Denmark election: Parties on left and right back controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

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By David Mac Dougall
a large group of immigrants living in Denmark welcome migrants at Rodby September 8, 2015
a large group of immigrants living in Denmark welcome migrants at Rodby September 8, 2015   -   Copyright  Credit: Reuters

When the leaders of Denmark's main political parties faced each other last week in the first televised debate of the election campaign, they disagreed along familiar party lines.

But there was one subject they could all agree on, which united left and right: a controversial plan to outsource asylum seekers from Denmark to Rwanda. 

Last year the Danes approved new legislation to make such a move even possible, and in late summer the government of centre-left Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen inked a deal with the Rwandan government to "jointly explore" the possibility of sending "spontaneous asylum seekers" who arrive in Denmark to Rwanda "for consideration of the asylum applications and protection, and the option of settling in Rwanda". 

Although there is no formal agreement yet between the two countries, that is clearly the direction of travel, with the whole scheme looking very similar to a policy the UK government is trying to get off the ground - so far, unsuccessfully. 

In April this year, then-UK PM Boris Johnson announced an agreement with Rwanda that would see people who enter Britain illegally being deported to the African country. In exchange for accepting them, Rwanda will receive millions of pounds in development aid. The deportees will only be allowed to apply for asylum in Rwanda, not Britain. 

Opponents argued that it is illegal and inhumane to send people thousands of miles to a country they don’t want to live in, and so far no flights have actually left the UK for Rwanda after legal interventions at the European Court of Human rights. 

But still, the new British government wants to proceed unabated - with Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently saying it was her "dream" to see newspaper headlines about flights of asylum seekers heading to Rwanda in time for Christmas. 

Credit: AP
Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrives for an EU Summit at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, 7 Oct, 2022Credit: AP

So why does Denmark want to send asylum seekers abroad?

The idea of sending asylum seekers to a third country to be processed is not the first time Denmark has outsourced a "problem". 

In April, Denmark signed a €15 million deal with Kosovo to take 300 prisoners. 

The inmates being sent to a facility near the capital Pristina are all foreign detainees who are due to be deported after their sentences.  

So -- ahead of Denmark's general election on 1 November -- why has this particular issue brought politicians from Denmark's left and right together? 

The answer is simple: votes. 

"It's true we have a social democrat prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, and she is currently fighting to maintain that position. And the important detail is that she has been relatively successful in attracting voters from the [far right] Danish People's Party," explained Ditte Brasso Sørensen, a senior fellow at the Europa think tank in Copenhagen.

While the Danish People's Party is not such a strong player in Danish politics anymore, their mantle has been taken up instead by the Danish Democrats -- so it was perhaps an obvious move for PM Frederiksen who is anyway on the right of the spectrum of Nordic social democrats --  and leaders of other left-wing parties, to try and scoop up some of those voters by moving further right themselves. 

"It's not only Rwanda, every time Frederiksen makes a speech she always inserts one sentence where she says 'we need to be tough on young migrants living in Denmark who are not sufficiently integrated', she has these pieces of information to give to voters," Brasso Sørensen told Euronews. 

"It is quite sobering they had the first debate among party leaders, and they were all asked about their position on Rwanda and they had different points of view - but the entire political centre and right want to move forward with this plan."  

Credit: Emil Helms/AP
People gather to demonstrate in favour of migrants at Christiansborg Castle Square in CopenhagenCredit: Emil Helms/AP

How does the government justify the Rwanda plan?

Denmark's government has presented the Rwanda asylum plan as a solution to a "broken" system, and since they have an EU opt-out on justice and home affairs issues, they say they're not bound by EU cooperation around policies on migration, asylum and borders. 

"We are working hard to create a more fair asylum system and we are slowly but steadily moving closer. At the same time, it is important that we do not rush anything through, but instead ensure thoroughness in reaching an agreement in line with Denmark and Rwanda’s international obligations, which is essential to both countries," Kaare Dybvad, Denmark's minister for immigration and integration, told Euronews. 

Minister Dybvad said his country wants to "find solutions on how to create a fairer and more humane asylum system, that is based on orderly and controlled migration as opposed to the current that plays into the hands of human smugglers".

Critics of the plan say there are real risks of continuing down the path of outsourcing Denmark's asylum process. 

"There's an increased possibility of detaining people in the process, or using force to send them to Rwanda, and that is not surprising since most people who come to Denmark for asylum, they will not agree to go to Rwanda instead," said Eva Singer from the Danish Refugee Council

"All of civil society has criticised this, and all the other organisations working in Denmark with refugees have criticised it very clearly from the beginning," she told Euronews. 

Another problematic area is Rwanda's woeful human rights record, and the East African nation has been strongly criticised by Human Rights Watch for arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture of the government's political opponents, and the NGO has highlighted how fair trial standards are "routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases".

"Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children, sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely," says HRW in its most recent Rwanda country report. 

"The UHCR has criticised it very strongly with direct language. The African Union made a very strong statement criticising the model" (the Addis Ababa-based organisation branded the plan "xenophobic and completely unacceptable") "The EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson has also been very critical," Singer added.

Johansson, the EU's Commissioner for Home Affairs, called the Danish plan "completely unrealistic" and "a flagrant crime against basic human rights." 

Muhizi Olivier/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
Britain's then Home Secretary Priti Patel speaks after London and Kigali struck a deal over sending asylum seekers to RwandaMuhizi Olivier/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

Will the Rwanda asylum proposal ever actually come into effect?

Despite the government championing the prospect of a deal with Rwanda, and despite other political parties being in favour during the election campaign, it might never actually come to fruition. 

First, there are a lot of unanswered questions that ministers won't answer: like how much the scheme would cost, and how they would successfully overcome the inevitable legal objections at the European Court of Human Rights. 

"That opposition might in the end mean this thing never happens," said Ditte Brasso Sørensen.

"If it never materialises, I think that is a loss that can be taken by any of the incoming prime minister candidates because it has still served its purpose of indicating that they are tough on migration and that they have solution to these problems." 

While there is a political effort to keep pushing for some kind of outsourcing plan, there is also political realism about whether the initiative would actually solve the problem it is supposed to solve: which is whether it would reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark. 

"It will be a headache for the new incoming PM regardless," said Brasso Sørensen.