Explore More »

Waiting. Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum in Denmark


“I always wanted to study human rights,” Khan remarks as he offers a cigarette. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his tiny bedroom, Khan appears to be an average seventeen year old wearing a white and grey jumpsuit and a visor.  But his past sets him apart from the rest.  Next to him stands a television and below is a bookshelf that contains several DVDs, one of which is entitled “Salaam from Afghanistan.”  Behind him, his bulletin board contains a gold-chained necklace with the inscription G-Unit, and next to it a pin holds up a packet of paper from the Danish Immigration Service.  He has been waiting for these papers for five years.

A refugee is defined by the United Nations in the Geneva Convention of 1951 as any person who “owing to a 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”   Khan has waited almost five years to be recognized as a refugee.  He is one of forty-five unaccompanied children who is currently living in Danish asylum-centers at the moment.  Denmark used to have a steady flow of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the country. But that changed more or less overnight in 2002. 

With support from the Danish People’s Party, the Liberal/Conservative government has passed a new hard-line version of the Alien’s Act that was implemented in 2002.  The new legislation has turned Denmark from one of the most refugee-friendly countries into an increasingly hostile environment for refugees seeking asylum.   The strict new policies have led to a steep decrease in those accepted for asylum and have deterred others from trying. In 2001, there were 24 unaccompanied children (UACs) coming to Denmark each month, and 10 on average were accepted as refugees.  In 2004, only 12 UACs came to Denmark per month, with only 2 accepted as refugees per month.   This means that in 2001, almost 42% of unaccompanied children were accepted.  By 2004, only 17% were allowed to remain in Denmark.  In only three years, not only did the number of applicants split in half, but the percentage of acceptance was also cut by 25%.  This may be the goal of the new government, but what does this mean for the refugees, especially the unaccompanied children?  

When meeting Khan for the first time, he eagerly leaned forward to shake hands. His appearance was much older than his age of seventeen.  He maintained steady eye contact and his dark brown eyes smiled as he introduced himself.  From his open attitude towards strangers, one would never guess that he struggles every day with being perceived as a burden who does not belong in Denmark.

The old legislation in Denmark uses the United Nations definition to identify the refugees as “convention refugees.”  There were also “de facto” refugees, who were considered refugees not from a direct translation of the Geneva Convention, but who had reasons similar to those listed in the Convention.   The new legislation more narrowly interprets the United Nations definition, and results in sending home those who truly do have a fear of living in their country.

Hanne Kastrup Nielsen, a head social worker at the Center Skibby where Khan has lived with his uncle since he was thirteen, says that there are many types of unaccompanied children who come to stay and not all are necessarily refugees.  The majority desperately needs help.  Upon arrival, a person only needs to go to a police station and say “asylum.”  If a minor, he or she will be sent to Center Gribskov, an institution that houses unaccompanied children that alone in Denmark.  Center Skibby is a center for families and for seventeen year old boys who have proved they are independent and responsible enough to leave Center Gribskov. At Center Skibby they are given more freedom and responsibility, and are offered a year of transition while hoping to get asylum.  

Mrs. Nielsen says Khan is different from the ‘drifters,’ boys in Denmark only temporarily until they find their next destination.  But even for the boys like Khan who are fleeing from their country of origin because they have seen their entire family killed, their houses burned, and their land destroyed, living at Center Skibby can be very difficult.  

Khan taps his cigarette in the ash-tray, and looks up with a stern expression.  He describes how his uncle would write poetry when he was in his darkest moods.  Khan relates, “I too sometimes write just to put into words what I feel… it’s hard.”  By joining a boxing club, Khan also found another outlet for his anger and frustration.  Lying next to his television is a gold-colored medal on a blue ribbon indicating his abilities in the ring.

Mrs. Nielsen and her partner, Hassan Nur Wardere, observe the depression that some of the boys suffer. Concerning Khan, they were “very worried about him… he was very sad.”  Mrs. Nielsen referred to one boy who had been waiting at Center Skibby for the official refugee status that would give him residency rights. He told her “I hate myself, I hate Denmark, and I hate my life.”  Normally, the staff is on extra alert if someone gets a negative reply on his application.  Unfortunately, this boy disappeared after he was rejected by the Danish Immigration Service, and they have never seen him again.  Others, such as Khan, suffer for years before they find out where they stand in the eyes of the Danish government.     

When asked what the worst changes were in the Alien’s Act, Andreas Kamm, the director of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), pointed to the prolonged waiting period before refugees get permanent permission to stay.  He explained that before 2002, a refugee – after having been granted asylum – had to wait only a maximum of three years for the permanent status. Now that the time has been extended to seven years, it can be “very problematic,” according to Mr. Kamm. They are stuck, simply waiting for the government to decide their future. Mr. Kamm continues “We have to remember, that this waiting period follows a period in which the refugees have been waiting for the asylum procedure to be finalized. And it also takes time – for many individuals too much time, for example 2-3 years”. 

