Explore More »

A New Danish Refugee Policy With a Less Human Face


“Boat Sinks off Tunisia - Two Hundred Refugees Missing”.

On June 21, 2003 this headline greeted the heads of the European Union states as they were about to leave the latest EU summit in Greece, where they had been discussing a new proposal to tighten up European asylum policy.  The shipwreck that the headline referred to had resulted in 12 confirmed deaths, while the status of two hundred of the other passengers remained uncertain.  These are the latest casualties of an asylum system that needs to be reformed.  Due to the stringent border and visa controls of the EU, they were trying to enter Europe through one of the only routes available to them: a dangerous and illegal journey across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat.  

This is just one tragic illustration of the flaws that exist in the current asylum system of the European states. As things stand now, people seeking asylum in Europe are usually forced to enter illegally, often relying on human traffickers to smuggle them in.  Not only can this process endanger their lives, but the sheer expense necessary to pay the smugglers precludes many of the most vulnerable refugees from seeking asylum, simply because they cannot afford to.  Another objection to the current system is the unfair distribution of funds directed towards refugees.  Often as much as $10,000 is spent yearly on an asylum seeker within Europe, while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees spends an average of $50 annually on refugees in other regions of the world, according to a recent UK proposal paper on asylum processing and protection. 

While these are the concerns that are often raised on behalf of the refugees, they are not the only considerations that the EU countries have in mind when they look to reform their asylum system.  The Danish Minister for Refugees, Immigration and Integration, Mr. Bertel Haarder, points to the high number of asylum claims that do not result in the granting of full refugee status, and also the fact that often rejected asylum seekers do not go back to their countries of origin.  Mr. Claus Juul, Senior Legal Consultant for the Danish Refugee Council explains, “this phenomenon is exacerbated because often asylum seekers have risked their lives in order to enter wealthy countries, and they may feel that the price of returning home is higher than the price of staying put.  For this reason, rejected asylum seekers will often do everything in their power to stay in Europe, either going underground in the country that has turned down their claim or trying their luck in other European countries.” 

It is obvious, then, that some fundamental problems exist within the structure of the asylum system.  Although these issues were first raised in a British proposal, directed towards the EU, the Danish government shares the same concerns, and strongly endorses the remedies that are being proposed for these ailments.  

Proposal: Keep Away the Refugees

The true centerpiece of the British proposal which the Danish government enthusiastically recommended at the recent EU summit is the re-focusing of aid to refugees, so that all processing of applications for asylum would take place outside of the EU, in so-called “nearby areas”.  The plan also calls for a more coordinated EU policy.  The idea is that assisting refugees in locations close to their country of origin will be beneficial, as it will be more cost effective, expedient and accessible to even the poorest and weakest refugees.  A jointly administered EU policy is intended to make the enforcement process easier and more effective, and in addition it would allow for the “burden” of asylum seekers to be shared more equitably among the EU member nations.  According to Minister Haarder, the plan would have other, less tangible advantages for asylum seekers as well, such as allowing them to “maintain a close proximity to home and family,” where they are “in a position to keep pressure on dictatorships”.  Another point that Minister Haarder perceives as very positive is that, “by placing the asylum process in third countries, it is easier to return those refused”. 

The specific proposal that was up for debate at the EU summit has two main components, both of which Denmark supports very enthusiastically. The more controversial component is the creation of closed refugee camps known as transit processing centers, which would hold asylum seekers who had spontaneously sought asylum in Denmark, and who would be sent back from Denmark to such camps following their arrival on Danish soil.  The camps may also be used to house asylum seekers picked up en route to Europe, and would be particularly geared towards weeding out those with little chance at obtaining refugee status.  These centers would be located along key travel routes used by asylum seekers to enter Denmark, and they would enforce very strict time limits for the processing of asylum applications.

The other component of the Danish-supported plan is to improve the regional management of refugees.  The main objective here would be the establishment of protection zones in areas nearby conflict or war.  It is hoped that by increasing people’s security close to home, they will be less inclined to seek asylum elsewhere.  However, those who do wish to seek asylum in Denmark could turn in their application close to their home countries and stay there while their application is being processed.  Potentially, asylum seekers could also be sent from Europe back to these zones.  Part of this regional management scheme would also entail greater efforts to limit migration flows through development assistance and better conflict prevention.  Finally, there would be an increased emphasis on the responsibility of the countries of origin to take back their citizens who have been unsuccessful at attaining asylum elsewhere.  

Both components of the proposal were turned down by the EU member states at the recent summit, to which Minister Haarder responds that “Britain, The Netherlands and Denmark can go alone.”  Thus, Denmark is one of several countries currently planning to design a pilot project to try out the proposal, which the EU commission will follow closely.  As Denmark is not part of the EU common legal framework for justice and home affairs, it is in a position to opt out of any EU decisions made about foreigners in Denmark.  Nevertheless, Denmark has been an enthusiastic proponent of this policy all along, contrary to the position of the majority of the current EU states.  Sweden in particular has been opposed, arguing that an asylum seeker has the right to stay in the country in which he or she is applying for asylum.  Germany has expressed reservations as well, drawing an analogy between these proposed refugee camps outside of the EU and the concentration camps of World War II.  

