Why is Denmark under fire over a new law to send its asylum seekers abroad?

The legislation approves the potential for Denmark to process asylum seekers in a reception centre abroad
The legislation approves the potential for Denmark to process asylum seekers in a reception centre abroad Copyright Mikkel Berg Pedesen/AP
By Rachael Kennedy
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Denmark approved amendments to the legislation on Thursday - so will changes take effect straight away? What has been the response?


Denmark's passing of legislation that paves the way for asylum seekers to be held in countries outside Europe has prompted a strong reaction - and many more questions.

The amendments to the Danish Aliens Act was approved last Thursday with 70 votes to 20. There were no abstentions and 85 MPs were absent.

What does this mean?

In short, the Danish government has been authorised to move asylum seekers to other countries while an individual's application is processed.

This isn't something that would happen right away - Denmark would need to form an agreement to partner with another nation first.

Which countries could asylum seekers be sent to?

We can't yet know for sure; however, there has been widespread speculation that locations are being considered outside of Europe - possibly Africa.

It comes after the Danish government signed a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda in April. While it is not legally binding, it sets in motion the potential for future negotiations and cooperation.

Talks are also ongoing with Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt, according to Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

How would the scheme work?

It's worth reiterating that Denmark has yet to agree a deal to outsource its asylum applications to a country outside of Europe.

But, if it did, how would it work?

If a migrant transferred from Denmark fails in his/her bid for asylum, then he or she will be asked to leave that country. 

But if the migrant is granted asylum, he or she will not be automatically returned to Denmark, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, a specialist in migration issues at the University of Copenhagen, told AFP. It would simply be that the migrant has refugee status in the host country. 

This has raised concerns about the countries Copenhagen chooses to strike deals with - in particular around their human rights record. 

Charlotte Slente, secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council, said "the idea to externalise the responsibility of processing asylum seekers’ asylum claims is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity".

"We have repeatedly called on the Danish Members of Parliament to reject this bill. Similar models, such as the Australian model or the so-called ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands, have involved serious incidents of detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to health care and lack of access to legal assistance," she said.

Slente added in the statement that it is unclear how a third country reception centre could be administered as Denmark has a "legal responsibility" to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

"It has also been one of our main concerns regarding the bill, which has now unfortunately been passed without adequate consideration," she said.

"The fact is that the parliament has voted on a bill which paves the way for a potential asylum processing model that does not yet exist and which they, therefore, do not know what actually entails. This means that the parliament has effectively voted in the blind." 

What has been the response?

The reaction from the international community has been strong, overwhelmingly negative and one of concern.


"UNHCR is very disappointed that Denmark is continuing to pursue this vision," said Shabia Mantoo, the UN refugee agency's global spokesperson.

She added that the agency remained "firmly opposed" to plans that would "forcibly transfer asylum-seekers to other countries and undermine the principles of international refugee protection".

Responding with a similar sentiment, Bill Frelick, the director of Human Rights Watch's Refugee and Migrant Rights Division, said the legislation was a "slap in the face" to governments who agreed to "greater responsibility sharing" under UNHCR's Global Compact on Refugees.

He said: "By sending people to a third country, what you are essentially doing is taking what is a legal right and making it a discretionary political choice."

Why is Denmark doing this?

According to the Social Democrats, the party leading the idea, an off-shore processing centre could be an answer to the continent's migration crisis.


More than 20,000 people have died since 2014 while attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea - in search of a new life in Europe.

When migrants and refugees realise they will be moved out of Europe, "they will stop going to Denmark and that will mean they will stop putting themselves in a dangerous situation on the Mediterranean Sea and they will stop wasting a lot of money paying like they pay to these smugglers", said Rasmus Stoklund, a Social Democratic MP and member of the Danish parliament’s Immigration and Integration Committee.

"The incentive structure will be changed if we succeed in establishing such a reception centre because migrants coming from different places in Africa and Middle Eastern countries, they will probably stop seeking or applying for asylum in Denmark if they know that they will be sent out of Europe again. 

"Most of the asylum seekers, a little more than 50 per cent that arrived in Denmark last year, they didn't have a need for seeking asylum. They were migrants that were hoping for a better life. And I understand that. And I think that makes sense. But that's just not enough to get a residence permit to stay in Denmark."

At the height of Europe's refugee crisis in 2015, Denmark had more than 20,000 applications for asylum but that has dropped to 2,716 in 2019 and 1,515 last year. 


Is this a surprise?

Not really. Denmark has been tightening its immigration rules for years, and the Social Democrat-led government had touted the idea of off-shore refugee centres before.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has also repeated her election campaign vision to have "zero asylum-seekers" in Denmark.

In other headlines, it was recently revealed that the government had revoked residency permits of many Syrian refugees, having declared parts of the war-torn nation "safe".

Will other EU countries do the same?

It's unlikely EU member states would be quick to follow suit, said Dr Nikolas Feith Tan a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Speaking to Euronews, he said: "Denmark... has opted out of much of the EU law asylum system. So the fact that Denmark can do this does not mean other EU countries can."


Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It's available on Apple and Android devices.

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