Why would it take so many years to reach a decision in the first place?  Mr. Kamm explains that there is a struggle between the legal procedure and time.  The more legal safeguards there are, the more time it takes, which explains the extended time-period required by the new legislation.  There are also other factors to be weighed in, such as the situation of the country of origin.  If the Danish government believes that circumstances have changed, such as the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, then it may take officials longer to reach a decision.  Mr. Kamm mentioned that “when the Taliban left the arena, there was the message: you’ll be safe, go home….[but] from a humanitarian viewpoint, we shouldn’t make them displaced persons once more.”

Mr. Kamm acknowledges that immigration must be controlled because no country can accept everybody.  The past several decades have seen massive immigration worldwide.  With the threat of terrorism, governments have become more concerned with the issue of immigration.  But Mr. Kamm believes that the new policies are “far too restrictive.”  The extended waiting period and the difficulty in receiving a residence permit are extremely hard on the refugees psychologically.  Khan claims “if you’re an asylum seeker [in Denmark], you are nobody.”  Not only are they stripped of any identity they had at home, but they are in a country that clearly does not want them.  Anyone who knew the refugees as a part of a community is no longer around. They are continually forced to promote themselves to people who hardly hear them.  Caught in a vacuum, refugees see Denmark as only making their situation harder.  Some must live with this insecurity for up to seven years, and even then they may be sent back.

Khan did belong once before.  He had a “lovely father and a kind mother,” and a close relationship with his brothers.  The tight-knit family lived together in Afghanistan through its years of war against the Russians, fighting between rival mujaheddin factions, and the military take-over of the ruthless Taliban.  However not all of them survived.  Although it is unclear how, Khan’s family was killed and he had no choice but to flee the country with his uncle.  It’s all a blur to Khan, but just after his thirteenth birthday he and his uncle were smuggled to Ukraine and finally to Denmark. For a year he was not only suffering the psychological trauma of losing his family, but he also shared a small room with his uncle, his uncle’s wife and their two children. There was little privacy for a thirteen year-old boy trying to live a regular teenage life.  He spent the year struggling to understand that his family was gone forever, and tried to adjust to a new unwelcoming world. According to Henrik Ravn, a representative of the Red Cross, the refugee camps are not equipped for keeping people for more than a year.  A family of four is sometimes crushed into a small room for a period of four years or more.  

Khan’s uncle helped to bring him to Denmark, but many of the unaccompanied children that arrive in Denmark are completely alone.  Within one or two days, all children are questioned.  Boys and girls who are found to be younger than twelve years are automatically given a temporary residence permit.  The asylum procedure for children between twelve and fifteen depends on the assessment of a legal caseworker in the Asylum Department who conducts an extensive interview. Depending on the level of maturity the child will be be given a temporary residence permit or go through the normal asylum procedure. Although legally considered a child if under eighteen years old, children are asked the same questions as adults. Under the new policies, the definition of a child has changed.  Instead of eighteen and over, all children over the age of fifteen are now considered mature enough to go through the same procedures as adults.  The Danish Refugee Council has complained about complex questions such as “describe your possible political, religious, labour- or other organisational engagements, which have resulted in your flight from your home-country.  Your knowledge of the following must appear in the answer: the name, structure, goal and size of the organisation as well as the names of the leaders…”   Thanks to pressure from the DRC, a guardian is now present during the interviews to help protect the child from any harsh treatment, but the questions are often difficult for children to answer especially if they have just suffered a traumatic experience.

For the past five years, Khan has tried to make sense of what has happened to his life.  Every day he lived with insecurity, unsure of whether he would be sent back to his country where he no longer had a life of his own and destruction lay in every direction.  He was “really depressed, not knowing what would happen.”  Yet he pushed on and learned four new languages, including Danish, Indian, Pakistani, and English.  He worked hard to understand Danish culture, despite incidents of racism he encountered when trying to enjoy himself at some local clubs. 

To improve his situation, Khan started to look into Danish legislation.  He found the best argument for his case and was able to present it in front of the immigration board.  Mr. Wardere and Mrs. Nielsen, who are responsible for the care of Center Skibby and its inhabitants, agree that “he is such a clever young man.”

Although Khan attended the special schools assigned for mixed groups of people, it was hard to be motivated while he was waiting.  Before he received any news about whether he could stay in Denmark, Mrs. Nielsen would ask him what he would like to be learning in the schools.  Half joking, but half in fear of the truth, Khan would answer, “If I have to go back to Afghanistan, I have to learn how to shoot.”  According to Mrs. Nielsen, many of the children who first arrive are highly motivated, but after time their motivation drops the longer they wait at the center.  “The worst is the waiting time,” says Mrs. Nielsen.  “The children get depressed.”