The Danish Asylum “Crisis” 

According to the EU discussion paper on the new proposals, “The EU Commission recognizes that there is a crisis in the asylum system, and a subsequent growing malaise in public opinion.”  This malaise is certainly apparent in Denmark, and it seems to be based in the idea that asylum seekers are coming here to benefit from the Danish welfare system.  These perceptions are encouraged by political rhetoric of the kind utilized by the Danish People’s Party.  “I see Denmark facing problems it can’t solve,” says Mr. Carl Christian Ebbesen, Political Secretary of the Danish People’s Party, who seems to look upon asylum seekers as a threat to Danish identity.  “Because we’re not sending people home, we’re changing our culture here in Denmark.  Mr. Ebbesen feels that it is “hard for immigrants to come to democracies where women can think for themselves.  Second and third generations don’t know which culture they belong to.  Some do crime, go into gangs - we’re actually spoiling a lot of people by taking them here.”

Mr. Michael Ehrensfeldt, Director of the Red Cross Asylum Center at Skibby, believes that such rhetoric misrepresents asylum seekers and helps to encourage a fear of outsiders.  “What the Danish People’s Party has been banging into the heads of the public is that these people are here to take our work and take our money.  The Danes don’t know the real story.”  He does not think that this fear corresponds to the reality of the situation, because the asylum seekers that he works with on a daily basis are in Denmark for reasons that they truly believe to be legitimate, and are not trying to take advantage of anyone’s generosity.  Mr. Ehrensfeldt is of the belief that the Danish People’s Party is controlling the debate on this topic, and he attributes misconceptions about refugees to a lack of productive public discussion on the subject.  “Denmark is using its very aggressive policy on refugees to cover up the fact that we don’t have a real debate.  There is no meaning, only fear.”  

Another common perception seems to be that refugees are invading Denmark in vast numbers.  Mr. Ebbesen of the Danish People’s Party states, “Now it is the refugees who control how many immigrants come to Europe.  This new policy would allow for us to control who enters Denmark.”  

This viewpoint, that Denmark is letting in increasingly more foreigners, is not backed up by the facts.  Since the Liberal-Conservative government came to power in 2001, there have been a number of changes in immigration policy, making it harder to enter the country and obtain a residence permit.  Examples of this include the new law which requires that a Danish citizen must be over the age of 24 before he or she is allowed to live in Denmark with a spouse who is not of Danish citizenship.  Even more significant for refugees is the new law that requires that an applicant for Danish citizenship live in Denmark for seven years prior to applying for permanent residence.  Previously an applicant need only have resided in Denmark for three years.  Finally, asylum seekers who are not covered by the UN Geneva Convention from 1951, are no longer able to obtain “de facto” refugee status. Because of this general tightening of the laws for obtaining a residence permit in Denmark, the overall number of spontaneous asylum seekers has actually decreased by 52% from the year 2001 to 2002.

Questions and Concerns

According to Mr. Kim Kjær, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the big question concerning the “nearby areas” strategy is “who has the responsibility for the legal security of the refugee, making sure they get the rights they are entitled to under the Geneva Convention and a number of other global and regional human rights instruments?   Right now there are so many legal aspects that are uncovered, and as time goes on, they will need to be addressed.”  The Danish People’s Party´s Mr. Ebbesen gives a contrasting opinion on the necessity of upholding human rights doctrines.  He says, “no, it’s not important that Denmark live up to international standards.  Perhaps it’s time to re-write some of these conventions.  They were made so many years ago.  If rules are really silly, why shouldn’t we change them.  I mean, it’s not the Bible, it’s not written by God.  Denmark is free to do whatever we want to do.”  

Mr. Kjær points out that the many questions cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner because the proposal is not yet concrete.  “There are so many problems, and so many political aspects.  There are so many things that I can’t foresee because it’s not detailed enough yet.”  The ambiguity surrounding the proposal is also referred to by Mr. Kris Janowski of UNHCR, in his clarification that the UNHCR does not endorse the idea of “zones of protection”, a commonly held misconception prior to the Thessaloniki summit.  “We are not sure what this concept means exactly,” says Mr. Janowski.  “UNHCR is primarily concerned with making more concerted and imaginative efforts to grapple with specific situations in refugees’ regions of origin, not with creating some sort of new geographical or physical entities.”  Although the proposal remains sketchily defined, it seems that the main point of agreement among human rights experts is that both components of the policy have problematic aspects.

Suspicions have also been raised about the motivations behind the policy.  Amnesty International has expressed grave concern, saying “the real goal behind the UK proposal appears to be to reduce the numbers of spontaneous arrivals in the UK and other EU states by denying access to territory and shifting asylum-seekers to zones outside the EU where refugee protection would be weak and unclear."  Mrs. Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen of the political party the Radical Left echoes this sentiment.  “This is simply a way of letting in less refugees.  Out of sight, out of mind.  What Danish journalist will go all the way to Cape Horn to report on the conditions in refugee camps there?” 

