Denmark: ‘There is a focus on protecting borders rather than people’s rights’

Charlotte SlenteCIVICUS speaks with Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), about recent immigration policy changes and the rights of refugees in Denmark. The DRC is an international humanitarian organisation that supports international refugees and internally displaced persons by providing protection and life-saving assistance. 

Why has the Danish government recently decided to revoke temporary residence permits of Syrian refugees, and what have been the consequences of this policy?

The 2015 introduction of a temporary subsidiary protection status with fewer rights – mainly granted to certain groups of Syrian refugees – is the reason behind the possibility to revoke asylum status for these Syrian nationals. This specific status comes with an amendment of the Danish Aliens Act in which the cessation clauses of the Refugee Convention no longer apply to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, meaning that changes in the home country no longer need to be sustainable – and it is possible to revoke asylum status even if the situation in the home country remains serious, fragile and unpredictable.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) disagrees – along the lines of the recommendations from United Nations Refugee Agency – with the decision by the Danish authorities to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to be returned. The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can safely return. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and severe human rights abuse of the civilian population.

We are also concerned because many of the Syrians who now have their residence permits revoked or have their application for asylum in Denmark rejected will not leave voluntarily due to the risks involved, and will consequently be placed in limbo at return centres. Given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Syrian and Danish authorities regarding forced returns, it is not possible for the Danish authorities actually to return Syrians. They can of course return once the conditions in Syria make it safe for them. But as long as the situation in Syria is not conducive for returns, we believe it is pointless to remove people from the life they have built in Denmark.

It is important to note that not all Syrian refugees in Denmark are affected by this policy. The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten of 21 November 2021 estimated that some 34,000 Syrians have received residency in Denmark since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. Of those, 4,600 received ‘temporary protection status’ on the basis of section 7.3 of the Aliens Act. From this group, approximately 1,250 Syrian nationals are from the Damascus or Rif-Dimashq areas and hence in danger of having their residence permit revoked. 

So far around 850 have had their cases examined at the Immigration Service and some 280 have had their residency revoked. About half of the roughly 200 cases that have been considered by the Refugees Appeals have been confirmed and the other half have had their residency prolonged. So, approximately 100 Syrians have had their residency finally revoked and are supposed to go to the return centres.

We don’t know how many are actually at the centres as of now, but we believe it is only a handful. People are not detained at these centres. And as Denmark doesn’t maintain any cooperation with the Syrian authorities it cannot return these people by force as the situation is now.

How has this policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Denmark?

The increased focus on temporariness over sustainable, long-term solutions for refugees has a negative impact on refugee protection and hinders good integration. We know from our work with refugees in Denmark that the temporariness and the fear of losing their stay in Denmark have affected many of them: not just Syrians who risk having their residency revoked, but also other groups of refugees who fear that their permits might suddenly be revoked too.

This is not a new phenomenon. Over the years, we’ve seen many political actions aimed at making it more difficult for refugees to get a foothold in Danish society.

Among them were the introduction of the so-called temporary protection status in 2015 and the changes in legislation made in 2019, which increasingly emphasised temporariness. This has had a concrete impact on the motivation for refugees to integrate into Danish society, as they are constantly being told that they should only expect to stay in Denmark temporarily. This is neither a dignified way to treat refugees who have fled conflict and human rights violations in their home countries, nor a very productive way of treating them, as it hampers integration efforts.

Additionally, these efforts have an impact on how other parts of society view refugees and integration. For example, the private sector is less likely to invest in and hire refugees, as they do not know if the resources put into these individuals will be lost if they lose their residency soon after employment.

However, most refugees end up staying in Denmark for many years and even for generations, because the circumstances in their home countries remain difficult and the reasons they fled, such as personal persecution, haven’t changed. That is why DRC calls for more long-term solutions for refugees in Denmark.

Over the past decades, Denmark’s position on immigration has shifted dramatically. Why has this happened?

Over the past years, Denmark has received international attention for introducing restrictive measures for refugees and asylum seekers. The current government seems to rely on the assumption that the asylum system is broken and that one way to ‘fix’ it is by preventing asylum seekers coming here.

However, the reality is one of lack of international solidarity in the global protection system, which means that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in global south countries. Countries local to conflict zones host 73 per cent of the world’s refugees. Overall, 86 per cent of all displaced people – internally displaced people and refugees combined – are hosted by low-income countries.

Still, Denmark and other European countries would like poorer countries to take an even greater responsibility. This can potentially have a negative impact on international cooperation on refugees. If a country such as Denmark fails to shoulder its share, there is a real risk that refugee-hosting states will follow suit, undermining the global protection of refugees with potentially devastating consequences.

One point worth noting is the discrepancy between what Denmark does internationally and domestically. Denmark has a very strong system of development assistance, one of the best in the world. It is rights-based, needs-based and holistic, with a significant emphasis on the role of civil society. Additionally, it is very positive that there is broad consensus across the political spectrum in Denmark that we should continue to be a strong donor, partner and contributor, and continue to provide support to marginalised people such as refugees and displaced persons in the regions of origin. This is something to be proud of.

