Disbelief and criticism have been among the reactions of the UN, the EU, and international human rights organisations since the desire of the Danish government to outsource the country’s asylum processing and integration of refugees to a third country made headlines last week.
Despite stark warnings from experts and condemnation from global partners, a proposed bill to amend the Danish Aliens Act and ensure the legal groundwork for such an externalisation ambition was passed with a strong majority by the Danish parliament on June 3, 2021.
The government's ambition to transfer Denmark's asylum responsibilities is nothing new but dates back to a proposal in 2018 by the now governing Social Democratic Party for a reform of the asylum system.
From the outset, DRC has been among the voices strongly condemning this plan and expressing our fears that such a move has the potential to undermine the global refugee system. But while the legal grounds have now been established, there is still no agreement with a third country and Denmark will not be able to send asylum seekers anywhere in the foreseeable future. The government reports that they are in dialogue with “a handful of countries”, but the negotiations are surrounded by secrecy.
This law raises more questions than it answers. Because there is no concrete transfer agreement, it is unclear how a potential external reception centre should be administered, and whether it would be under Danish or the third country’s jurisdiction. Regardless, either way, Denmark would still have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of people who are transferred to such a centre are protected and not violated.
But how will Denmark be able to ensure this protection for people in a sovereign country thousands of kilometres away? This is difficult to imagine. Unfortunately, we do not have answers to these questions because the bill, blindly passed by a majority in the Danish parliament without due consideration, did not include any details on the practical implementation of the project.
Rights violations and lack of solidarity
Denmark is not the first country to try to externalise asylum processing and refugee protection.
Australia is probably the best-known example, having received worldwide criticism for the reprehensible conditions of offshore asylum centres on the islands of Nauru and Manus. These conditions include long-term detention, lack of health care and access to legal assistance, and cases of physical abuse. By looking to such models, the risks of external asylum processing are clear: extensive use of detention, excessive force, and the potential for serious and widespread human rights violations.
By adopting this model, Denmark is sending a potentially dangerous signal to countries in the EU and around the world, including some of the poorest countries which take by far the greatest responsibility for the world's refugees despite struggling with internal challenges of their own. If a wealthy and democratic nation like Denmark is not willing to take its small share of asylum responsibility and demonstrate international solidarity, then why should countries like Lebanon, Uganda, or Bangladesh?
What would the world look like if the countries hosting most of the world’s refugees opted out of joint efforts to find sustainable solutions, like Denmark is doing?
Based on a false premise
The law passed by the Danish parliament is based on the faulty premise that it will provide a humane alternative to the current asylum system by removing the incentive for asylum seekers to set out on perilous, like-risking journeys to Denmark and thereby also break the business model of smugglers and human traffickers.
However, this argument is as false as it is disingenuous.
The potential future “Danish” asylum centre in a third country, will not allow for spontaneous asylum seekers, but only process asylum claims of those arriving in Denmark, meaning they would still have to endure an often dangerous journey - only to be transferred to an imaginary refugee camp far from their home country and far from Denmark.
The fallacy at the heart of this law reveals its true purpose: to discourage people from seeking asylum in Denmark. Clearly, limiting the protection of refugees in Denmark and forcibly transferring asylum seekers to a third country does not create more or better refugee protection, nor does it address the very real dangers that refugees face in their attempt to find safety, in Denmark or elsewhere.
When the plan to outsource the asylum process was originally proposed by the now governing Social Democratic Party in 2018, the UN was originally assigned an important role. In response, UNHCR has been among the biggest critics of the plan, consistently arguing that it is neither responsible nor sustainable.
When the recent law passed in the parliament, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi reiterated his agency’s criticism: “UNHCR strongly opposes efforts that seek to externalize or outsource asylum and international protection obligations to other countries. Such efforts to evade responsibility run counter to the letter and spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the Global Compact on Refugees where countries including Denmark agreed to share more equitably the responsibility for refugee protection.”
The EU also reacted strongly. Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner on Home Affairs, has called the model “unrealistic” and reaffirmed that the EU will never outsource its responsibility to the world's refugees. And the EU Commission's spokesperson, Adalbert Jahnz, decried that Denmark's decision raises fundamental questions about access to asylum and effective access to protection.
Despite the Danish government’s insistence that its plan to outsource asylum processing is both humane and realistic, the widespread consensus at home and abroad remains that it is neither. DRC joins in this consensus and condemns Denmark’s new law as not only unsympathetic and irresponsible, but inherently dangerous to global structures of asylum cooperation and even more so to the millions of men, women, and children who are in desperate need of protection.
At a time of record displacement, the world needs countries to work together, not turn their backs on each other.
Charlotte Slente is the secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council, an international humanitarian displacement organisation, supporting refugees and internally displaced persons during displacement, in exile, upon return, or when settling and integrating into a new place.