strategy did not consider though, was that the likelihood of students finding their life partner beyond Danish borders would increase proportionally as a study published in 2014 by the European Commission suggests that approximately 24% of students who choose a stay abroad will find their future spouse during their stay abroad.
Like in other European countries, the question of immigration has divided the population, affecting the lives of not only foreigners, but also of European citizens. The Danish Minister of Immigration and Integration, Inger Støjberg, is causing diversion in the Danish population these years, with a large part of the population appreciating her affords to tighten the rules on immigration, while others accuse her of cynicism, especially a stunt to celebrate her 50th change to the Danish immigration policy with a cake on social media in 2015.
Family life vs immigration control
Professor in International Relations and specialist in Migration, Johannes Dragsbæk Schmidt, argues that the legislations causing Danes to leave Denmark, is only part of a much larger challenge in Europe today.
“As the question of immigration has become highly politicized, particularly in the aftermath of the refugee crisis, political parties in many European countries are simply forced to consider stricter immigration policies as a central part of their political strategy, even when it is against their core political values”, he said.
“In terms of protecting the human rights to family life of European citizens married to non-European spouses, this development is problematic but will be undermined by greater political concerns”.
Although recent changes have been made in June 2018, in order to facilitate the process for Danish citizens with non-European partners, these changes do little to help younger couples according to a spokesperson for the organization Marriage Without Borders, Lars Kyhnau Hansen.
“While the removal of the affiliation requirement in favour of the new integration requirements was supposed to make it easier for Danish citizens to bring partners to Denmark, is has only made it harder for younger such couples, as the new system requires a financial commitment of 13,400 euros and an employment history which most younger people have simply not yet accumulated”, he says.
Simone Strandsbjerg says the “legislative circus” forced her to move to Sweden with a view to earning the right to live in Denmark with her Ghanaian partner of three years, 31-year old Patrick.
“Although I understand the need for some regulation on immigration, I do feel a certain injustice when essentially not being allowed to live in my own country with the partner of my choice”, she says.
As a result of a new democratic process on trial in Denmark until 2020, seven Danish citizens cofounded a so-called ‘citizen proposal’ in order to secure the right of Danish citizens to live in Denmark with their foreign spouses. If the proposal receives sufficient support by the closing date on 11th of September this year, it will be discussed in parliament.