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Return to Sender – Danish Refugee Policy 1995-2005


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as […] national or social origin…” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

“For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who […] owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” (1951 Geneva Refugee Convention) 

If only She Could Touch the Ground…

R came to Denmark in September 1989 when she was 13, with her father, mother and two siblings. Her family had fled Iran several months before, planning to go to either Australia or Canada, to escape the chaos of the aftermath of war with Iraq. Originally part of the wealthy upper-middle class, they had been forced to sell everything to pay for their escape and the fake passports that would allow them to travel to one of the above-mentioned countries to start a new, safe life. 

However, their contact left them stranded in Turkey, continuously delaying their departure with increasingly transparent excuses. In the end he offered to get them on a flight to Denmark and they, sensing that this might be their final opportunity, decided to take it. They flew via Hungary, where they were stopped by the authorities, who held them for 48 hours before allowing them to continue to Denmark. What they did not know was that the Hungarian police had made copies of their forged documents and had sent these to the Danish authorities, in preparation for their arrival. 

“My mom had heard a rumour that there was a rule in Scandinavia that if you touched the ground there they couldn’t send you back afterwards. So when we arrived in Denmark and found that the police were expecting us, she waited until they had started talking to my dad and then she grabbed us, told us to follow her and ran through the airport to look for somewhere to touch the ground. Of course the police followed us and caught us. But when they did, they just calmed her down and said: ‘Don’t worry – we’re not going to send you back.’”

R’s family stayed in the asylum centre Sandholm for two months, after which they transferred to another camp. After a total of three months they were granted refugee status and received residence permits. “My Dad would have been killed if we were sent back. As for my mom, besides loosing her husband, it would have been hell to bring up three girls in Iran all by herself.”  The family was housed in the small city of Fredericia. They were swiftly integrated in Danish society – both parents and children learned Danish, and the parents were soon employed, while R herself was transferred to a regular Danish school after three months of intensive Danish lessons.

R’s is a happy story. It is by no means certain that it could have happened today.

Tortured at Home – Pushed Towards Suicide in Denmark

“If they deport me, I will take my life like the Iranian refugee did.  I will not go back to Kosovo, because there my whole family will be killed. If I die there my death won’t have any point. At least if I die here, someone may hear the outcry of my family!” H. is a large, middle-aged man, a former citizen of Kosovo. He speaks basic Danish, and the most recurrent phrase in our conversations is a friendly: “Ingen problem” (no problem) accompanied by a smile. He has a wife and three sons, one of whom already has his own family. H.’s father has obtained citizenship in Sweden and his brother has become a citizen of Denmark, whereas H., his wife and sons have moved from one asylum centre to the other while waiting for the final decision in their case. During the war in Kosovo, H. was kidnapped and tortured because he was a member of the ethnic minority there. You can still see the scars on his body – concrete evidence of the brutal nature of human beings in such conflicts - but even that does not compare to the pain in his eyes when he describes his current situation, because this time it is his whole family that is suffering. H. and his family arrived 6 years ago and only recently received the final answer for their asylum application: rejection. 

His first instance application for asylum was rejected in 2002, after which they started an appeals-process, but this too was finally rejected about a month ago, as the court did not recognize evidence and statements that he will be prosecuted in Kosovo if he goes back. There is considerable bitterness in his family towards the Danish authorities. H. finds it hard to believe that his evidence is not sufficient. He has presented a book published in 2004 by the authorities in Kosovo, which states the names of people who are considered collaborators with the enemy and who will be prosecuted if captured. His name and the names of his family figure prominently in it, but that does not mean he believes that he will be given a trial: “They will find me in a grave somewhere if I am sent back.” H. also has certificates and official papers saying that he is not allowed to go back, which have been presented to the Danish authorities. But, according to H., they did not review them properly. Thus he has not been recognized as a refugee.

Why Do ‘They’ Come?

Asylum-seekers are, or claim to be, people fleeing from their own countries because of danger to their very lives. In the Danish system it is possible to obtain asylum under one of four categories: 

1.Denmark accepts ca. 500 quota refugees through UNHCR every year. This is an international commitment, and thus not an area in which Denmark can regulate the incoming number to any extent.

2.Convention refugees are asylum seekers who meet the strict criteria of the 1951 Geneva Convention. 