However, while Denmark remains one of the world’s leading donors in the area of humanitarian and development assistance relative to the country’s size and economy, and a rather progressive voice when it comes to refugee rights in the regions of origin, domestically it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

One concrete example of this concerns the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Along with other western countries, Denmark has been very keen on ensuring that the principles – more solidarity, more funding and more self-reliance – are being implemented in many host countries, while being criticised for trying to pay its way out of its own responsibility to live up to the same principles. So, three years after the international community agreed on the GCR, a lack of political will and leadership is challenging the achievement of more equitable and predictable responses to forced displacement.

Through the GCR the international community promised better responsibility sharing and durable solutions. Yet three years on, a few generous host countries continue to shoulder the greatest responsibility, while richer nations are providing neither protection for refugees nor sufficient economic support.

Do you think the attitude of the Danish government points to a broader European pattern?

We are seeing many European countries take steps away from ensuring protection and upholding the values that the European Union (EU) was built upon. It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to refugees’ rights across Europe. It seems what EU member states have primarily been able to agree upon is protecting borders rather protecting asylum seekers.

We have seen systematic pushbacks at the EU’s external borders over many years, combined with measures aimed at deterring arrivals of asylum seekers in the EU, including cooperation with non-EU countries that risks violating the principle of non-refoulement and does not uphold fundamental human rights and dignity.

EU member states have illegally prevented several thousand women, men and children from seeking protection at border crossings, for instance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia and Serbia in 2021. This involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedures, physical abuse and assault and theft at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials. It’s a telling example of how the extreme is being normalised.

The current situation at the border with Belarus follows the same trend of focusing on protecting borders rather than people’s rights. DRC is very concerned about the current humanitarian situation at the EU’s external borders, where people are denied access to fundamental rights and protection. The situation is unacceptable, illegal and dangerous. Among the people who remain trapped in the border areas are vulnerable groups such as families with children, pregnant women and older people, many of whom have fled war and conflict in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

While the situation calls for a calm and measured reaction, the EU and its member states at the external borders are responding with panicked proposals for emergency measures that curtail rights and safeguards of those seeking protection. Rather than limiting safeguards, the EU Commission should ensure that member states at its external borders treat people seeking protection with dignity, in accordance with international and European law. Disregard of international obligations by other states does not exempt EU member states from their responsibility. Describing a few thousand people as a threat to the EU and its 450 million inhabitants is unsettling and disproportionate. The situation must not set a precedent for managing future situations at the EU’s external borders.

Another example, where Denmark sadly is leading the way, is the ambition of outsourcing asylum processing to another country. The idea to externalise asylum and refugee protection is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity. Similar models, such as the offshore approach implemented in Australia, have been characterised by detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to healthcare and lack of access to legal assistance, creating zones of exemption where right violations are likely to occur.

At the same time, Denmark is sending an extremely problematic signal to our neighbouring countries in the EU and not least to the – often poorer – countries in the world that take by far the greatest responsibility for the world’s refugees. The continued willingness of neighbouring countries in areas plagued by conflict to host millions of refugees is not something to take for granted. If a rich country such as Denmark is not willing to take responsibility, there is significant risk that countries hosting far larger number of refugees will also opt out and give up on global efforts to find joint and sustainable solutions.

What we can hope for, though, is that Denmark can inspire other countries to follow suit and live up to the UN recommendation of providing at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income to official development assistance – something that Denmark has done since 1978. And we hope that other countries will also follow the example of Denmark when it comes to providing long-term and predictable funding for development and humanitarian assistance, in order to ensure better, more holistic and more sustainable development and solutions across the globe.

How has civil society in Denmark responded, both to the immediate issue and to the evident wave of hostility towards migrants and refugees from politicians and the public?

First and foremost, we believe that it is important that refugees and exiles know there are people and organisations who are concerned about their situation, who sympathise with them and try to help them in the ways that are possible. DRC and others in civil society have been very vocal in the public debate, writing opinion pieces and letters to office holders, meeting with decision-makers, creating campaigns and organising demonstrations to protest against this development.

We believe that it means something to see people fighting for their rights and dignity. But more concrete day-to-day support is also of great importance. DRC has some 6,500 volunteers throughout Denmark. These are people who for instance help refugee children with their homework. They welcome refugee families into the local community and help people with job applications and reading and understanding official information. They invite them to dinner – and teach them the dos and don’ts of Danish society. They explain the Danish sense of humour. They speak Danish with them to help them develop language skills. They teach them how to ride a bike. They act as the extended family and network that many refugee families have had to leave behind or have scattered around the world.

This has immense importance for refugees. It’s our experience that a helping hand can mean the world. Both in a very real way, if volunteers or friendly neighbours help them get a job or stop by with some extra food, and in a broader sense, by showing that there are people who do sympathise, care about them and are willing to open their arms and help them get settled.

We have also observed that when the debate becomes more polarised and stricter policies are introduced, more people volunteer and show their support for refugees in other ways. As the number of asylum seekers soared back in 2015-2016, the number of people willing to give a helping hand and donate to our work also increased. This goes to show that there is sympathy among the Danish public, which the DRC believes is very important.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Danish Refugee Council through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @DRC_dk and @CharlotteSlente on Twitter.