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Hidden Injustice: Denmark’s Insufficient Recognition of Gender-Based Asylum Motives


A Gendered Look at a Universal Crisis

At the end of 2005 there were an estimated 50 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. The rise of refugees is a global crisis being tackled by intergovernmental organizations through international conventions, developed and developing countries attempting to act as safe havens, and domestic governments working to improve the internal threats that force individuals to flee. However, in the effort to combat the refugee crisis, very little attention has been paid to its gendered aspects. 80% of the approximately 50 million refugees in 2005 were women and their children. Often reasons for flight among women are gender-based violations such as rape, sexual assault, and cultural and domestic violence. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “A refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is outside of his or her country of nationality and unable or unwilling to return.”  Human rights scholars and legal experts have argued that gender is a valid characteristic for “a particular social group” in which members (i.e. women) suffer specific threats that may constitute valid asylum motives. 

One in every five women in the world are raped, and up to five-thousand honor killings were carried out in 2005. Significant under-reporting of gender-based violence means that these statistics are a modest representation of violations aimed at women worldwide. And yet, international and domestic law regarding asylum and refugee status rarely make mention of the specific threats and conditions faced by women in conflict and asylum-seeking processes. The head of the UN Commission for Women commented in 1990 that “the issue of the acknowledgement of refugee women had the biggest negative ratio of rhetoric to reality that it is possible to achieve.” In order to address this gap and the overwhelming neglect of gender as an aspect of the refugee crisis, this report analyzes asylum-seeking in Denmark using a gendered lens. We focus on key case studies describing female refugees supplemented by theoretical discussion, shedding light on a largely hidden aspect of the universal refugee crisis. 

Women and Conflict: Gendered Motives for Seeking Asylum

Well-founded fear of persecution simply for being female is a common and often ignored reality worldwide, in contexts of peace and conflict. Women make up a particular social group whose members, in times of conflict, suffer violations of a specific nature as well as specifically high levels of some violations that are gender-neutral. For example, rape is a widely-used tool of war, used primarily against women to exert power and disadvantage the opposing side of the conflict. 

In general, due to social norms, power dynamics, and economic systems, women are more vulnerable than men, making them more susceptible to common violations used in conflict situations such as disappearances, abuse, and torture. Furthermore, women in many cultures and societies often tend to act as the backbone of the household; this makes it possible for combatants to use violations against women as a strategy for dismantling the opponents’ sense of order and security. Finally, women often seek asylum due to the persecution of a family member, most often a spouse, which puts them in a position of dependence and what we call “secondary victimization,” giving them indirect and undocumented motives for seeking protection. Specifically high levels of vulnerability among women to both gender-neutral and gender-based violence should be reflected in the protections provided by institutions dealing with refugees. However, these institutions not only largely fail to address the specific conditions of women, but in many cases put women seeking refuge at significant disadvantages.

The Asylum-Seeking Process: Gender-Neutral or Gender-Blind?

In order to discuss the conditions faced by female refugees in the Danish system, it is crucial to understand the process through which every refugee seeking asylum in Denmark must go. When an asylum-seeker arrives in Denmark, he or she must first undergo a short interview conducted by the police, which seeks to clarify the person’s identity and his or her  reason for seeking asylum, after which they fill out an asylum-seeking form. Later on another more thorough interview is carried out by the Danish Immigration Service. The objective of this stage of inquiry is to glean as much basic information from the applicant as possible regarding the threat from which he or she fled and the situation he or she would face should he or she return to their country of origin. Another application form is also filled out at this stage. Amnesty International points out that in certain countries, the initial application stage may be gender discriminatory. Since women are more likely to be illiterate than men, they will, in general, have a more difficult time forming a convincing argument for their refugee status through a written application form. The Danish system guards against such discrimination, says head clerk of the Danish Immigration Service, Louise Ersbøll, by requiring the written form only from those applicants who are able to read or write. 

In tandem with the interview, the Danish Immigration Service relies on a variety of background material, such as international reports and recent research, in order to investigate the potential and actual threats as well as the legal standards in the country of origin. Finally, the Immigration Service does one of two things: either grants or denies the applicant asylum. The asylum motive can either simply be rejected, which is followed by what is referred to as “normal procedure,” or the motive can  be found “manifestly unfounded,” after which a different procedure is followed. In the normal procedure of rejection, the asylum case can automatically be referred to the Danish Refugee Board, who will review the case in a type of appeals procedure and make the final decision. In the case of a final rejection, the police will be asked to deport the applicant.