3.“De facto” refugees are asylum seekers who do not meet the strict criteria of the convention, but who are prevented from returning to their home country for similar reasons. The “de facto” system was replaced in 2002 by the “b-status” system.

4.An applicant can be granted asylum for humanitarian reasons. Granting asylum for humanitarian reasons means giving asylum to someone who is not technically a refugee, but who suffers from a serious illness, and cannot get treatment in their home country. 

However, in Denmark, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the arrival of refugees has caused both fear and insecurity in parts of the Danish population, and the past decade has seen both the rise of a right-wing political agenda of Danish seclusion, and a corresponding vast decrease in the number of people who are granted asylum in Denmark.  

Thus, the questions that we set out to answer in our project were first and foremost: “What has happened?” and secondly, more tentatively: “Why?” This report is our reply.  

Welcome to DK - don’t Forget your Teturn Ticket…

Looking at the decrease in the number of refugees being accepted in Denmark, one could easily be lead to assume that the Danish government has changed the criteria for recognition of convention refugees. However, Andreas Kamm, secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), makes it clear that this is not the case: “It is the group of asylum-seekers that has changed. We used to have very high levels of refugees in the mid-90’s that were caused by conflicts in areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. This is not the case today. What has changed on the policy-level is that we used to have a special category called “de facto refugees”. The government has removed that, and decided to stick to the Convention-criteria.” 

The decision to limit the granting of asylum to those asylum-seekers who meet the Convention criteria for refugees is one central initiative that Danish governments have taken to make Denmark less accessible to asylum seekers. But there are a great many others. Generally, it is possible to talk about three areas that mutually reinforce each other as factors that limit the number of refugees coming to Denmark: 

•Access to the country, 

•the terms of staying here while applying for asylum and after getting it, and 

•the rules for deportation and return to the home country. 

Under the first category, Danish government has restricted the possibilities for family reunification, increased border control, and abolished the concept of “de facto” refugees, as mentioned above. Under the second, consecutive Danish governments have introduced the concept of “starting help,” which means substantially lower welfare services than Danish citizens in similar circumstances get, restricted residence availability so that even recognized refugees must stay in their allocated municipality for the first three years, removed public teaching in the mother tongue languages, as well as disqualifying crucial medical dispensations from the language requirements for Danish citizenship. Finally, under the third, the period of temporary residence in Denmark while awaiting improvement in the home country has been increased from three to seven years, the Dublin agreements means that Denmark can, and does, transfer asylum seekers to other EU-countries if they happened to arrive in another country first, and the rules for deportation of refugees for criminal offences have become more encompassing, allowing the residence permits of refugees to be revoked for even minor offences.

The increase in the temporary residence from 3 to 7 years particularly irks the DRC: “If the situation changes in their home country during this period so that it becomes possible for them to live there, then even though they have been accepted as refugees in DK they might be sent back. Now, it is fair to send back refugees who have been living in Denmark for a certain time, say three years. However, seven years is such a long time to wait that many people will suffer from this. Some people might have stayed even longer than seven years. Imagine this: They might start as asylum seekers and that process could last two to four years, plus seven more years as a refugee, so you could have 10 year old children that have been born in Denmark, are capable of speaking Danish and are doing well in school, and suddenly they have to go.” 

Consequences:  7 years of uncertainty - rejected or accepted

“How could I reach my voice to them? Should I go up on the highest bridge, write letters to Bin Laden or become a member of Al-Qaeda? What should I do? There are lots of people coming around here, however no one actually talks to us. A. is a tall, middle-aged man with an easy smile and kind eyes. He speaks softly, even when making these statements, but his voice carries his frustration when describing the vacuum in which he and his family exist today. A. and his family were born in Azerbaijan. In 1988, when conflict started between Azerbaijan and Armenia, they were evacuated by helicopters to Armenia. However after four years they fled to Russia, as their ethnicity was causing problems: “We could have hidden our ethnicity but why? It’s a free world!” Afterwards they managed to travel to Denmark where they applied for, but did not receive, asylum. They have been here for seven years.

A. is now defined as ethnically Armenian, not Azerbaijan, as well as being Christian, but faces deportation to Azerbaijan where, according to authorities, there are some 30,000 Armenians living. He laughs earnestly when explaining this – the notion that he and his family could go back to Armenia and live in anything resembling safety is clearly ludicrous to him. Hence his persistence in refusing to voluntarily leave Denmark.

