Fortress Denmark wants to send its asylum seekers outside Europe
Shirking responsibility
Published: Jun 03, 2021 05:18 PM
Asylum seekers wait in line to have their body temperature tested from Team Humanity Denmark NGO on Lesbos Island, Greece on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP

Asylum seekers wait in line to have their body temperature tested from Team Humanity Denmark NGO on Lesbos Island, Greece on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP

Denmark already has one of Europe's harshest stances on immigration, but the wealthy Scandinavian country adopted legislation on Thursday enabling it to open asylum centers outside Europe where applicants could be sent to live.

The latest move by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen's Social Democratic anti-immigration government is aimed at deterring migrants from coming to Denmark at all.

In practice, asylum seekers would have to submit an application in person at the Danish border and then be flown to an asylum center outside Europe while their application is being processed.

If the application is approved and the person is granted refugee status, he or she would be given the right to live in the host country.

The proposal was widely expected to sail through parliament ahead of the now concluded vote on Wednesday, supported by a majority including the far-right, despite opposition from some left-wing parties.

Denmark normally has a reputation for being one of the happiest countries in the world.

But it has repeatedly made headlines in recent years with its anti-immigration policies, including its official "zero refugees" target, its withdrawal of residence permits from Syrians now that it considers parts of the war-torn country safe, and its crackdown on Danish "ghettos" in a bid to reduce the number of "non-Western" residents.

The aim of the new law is to establish a legal foundation for the transfer of people seeking international protection in Denmark to a third country, according to the immigration ministry.

Denmark would foot the bill for the operation, but the processing of asylum requests would be carried out by the host country.

If a person's asylum request is rejected, the migrant would be asked to leave the host country.

But even "those whose asylum claims are successful after being exported will not be allowed to come 'back' to Denmark to enjoy refugee status. They will simply get refugee status in the as-yet-unnamed host country," University of Copenhagen migration expert Martin Lemberg-Pedersen told AFP.

In talks with Rwanda 

No country has as yet agreed to collaborate with Denmark on the project, but the government says it is in talks with five to 10 countries, without identifying them. 

"A system of transferring asylum seekers to a third country must, of course, be established within the framework of international conventions," Migration Minister Mattias Tesfaye told AFP.

"That will be a prerequisite for an agreement. In addition, we need to have a monitoring mechanism in place so that we can continuously ensure that everything is going as planned."

He had previously said the countries may not necessarily be democracies "in the way we see things."

Danish media have mentioned Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia as possibilities.

Denmark is, meanwhile, known to be in talks with Rwanda - which also discussed similar plans with Israel in the past.

At the end of April, Denmark and Rwanda signed a memorandum of understanding on asylum and migration cooperation, though the document doesn't specifically cover external asylum processing.

"Denmark is committed to finding new and sustainable solutions to the present migration and refugee challenges that affect countries of origin, transit, and destination," the document states.

Risk of domino effect

The new legislation marks a complete U-turn on immigration for Denmark's Social Democrats under Frederiksen's reign.

For many years, the populist Danish People's Party had a monopoly on anti-immigration policy. But their stance has become the norm, University of Copenhagen political scientist Kasper Hansen noted.

Five years after the adoption of a law that allowed Denmark to seize asylum seekers' valuables - legislation that made headlines but was actually rarely applied - authorities continue to practice deterrence.

"This proposal is the continuation of the symbolic policy. It's a little bit like Donald Trump and his wall," secretary-general of ActionAid Denmark, Tim Whyte, told AFP.

In 2019, only 2,716 people sought asylum in Denmark, eight times fewer than during the 2015 migrant crisis.

While the initiative will yield political gain at home, international observers have expressed concern.

For the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, the proposal is "contrary to the principles of international refugee cooperation."

"By initiating such a drastic and restrictive change in Danish refugee legislation, Denmark risks starting a domino effect, where other countries in Europe and neighboring regions will also explore the possibility of limiting the protection of refugees on their soil," UNHCR's representative in the Nordic and Baltic countries, Henrik Nordentoft, told news agency Ritzau.

Denmark is letting its European partners down, Whyte said.

"Refugees will seek asylum in Germany, France, [and] Sweden. It will not deter them to cross the Mediterranean Sea but they won't get to Denmark, which in a way is abdicating its responsibilities."