It has been rare that Denmark – the well-off Scandinavian country with particularly high standards of living and an overall very good human rights record – has been condemned for questionable human rights practices. Yet presently, the country’s treatment of asylum seekers is bordering on inhumane. The government is violating the rights of refugees as stipulated by the 1951 Refugee Convention, the very treaty that Denmark was the first to ratify in the aftermath of World War II.
Denmark is not the only prosperous country currently guilty of eschewing international human rights norms and the accompanying national responsibility to aid refugees. The Danish case is emblematic of a current trend among European states to disregard basic humanitarianism and solidarity. And as the global refugee crisis continues to worsen, this broken humanitarianism is becoming increasingly evident. The way in which refugees are perceived and treated as second-class citizens in Denmark, as well as in many other European countries that have the necessary resources and conditions to protect their human rights, is shameful.
Recently, the Danish center-right government, supported by the strictly anti-immigrant far-right DPP party, introduced a string of measures intended to deter refugees from coming to the country. In September last year, the government placed several adds in Lebanese newspapers warning refugees about the near impossibility of being granted asylum in Denmark and the swift deportations asylum seekers would face if their applications were rejected. Once inside the country, refugees indeed do face unwelcoming conditions. Many have been placed in tent camps in the middle of the winter with temperatures dropping to 15 Celsius below despite the fact that the Red Cross has hundreds of unoccupied indoor asylum center placements and there are thousands of vacant buildings across the country.
Even more alarming, the government passed a new refugee law in January, L87, which significantly cuts back the state’s obligations to asylum seekers and adds severe restrictions to an already austere asylum policy. Although the law has been widely criticized in international media for allowing government officials to seize refugees’ valuables, more concerning consequences lie elsewhere. Amongst the most troubling amendments made is the increased waiting time required for the possibility of family reunification. For refugees given temporary asylum status in Denmark because of war or other violent conflict, this time period has been extended from one to three years. This means that any family member, including children, who did not accompany their relatives to their destination (thus remaining in the conflict zone), has to wait at least three years to even be considered for asylum. This amendment particularly affects children, who might not only experience trauma from being separated from their parents for an extended period of time, but also remaining in life-threatening situations with limited means of flight.
Moreover, law L87 has also made it illegal for asylum seekers to live outside of asylum centers unless granted temporary residency. Those who have not been so fortunate as to achieve this status and are waiting for legal appeals or the violence in their countries of origin to stop, have no choice but to remain in asylum centers or camps for unknown periods of time. Consequently, children born within these camps will grow up isolated from society and with limited access to education – all in a prosperous country that by no means lacks the resources to offer refugees better conditions.
Additionally, L87 has given the government the right to withdraw refugees’ temporary residency at any given time, as well as having made it considerably more difficult for refugees to even be granted this status. This means that refugees granted temporary residency live in a constant fear of being uprooted and that children who are born and raised in Denmark risk being sent to a country that is completely foreign to them. In order to be granted permanent residency refugees have to wait for six years to even be eligible, and then only if they fulfill a row of strict conditions.
The sentiments behind L87 are callous if not even inhumane, and they send a troubling signal across Europe: it is totally acceptable for prosperous countries that otherwise have good human rights records to deny basic rights to asylum seekers. Indeed, in response to a question regarding refugee children growing up in asylum centers, the remarks of Danish immigration minister Inger Støjberg signify a troubling absence of empathy. The minister held that it is their parents whom should be held responsible if their children grow up in asylum centers, because they refuse to be sent home. If their cases have been denied, she asserted, it means that it is safe for them to travel home.
However, this cannot safely be assumed. Even before the recent restrictive measures were implemented, there have been numerous dubious as well as outright faulty rejections to legitimate asylum claims. In recent years, this has notably affected Iraqi refugees that during the civil war in Iraq were denied asylum despite numerous interventions from the UN and amnesty international. At the end of last year, Denmark had 128 pending complaint cases at various UN committees about human rights violations of refugees.
Appealing cases to the EU Human Rights Court, which Denmark is legally required to comply with, is a daunting and sometimes unmanageable process for asylum seekers. That is why the legal framework of the Refugee Appeals Board, which treats all applications for humanitarian asylum, is crucial for the outcome of cases. However, considering the numerous pending complaint cases, the decisions reached by the board are often faulty and do not comply with the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the UN convention on the Rights of the Child – both of which the board is supposed to consider alongside national legislation.
The new law, L87, will lead to a further disregard for human rights conventions in Danish immigration and asylum policy. In fact, the Danish Prime Minister has openly expressed a willingness to move towards just that. Referring to the legal obligations conferred on parties to the 1951 Convention, he recently asserted that it is necessary to ‘change the rules of the game’. These statements seem to signify a disturbing readiness to eschew legal obligations under international human rights treaties, a sentiment which seems to be spreading across Europe. Certainly, Denmark’s new laws and measures to further restrict refugees from being granted both long and short-term asylum is troubling, and will place refugees in increasingly harmful and dangerous positions. The Danish government’s sentiments towards refugees reflect little regard for their humanness in a country that otherwise has high regard for human rights, and this is deeply troubling. It reflects the very disconcerting tendency throughout Europe of dehumanizing refugees and it allows inhumane treatment of people fleeing war or persecution to continue.
The importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention cannot be overemphasized, especially in light of the current crisis. It gives people who would otherwise be condemned to human malaise – be it that of war, atrocities, persecution, imprisonment, torture, or death – the possibility of escape. In light of this, it is especially troubling to see Denmark – a country that was once a front-runner in the protection of refugee’s rights – pursuing policies that systemically disregard international legalities. In so doing, Denmark is contributing to, and quite possibly exacerbating, the further rupturing of an already brittle European humanitarian response to the refugee crisis.