But the problem caused by these seven years of waiting that most pulls at his heart concerns his children. The younger of his two daughters goes to school in Denmark, starting from the first grade. Her Danish is fluent, contrary to her very basic Armenian language skills, and she has become accustomed to the Danish school system. But her life in Denmark is troubled too: “We have all seen childhood, but her: what childhood has she had? She has just seen all the different camps, is that good or healthy childhood memories?” 

A. keeps a large bottle full of gasoline by the door to their apartment. He pulls it out of the plastic bag in which he keeps it, and proffers it to us while calmly explaining: “I don’t know what to do. The only thing I can think of is that if anyone comes to deport my family I will pour this on myself and burn myself – that’s the only choice they have left to us.” The eyes of his 11-year old daughter rest on us as he speaks these words, and the resigned emptiness there is terrifying.

This Means: “Not welcome”

“On the general political level there has been a clear tendency in refugee policy. The government believes that we have to have fewer asylum-seekers coming to Denmark and fewer refugees granted asylum to stay in Denmark,” remarks Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr, spokesperson on refugee issues from the Danish party Enhedslisten.  

According to John Dyrby, spokesperson on refugee issues for Socialdemokratiet,  this leads to one of the core problems in the asylum system today: “We have asylum seekers who are not treated humanely. And we have a lot of debate on the asylum system concerning how many people should be allowed to come to Denmark. But this, the question of how many should go, is a purely political question – it does not concern conventions or rules or laws. The problem is that often many other questions are confused with this question, so the whole discussion becomes “how many” and not how we deal with the people who actually do come to Denmark as asylum seekers, or how we treat people who are rejected and do not dare to go back to their home countries. Every time we have a debate on these issues, it always turns into a discussion of the number of asylum seekers and how they will affect the population of Denmark. This is a debate that is driven by Dansk Folkeparti, but which I think is completely wrong - these are people we are talking about, not numbers.” 

Conditions are particularly hard for those whose applications for asylum have been rejected, but who refuse to return to their home countries. Today there are ca. 1200 people in Denmark who belong to this group. They remain in the asylum centres, in small rooms, without kitchens, with shared bathrooms, sleeping four or more people in one room, and with no economic means apart from the services provided by the government (food, hygienic materials, etc.) “However,” explains John Dyrby, “the government does not want to change these conditions, as they believe that this kind of treatment will be an incentive for rejected refugees to return to their own countries and that if they improve the conditions of these people it will make the number of refugees fleeing to Denmark increase. Another example of how the whole discussion keeps going back to numbers and not to treatment. To this we say: ‘Please - let us treat these people the right way.’” 

Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr supports this view: “Everyone who works with refugees - the doctors, the psychologists, etc. - agree that it is not healthy to be more than one year in a camp. So we have to conclude that if we cannot send them back home, e.g. if they are from Iraq, then even if they have been refused asylum we have to give them something resembling a normal life outside of the camps. Because their children are becoming emotional and physical invalids by the prolonged stay there.” 

Statistics show the results of this policy: there is a marked decrease in the number of asylum seekers in Denmark over the past ten years, particularly after 2001. But according to Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr, even though the right-wing governments since 2001 have had great influence on this policy, the trend of limiting the number of refugees coming to DK started under the former government, consisting of Socialdemokratiet and Radikale Venstre, both centre-left parties: “What they did, and what the current government does, was to create a picture of Denmark as a country that is not hospitable to refugees. One way of doing this is by making the living conditions of asylum-seekers in Denmark harsh, but the main reason that the number of asylum seekers has gone down is that the government has successfully communicated the message that they do not have much chance of being accepted here.” 

The same point is made by Andreas Kamm, who also identifies the negative international implications: “What the government tries to do is to produce conditions to scare the people who have not yet arrived but are thinking about coming. The most tragic part of this is that other countries will learn from Denmark and do the same thing.” 

“You come here with a dream, but after staying here for so long it just sinks, like a broken ship.” 