In the manifestly unfounded procedure the Immigration Service presents the case to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and if the DRC agrees with the decision of the Immigration Service the applicant is referred to the police for removal. If the DRC disagrees with the Immigration Service, the case is refereed to the Refugee Board in for appeal. Here, the Refugee Board considers the case and makes final decisions regarding residence permits.

In summary, the applicant is either refused refugee status of any kind or granted either:

•Convention status, which means that the applicant satisfies requirements set out by the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees; 

•B-status (Protection status), which means that the applicant does not meet all requirements of the Convention but may face torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to his or her country and will enjoy only limited protections by the Danish state; 

•Temporary residence permit on humanitarian grounds, which can be sought after throughout the whole asylum-seeking process, i.e. both before and after the case is settled.

Finally, it is also possible to receive K-status asylum.  In order to receive K-status, the applicant must be a relative of a person who has already been granted refugee status in Denmark, and must have arrived in Denmark within eighteen months of his or her relative’s successful asylum application. In this case, the application is not processed through an individual asylum procedure, but the applicant is treated as if he or she has the same need for protection as a Convention-status or B-status refugee.

Literature describing the process and authorities’ procedural behaviour attempts to be “gender-neutral,” making only minimal mention of gender and issues faced exclusively by women. The process largely fails to address important distinctions between the violations suffered by men and women, one of which is public vs. private violence.

Throughout the asylum seeking process, Leimand points out that the woman will always be given the benefit of the doubt based on her testimony, and that the first priority of authorities is to ensure that, if the woman is returned to her country of origin, she will be safe. However, several cases illustrate that women’s safety is often a neglected factor in the decision-making process, and it is doubtful that the woman will in fact be safe upon return to her home country.

Public vs. Private Violence

Private-sphere violence can be characterized as violations that take place in an unofficial capacity, often in the privacy of the household, in times of peace as well as conflict. They are often undocumented, relate sometimes to cultural and religious practices, and target one of the most vulnerable members of society: women. Examples include female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, rape and domestic abuse. These violations often go unaddressed by authorities due to the state’s desire to avoid “meddling in the cultural domestic affairs of a family structure,” and lack of official documentation. Limited accountability and authorities’ failure to consider these abuses valid grounds for intervention and protection are highly problematic. In the asylum-seeking process, incidents of “private-sphere violence” are often considered to be a-political acts of random criminality and insufficient reasons to grant refugee status. 

Case Study: Somalia

The following case illustrates the public vs. private violence dilemma and how it is treated in the Danish asylum system: 

In Somalia, a militia leader raped a woman repeatedly in her own home. He verbally abused her and threatened to end her life. Fearing further violence, the woman fled Somalia and applied for asylum in Denmark, confident that the abuse would continue if she went home. The Danish Refugee Board estimated that she would face a concrete risk of being exposed to degrading treatment if she returned. However, rather than granting her Convention-status, the board allocated only B-status, providing her with only subsidiary protections in Denmark and fewer rights than a Convention-status refugee.

The general trend in gender-related asylum cases from Somalia is that women do not even achieve B-status. The rationale is often that women’s motives are a “private matter” and not sufficient reason for granting any form of asylum. The assaults are deemed haphazard criminality (i.e. not political persecution) and expected “side-effects” of the current dangerous and chaotic conditions in Somalia. 

These notions surrounding private sphere violence, a phenomenon that targets women almost exclusively, lies at the foundation of our critical inquiry into two main areas: 1) what constitutes valid motives for seeking-asylum; and 2) significant gaps in the asylum-seeking process to address the specific gender-based violence that drives many women to seek asylum in Denmark.

Culture-Based Violations

In addition to general cross-cultural violations that take place in a private setting, women are at particular risk for being the target of several different types of culture-based human rights abuses. Cultural tradition has long been a defence for discriminatory and dangerous practices carried out against women such as honor killings, female genital mutilation, and forced marriage. Although many of these practices are condemned in international human rights agreements and cultural relativism has lost strength as an argument for letting them continue, significant factors limit women’s protection from these often-life-threatening violations. 

Case Study: Morocco

In 2005 three women from Morocco sought asylum in Denmark based on well-founded fears of honor killings threatened by their families should they return to their home country. Two of the women came to Denmark through family reunification with their husbands, but subsequently got divorced (one because of violence in the relationship), leaving them without residence permits. The women received multiple threats of violence from their families due to the shame they had brought regarding their unsuccessful marriages in Denmark. 

All three of the women were rejected asylum because their conflicts were considered a private matter that should be dealt with by authorities in Morocco. The Refugee Board believed honor killings to be an unlawful and rare occurrence in Morocco and found that Moroccan authorities are mandated to punish honor killings with lengthy imprisonment. For this reason, the Board argued that the women should be sent back to rely on the protection of their own state. When Denmark’s Immigration authorities find that such violations are against the law in the country of origin, they rest easy in rejecting refugee status to women who suffer under threat of violence. However, the Board willingly protects individuals who suffer under threat of equally illegal political persecution, often simply because of the public-sphere and cross-cultural natures of the persecution.