The discussion of the new policies is an intense debate.  The majority of the population in Denmark supports the stricter policies and believes that immigration should be regulated on these harsher terms.  Funding for refugees has been cut because of the sharp decrease in people applying for asylum.  In 2002, there were forty facilities funded by the Danish Red Cross, and now, three years later, there are only eleven.  In 2001, there were 12,000 refugees, now there are only 3,000.  Two thousand of these refugees are waiting only to be sent home.  With the cut in funding, the Red Cross has had to close centers, fire employees, and say goodbye to a lot of refugees.  

The government argues that they need to integrate the immigrants and refugees who are already in Denmark, and by accepting hundreds of new refugees every year it makes this goal much more difficult.  According to Mrs. Irene Simonsen, a member of parliament for the Liberal party, the new Danish policies meet international standards.  She believes that the most vulnerable refugees are given asylum, and these should be the only people allowed to stay.

Despite these claims, Mr. Wardere and Mrs. Nielsen have seen many cases where a person they consider a legitimate refugee is sent home.  They say it is impossible to explain the trauma that some of the boys face when finding out they have received a negative result from the Danish Immigration Service.  Many run away, too afraid of going back to their countries, and others become deeply depressed.  Some have even attempted suicide.        

Those who are against the new policies claim that if true refugees come to Denmark and ask for help, Denmark should help them.  They should not be sent back to their country if they are afraid of returning.  Unaccompanied children are an especially vulnerable group. The new policies “may result in unjust decisions [for unaccompanied children], especially during the asylum procedure when the applicants claim will be evaluated by the Refugee Board…the Refugee Board will not be as independent as before although each member in this board has to act independently.  The Danish Refugee Council, which serves the interest of refugees, is excluded from decision making, and there are only government institutions and a representative from Lawyer’s Association left.”   Andreas Kamm, the director of the Danish Refugee Council, agrees that this is a problem.  The DRC used to have what he called “laymen,” who were ordinary people appointed by the DRC and who were obliged to take the refugee perspective and present it  to the Board.  These laymen were informed by the DRC about certain conditions, such as the situation in the asylum-seekers country of origin.  Mr. Kamm claims that by excluding the DRC from decision-making, it “weakens the neutrality… in the Board’s decision.”  Mrs. Irene Simonsen disagrees, and believes that the current lawyers appointed are fully able to give a fair trial.  The international community sides with Mr. Kamm.  “The European Union Commissioner on Human Rights agrees with us,” he states.  There have even been reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that state their disappointment in the new Danish policies. 

Khan lights another cigarette and explains that he became an unofficial translator for some people in the camp.  He made himself responsible for relaying stories for those who could not speak Danish and had just fled a terrorized country.  An Afghani woman once arrived at Center Skibby with four children under the age of fifteen, one of whom was a newborn baby.  The day after they arrived, her husband was killed in a fight by another refugee and she was left alone with her four children.  Despite her crying pleas, her asylum request was rejected and she was returned to Afghanistan.  Khan takes a puff of his cigarette and expresses his sorrow for the mother.  She has a small future without a husband in Afghanistan.   

Although it is not the aim of this paper to define a solution to the problem of immigration and the care of refugees, it is important not to forget that each one of them has a unique story.  After waiting for years in Denmark, Khan’s uncle left for Norway where he was granted asylum within months.  Khan, after five years, was finally granted asylum on May 12, 2005.  While trying to comprehend the loss of his family in Afghanistan and then his torturous five years of waiting in Denmark, Khan came up with one reason.  He claimed, “[My family was] taken from me…and I thought, what took them from me?  It was politics that ruined my life.”  




Kahn, Afghan refugee in Denmark, 25 June, 2005.

Hanne Kastrup Nielsen, Social worker at the refugee camp Center Skibby, 27 June, 2005.

Hassan Nur Wardere, Social worker at the refugee camp Center Skibby, 27 June, 2005.

Andreas Kamm, Director of Danish Refugee Council, 27 June, 2005.

Henrik Ravn, Head of the Legal Secretariat at the Danish Red Cross Asylum Department, 28 June, 2005.

Irene Simonsen, MP, The Liberal Party, 28 June, 2005.


The Danish Aliens Act 2000

The Danish Aliens Act 2002

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

Årsrapport 2004, Danish Red Cross, 2005 (Red cross statistics)

Country report Denmark

MinMig: The Risk Group of Unaccompanied Minor Migrants

Transnational exchange of experiences and further development of protection mechanism

Author: Alexander Rietmann, Berliner Institut für Vergleichende Sozialforschung, 2003 

Statement of Good Practice, 2004

Separated Children in Europe Programme, 2004 (SCEP)

UNHCR Guidelines, Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in dealing with Unaccompanied Children

Seeking Asylum, 1997

Link: http://www.unhcr.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendoc.pdf?tbl=MEDIA&id=3d4f91cf4&page=publ

Justice Delayed: Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum in Denmark

Torben Jarl Jørgensen and Lesley Farby, 2000

Your Way 

–information booklet on the Danish asylum system for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers.

Danish Refugee Council, 2002


Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2005


Related Media

Browse all content