I. is a computer-programmer from Montenegro, and our contact person in Sandholm. He is young, intelligent and charismatic with an easy-going attitude, although as he translates for us his emotions show as he tells us the stories of the different people there. He has been married for two years. His wife is 25 years old, and an educated midwife. They were both tortured in Montenegro because of I.’s work. They were helped by friends to escape, and given documents that their friends knew would help them to get to another country. As part of the asylum-process in Denmark, I. provided the Danish authorities with documents that proved the various things he had done that made him liable to be persecuted in Montenegro: “Where I was working and all the stuff I did against my country – however, I specified that all of those documents were for them and not for the government in my country, because if they saw these and I was rejected I knew they would be waiting for me in the airport, and they would execute me.” The Danish police sent the documents to Montenegro to verify I.’s story, giving the authorities there access to the information. He knows this because only a few days later government officials visited his father’s house, asking questions based on this information and threatening him. One month ago I. received the news that their appeal has been rejected and that the Danish authorities are sending them back.

I.’s wife has psychological problems, and is seven months pregnant, but according to the Danish authorities neither is a valid reason for them not to be deported. At first he refused to sign the voluntary agreement to return, but facing the threat of deportation at an unknown time, he has decided to do so. He will sign the papers, just to know when the police will come and so be able to prepare and to pack: “My wife doesn’t know that we have got a negative. She doesn’t know that they will send us back, because if she knew I can’t imagine what would happen to her. Because she knows what will happen when we go back.” I. is certain that having escaped once, their government will kill him the next time: “I can take it, but I don’t know what will happen to my wife. I know that lying is bad but I’m worried for my wife and my unborn child, so I try to ease the situation even though it’s not possible.” 

The Death of the de facto Refugee - DK now, and ten Years Ago

Denmark is an amazingly rich country, and the Danish economy has been improving steadily over the past decade, while simultaneously Denmark has accepted gradually fewer asylum seekers. The obvious question is: Is this fair? How many people should Denmark help? “You can look at these figures,” says Andreas Kamm, “and ask: what if the number we accept was zero next year - would that be okay? Of course not! But if that’s not acceptable, than what should the figure be then? I would say at least 2500-3000. So I argue that Denmark should guarantee perhaps 3000 every year totally. Some of them will be spontaneous arrivals, others should be people for resettlement in Denmark. A good beginning would probably be, say, to add 1000 to the existing 500, and by doing so send a signal to the poor world that we are doing some burden sharing here, and tell refugees in the camps: ‘Trust us - we will do everything to help you.’” 

The two typical arguments posed by politicians in favour of strict refugee policies are that they can be better helped in the areas from where they came, and that they constitute an unbearable burden for Danish society. But neither point is given much credit by Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr: “Many refugees coming to DK for reasons such as war, poverty and hunger would be better helped by solving these problems. The best thing for everyone is of course if we can avoid war, hunger and poverty so that these people can stay in their home countries. And of course there is a limit to how many refugees can accept. But we are very, very far from that limit. Today, there are less than 2000 persons obtaining asylum in DK per year - we could handle at least 10 times as many.” 

Even so, according to Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr, perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel: “There has been harsh propaganda against foreigners and refugees in Denmark. But I think it is changing, because I think that a lot of people are starting to realize that this debate went too far – the way we talked about foreigners and refugees was too much.” If this is true, then one can only hope that this realization will be turned into action.




European Council on Refugees and Exiles, ”Country report 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000”.

Grunnet, Henrik (red.), “Tal og fakta på udlændingeområdet 2005”, Ministeriet for Flygtninge, Indvandrere og Integration, 2006.

Jørgensen, Kit, “Flygtninge i Danmark – integration”, Dansk Flygtningehjælp, 2004.

Løgstrup, Grethe (red.), “Tal og fakta på udlændingeområdet 2004”, Ministeriet for Flygtninge, Indvandrere og Integration, 2005.

UNHCR, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”.

UNHCR, “Global Refugee Trends 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995”


Andreas Kamm. Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council. Copenhagen (in person. June 23, 2006.

Anonymous Iranian refugee. Copenhagen (phone). June 22, 2006.

Anonymous Kosovo refugee. Sandholm (in person). June 25, 2006.

Anonymous Armenian refugee. Sandholm (in person). June 25, 2006.

Anonymous Montenegro refugee. Sandholm (in person). June 25, 2006.

John Dyrby. MP Socialdemokratiet. Copenhagen (in person). June 27, 2006.

Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr. MP Enhedslisten. Copenhagen (in person). June 27, 2006.



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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2006


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