Not only do women suffer from specific sex-based and cultural abuses that initially drive them to seek asylum, but they also confront additional injustices throughout their experience as refugees. In what is often called “double-victimization,” women face problems when they enter into the transition process from their country of origin to the country of refuge. A recent report from Amnesty International explains that while fleeing from threat in their home countries, “Refugee women and girls experience violence by smugglers or traffickers, border guards, police and other law enforcement officers and sometimes even by other refugees.” Furthermore, women face certain difficulties in their quest for justice and asylum since sexual violence is often stigmatized. Finally, since women are, in many societies, disadvantaged by economic dependence and disparity, they face limited access to legal help and transportation.

Arbitrary Judgements

Due to the fact that gender-based, private-sphere violence is out of the realm of the traditional refugee Convention status as described in the “gender-neutral” UN Convention, decisions made by Danish authorities regarding these violations are often inconsistent, arbitrarily granting or denying asylum to women facing persecution. 

Case Studies: Iraq

Two parallel cases regarding women fleeing threats of violence in Iraq illustrate the arbitrary nature of asylum decisions in cases of gender-based violence:

An Iraqi Christian woman fled to Jordan in 1998 at the age of fifteen with her parents to escape increasing harassment by authorities due in part to her brother’s unwillingness to serve in the military. Her mother and father eventually arrived in Denmark and received a residence permit. The young woman no longer had any close family members in Iraq, and, having turned eighteen during the time in which her parents were seeking asylum, she was not eligible for family reunification in Denmark. 

The Danish Refugee Board ultimately granted her asylum in 2004, recognizing that because she no longer had any close family in Iraq, her family had been severely threatened by Iraqi authorities, and she was a single Christian woman with no male network, she would be under the risk of assault should she return to Iraq. 

Later that year, another Christian Iraqi woman fled with her two children from Iraq to Denmark, seeking asylum. Her husband had a residence permit in Denmark, but she could not get a K-status residence permit because she was seeking asylum three years after her husband’s allocation of asylum (i.e. eighteen months too late to receive K-status). The woman claimed she was being threatened by Iraqi authorities and had been violently assaulted. The Danish Refugee Board suspected that she had fled Baghdad out of economic desperation rather than political persecution and doubted that she had been assaulted. Even if her claim of assault was in fact true, the assaults she described were not grave enough to be grounds for asylum, according to the Refugee Board.

Although there was precedent for granting asylum to single Christian women fleeing Iraq from the case earlier that year, the Board found that this woman could return to Iraq without risk of persecution or inhumane or degrading treatment. It emphasized that the applicant would not be susceptible to any additional assault or dangers than the average Iraqi. The Board refused her asylum on these grounds with little attention to the specifically gender-based threats she faced in her country of origin, which resembled those suffered by the young woman who was granted asylum earlier that year.

Secondary Victims

An additional distinction between men and women that can be drawn with respect to the asylum-seeking process is that an overwhelming number of women suffer what we term “secondary” or “consequential” suffering compared with men. Women who are the spouses, mothers, or daughters of a person fleeing political persecution make up the majority of women residing at many refugee camps worldwide. This is true at one of Denmark’s main refugee camps, Center Sandholm, which is run by the Danish Red Cross. The suffering of secondary victims is significant; however, it is largely ignored by institutions and legal rhetoric. 

The majority of women in the asylum-seeking process hope to achieve K-status, since it is more often the man who has the primary asylum motive than it is his wife. In Denmark, women whose husbands, children, or parents are threatened can only hope to achieve K-status, rather than rights to their own independent asylum. This is problematic especially in a spousal relationship since the woman is dependent upon her husband for information and safety in the asylum-seeking process. Women with K-status often tend to tolerate certain levels of abuse and neglect in order to retain their right to protection in Denmark.

One resident at Sandholm, whose wife is pregnant with his child, boasted that he was withholding information about his asylum rejection from his wife in order save her from a psychological breakdown. “She wouldn’t be able to handle it. I can’t tell her, I couldn’t do that to her.” The problem is, the woman’s own protection and that of her child is dependent on the outcome of his case. Therefore, her dependence on him for information puts her on the underside of an objectionable power dynamic, one in which female refugees find themselves all too often in situations concerning their safety and well-being. 