In addition to the legal implications, this scheme raises practical considerations as well, for instance on the point of human trafficking.  The tragic consequences of this practice are something that Minister Haarder particularly emphasizes, saying that the new plan will be "better for refugees", specifically because it will "undercut smugglers".  However, according to Amnesty International, this objective may not actually be realized in practice.  “There is a real risk that transit processing centers, and to some extent regional protection areas also would attract business for people smugglers and traffickers.”  By gathering groups of displaced persons together, the ironic result may be that things are made easier for the smugglers.  A camp full of frustrated people may prove to be a great attraction for human traffickers.  People who realize that they have little or no chance of being accepted in Europe as refugees may be more inclined to try and enter as illegal migrants who will live and work underground from the very beginning.  They would be prime targets for the human traffickers who currently bring people into Denmark in order to try and gain asylum.

Objective: Fortress Denmark

Why is it that the government has been so focused on a policy that raises so many legal, practical and moral questions?  Mr. David Trads, Editor in Chief of the Danish newspaper Information is of the opinion that “the current center-right government in Denmark has a very clear 'keep-them-out' strategy. The government was elected on a policy that would result in a very tough attitude towards immigration – especially refugees from Muslim countries. The idea was to minimize new immigration by making tough laws and on a longer scale to make it as unattractive as possible to live here as an immigrant, thereby making it ever less attractive to consider moving to Denmark.”  Mr. Trads continues, “The proposed policy is just one out of many that makes it ever more difficult to be an immigrant or asylum seeker in Denmark - simply because it again sends out a signal that the Danes would rather not have them in Denmark. The gap between Danes and immigrants gets wider.”

When Minister Haarder was asked about whether or not the actual goal of this policy is to cut down on immigration in Denmark, he repeatedly responded, “we don’t know.”  On the other hand, confronted with this question, Mr. Claus Juul of the Danish Refugee Council has a more definite opinion.  “It is obvious that the government will endorse any inter-European system that will reduce the number of asylum seekers, illegal migrants and refugees in Denmark.”  Mr. Trads brings the argument even further, and points to political motivations behind the government’s current attitude on asylum. “We have a government-coalition that was elected on this issue and that honestly believes it is necessary for Denmark and for Europe to get fewer immigrants into our part of the world. That's the number one reason why they support and encourage this policy.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Ruud Lubbers,  asylum has been and continues to be a controversial issue within Europe, for which he cites two reasons.  “Firstly, there are some very genuine concerns about the way the asylum system is being managed; about the role of people smugglers; and about those who misuse the system by falsely portraying themselves as asylum seekers.  These factors feed off each other.  Secondly, there is another abusive group at work - including some politicians, pressure groups and newspaper editors - who are willfully distorting the issue.  I am appalled at the exaggerations, statistical manipulation and scare-mongering that has proliferated recently.  This is a dangerous path for society to go down.”  

Mr. Lubbers’ quote can very easily be applied to the current situation within Denmark.  Although it is certainly true that issues exist within the asylum system, things aren’t as bad as they are portayed to be by politicians.  Also, while this proposal does have some potentially positive components, there are many points for concern within the policy as it is presently formulated.  In light of the negative perception of asylum seekers and immigrants that currently prevails among the public and on the political scene, it is unlikely that this policy will end up realizing its positive potential unless we are able to turn a more critical eye to the rhetoric of the asylum debate.  If not, this new asylum policy will end up strengthening the walls of “Fortress Denmark.” 





Ny Offensiv mod Indvandring 21. Maj 2003, Anette Marcher, Politiken

Omkring 200 savnes fortsat efter forlis ved Tunesien 21 June 2003, Netavis, Politiken.dk 

Secret Balkan camp built to hold UK asylum seekers, 15 June 2003, Martin Bright, Paul Harris and 

Dominic Hipkins

“UNHCR clarifies its new asylum proposals” June 20, 2003  

Op-ed by Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, June 20, 2003


Bertel Haarder, Minister for Refugees, Immigration and Integration

Carl Christian Ebbesen, Political Secretary, The Danish People’s Party

Claus Juul,  Senior Legal Consultant, Danish Refugee Council

David Trads, Editor in Chief of Information

Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, Spokesperson for Citizenship, Integration and the Environment, The 

Radical Left 

Kim Kjær, Senior Researcher, The Danish Institute for Human Rights

Michael Ehrensfeldt, Director at Red Cross Asylum Center, Skibby 


“Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Towards More 

Accessible, Equitable and Managed Asylum Systems” Brussels, 3.6.2003 COM (2003) 315 final

“New International Approaches to Asylum Processing and Protection (UK Proposal on Zones of


Nyt fra Danmarks Statistik Nr. 51, 7. februar 2003 ”Asylansøgninger og opholdstilladelser 4. 

kvartal  2002”

“UK/EU/UNHCR Unlawful and Unworkable: Amnesty International’s views on proposals for extra-territorial processing of asylum claims” June 18, 2003








Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2003


Related Media

Browse all content