Waiting for Asylum

The refugee camps in Denmark, while attempting to provide safe havens for those fleeing violence in their home countries, are particularly dangerous for women. In Sandholm, young girls rarely walk around by themselves, even during daylight hours, out of fear of verbal and physical abuse. One family that resides in the camp described their experience with a common occurrence that keeps many women indoors at the camp:

“Our daughter and a friend were walking around the grounds when a group of young black men started running after them. The girls found an authority figure and told him about the man following them, and the authority figure questioned the men. The men explained, ‘We just wanted to kiss the girls!’ And the authority figure did nothing.” Women at the camp are exposed to this type of degrading treatment on a daily basis and must tolerate authority figures’ failure to take their grievances seriously.

 Another recent case at Sandholm involved an even more staggering example of violence against females at the camp. A Chechnyan man who was mentally sick tracked down a five-year-old girl and beat her senseless. “The family went crazy,” residents at Sandholm say. 

Mothers are especially vulnerable to the threat of mental damage in cases of violence against their children. Recently, a group of children were playing on a wheelchair and ran into a barbed wire-fence, critically injuring one of the children. A witness recalls, “The mother was trying to commit suicide immediately after the accident. All the women had to hold her arms down so she wouldn’t kill herself.” Amnesty International confirms that refugee camps worldwide pose specific threats to female asylum-seekers, as they are often breeding grounds for domestic violence and sexual assault. Residents at Sandholm agree that domestic violence is a problem in the camp. One Sandholm resident explains that in certain cultural circles, such as within families from Iran and Iraq, “There’s always abuse [against women]…they can’t go anywhere.” 

From the initial gender-based violence in their home countries to inconsistency and discrimination in the asylum-seeking process and violence in refugee camps, female refugees face a wide range of gender-specific violations and injustices that are too-often neglected by authorities and hidden from the public eye. Legal rhetoric and behaviour must change through the initiative of those in power if we are ever to see the conditions for female refugees improve in the Danish asylum system and worldwide.

Prescriptions for Improvement 

In light of the injustices confronted by female asylum-seekers discussed in this brief study, the following critical lessons are put forward for consideration:

•Women are disadvantaged by certain gender-specific violations and conditions, especially in times of conflict. These situations drive many women to seek asylum, and should be considered grounds for asylum, regardless of their often “private” nature. 

•Women should not be restricted to B-status or rejection based on private-sphere or cultural violence. Rather, they should be allocated the same rights and protections of a traditional Convention status-refugee. Restricting the rights of victims of private-sphere violations constitutes gender discrimination and should not be permitted in any asylum system.

•Authorities should make more concerted efforts to give women the benefit of the doubt in situations when testimony and investigation are the only means of evaluating an asylum case.  

Danish authorities should take into consideration the possibility that even if a gender-based violation (such as domestic abuse or an honor killing) is outlawed in an asylum-seeker’s country of origin, these crimes often go unpunished and often women are not protected against such violence by authorities.

•Promoting development, rule of law, and protection of women’s rights in countries of origin is a crucial part of addressing the refugee crisis and its specific effects on women. Through its Regions of Origins Initiative, Denmark is spearheading initiatives abroad for the betterment of conditions in post-conflict societies, potentially improving the rights and well-being of female refugees returning home.




Amnesty International, Stop Violence Against Women Campaign: http://web.amnesty.org/actforwomen/index-eng 

Amnesty International Danish Department, Valget mellem vold og udvisning, (Scanprint, 2006).

 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/o_c_ref.htm 

The Danish Immigration Service, The Asylum Guide, (Sandholm, 2002).

Amendments to the Asylum Guide, (Sandholm, 2003).

Gender related and private matter asylum cases from 2004-2005 taken from the home page of The Refugee Board: http://www.fln.dk/Praksis/praksis.htm 

Somalia cases: (Somalia/2006/4)

Morocco cases: (Mar/2005/1), (Mar/2005/2), (Mar/2005/3)

Iraq cases: (Irak/2004/42), (Irak/2004/75)

Interviews with selected residents at Center Sandholm. 25 June 2006. 

Kastrup, Marianne C., and Libby Tata Arcel, “Gender-Specific Treatment” IN

Broken Spirits: The Treatment of Traumatized Asylum Seekers, Refugees, War and Torture Victims, (New York, Brunner-Routledge, 2004).

Leimand, Louise Ersbøll, The Danish Immigration Service, Interview, Center 

Sandholm, Allerød, Denmark. 22 June 2006. 

Pittaway, Eileen, “Refugee Women—the Unsung Heroes”, (1999). 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, The Regions of Origins Initiative, Danida, (Denmark, 2005).

Worm, Lise, Interview, Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, Copenhagen, 

Denmark, 21 June 2006.   


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