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A Litmus Test for Danish Society: the Case of the Iraqi Asylum Seekers: An Approaching Expiration Date

While walking down the hall of Brorsons Kirke (Brorsons Church) in Nørrebro, Copenhagen, we took a quick glance at the newspaper clippings attached to the walls:  “Rejected Iraqi Asylum Seekers Detained,” “Iraqis Waiting in Denmark for Many Years,” and “Minister: No Sanctuary for Iraqis” were just some of the articles that have been published since May of 2009.
Approximately sixty of the remaining 244 rejected Iraqi asylum seekers waiting to be forcibly repatriated came to the church, which now serves as their temporary residence since they no longer feel safe in Center Sandholm, one of Denmark’s camps for asylum seekers. 
However, the truth is that they are not much safer in the church.  Their ongoing struggle worsened on June 25, 2009, when the first group of six asylum seekers was deported, leaving those remaining with feelings of doubt, bitterness, and restlessness. We saw one group of young Iraqi men chatting and playing dominos, using the banality of the game as a distraction from the uncertainty of their current situation. 

Iraq-Denmark Agreement

For years, Denmark has been in a perplexing situation regarding the Iraqi asylum seekers.  Until May 13, 2009, Iraq maintained that its domestic security situation was too volatile for asylum seekers to return.  But it has since changed its position.  There has been much speculation about what precipitated this change.  Certain members of Danish Parliament are suggesting political blackmail, citing pressure applied by the conservative Danish government which, they claim, threatened to cut off development aid if Iraq didn’t accept the asylum seekers. Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen called the agreement "essential for the legitimacy of our entire asylum system." 

From Welfare to Warfare

At least 2,000 people were killed in Iraq in 2009, with estimates of Iraqi casualties since the start of the war in 2003 ranging between 100,000 and 1,000,000.  Taking these numbers into consideration, it seems clear that Iraq is not yet safe.  According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, five provinces in particular – Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, Ta’mim and Ninevah – all in southern and central Iraq, are considered “too unstable for refugees to return to the area.”
 
Yet, Danish authorities are turning a blind eye to such reports and have begun repatriation to these areas.  This is despite the fact that when determining the safety status of central Iraq, Danish officials themselves were told it was too dangerous for them to visit, leading them to travel instead to the North, where fighting has diminished.  However, it is to the volatile central region where 119 of the 284 rejected asylum seekers are being sent.
Simply reading the daily news offers a clear portrait of how this region is truly faring.  On June 29, 2009, newly proclaimed Iraqi Sovereignty Day, a bomb exploded in Kirkukin the province of Ta’mim, resulting in 250 dead and wounded.  Nabil Darwish, a 36-year-old Iraqi Kurd who has been living in Denmark for the past six years, is facing deportation to Kirkuk mere days after this attack occurred.  Because he cannot prove that his life is personally threatened, however, he has little to no chance of staying in Denmark.

Years of Uncertainty

Although the repatriation agreement between Iraq and Denmark was only finalized in May 2009, many Iraqi asylum seekers have tolerated extreme uncertainty and the continual fear of deportation since first arriving in Denmark. While the living conditions at camps such as Sandholm may not seem so bad to passersby, the stress of being forced to exist for years in a drawn-out state of limbo is simply too much for many asylum seekers to endure without suffering certain consequences.
   
In 1994, the director of Herlev Hospital, Helge Kjersem, pointed out that, “no one should have to live for more than one year with the uncertainty that an undecided asylum case creates.”  Yet, of the 244 Iraqi asylum-seekers now facing deportation, 184 have been living in Denmark’s asylum camps for between six and eleven years.  Each of these people had their plea for asylum rejected around nine months to a year after having arrived in Denmark, but have been too afraid of what awaits them in Iraq to willingly return.  As a result, they found themselves stuck with nowhere to return, and no options for a real life in Denmark.
Among this group are many children, for whom life as an asylum seeker is the only one they’ve known.  Although many of these kids consider Denmark home, for most of their childhood they have been under constant stress, moving from camp to camp, and inheriting the fear and anxiety of their parents who don’t know what tomorrow will bring. 
 
According to child psychiatrist Dr. Bente Rich, who has worked extensively with asylum seekers in Denmark, places like Center Sandholm are simply “internment camps with limited contact to the outside world, where after years of stress the families feel buried alive.”  While the Iraqi asylum seekers came to Denmark fleeing horrific situations, it is life in the camps that has both created and entrenched severe mental health issues for many of them.
  
Asylum seekers are not given adequate trauma evaluations upon entering Sandholm, and throughout the years that many people spend there and in other camps, they are not offered sufficient therapy for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, anxiety disorders, and even psychotic disorders with which a majority become afflicted.  Only life-threatening illnesses are treated, and according to the Red Cross-run health facilities, no mental illness is severe enough to qualify as such.  After a year or so, many of the people who enter the camps with no mental disorders exhibit symptoms similar to those for victims of torture – they are broken down, dehumanized, and left with a surplus of psychological trauma. 
 
Dr. Rich and many others who have worked with the asylum seekers believe this to be a breach of human rights, particularly in the case of children, for whom poor mental health strongly interferes with proper development.  Mona Rosenberg, a volunteer with the asylum seekers living in Brorsons Kirke, says of such children, “They have to divide their minds.  In some ways they are like normal children, in other ways they are constantly afraid, for their whole lives.”

A Shifting Political Climate

Since the consequences of such extreme anxiety for prolonged periods are well known to mental health experts, and increasingly, to the broader public, the question arises of why the Danish government would knowingly put hundreds of people in such a terrible position.  The consensus on the Left seems to be that Denmark is using the rejected asylum seekers as examples to anyone else who may attempt to seek asylum in the future.  Johanne Schmidt Nielsen, an MP with the very liberal Enhedslisten (Red-Green Alliance), says of the government, “They are trying to say to the world, don’t ever go to Denmark – you will be placed in a camp for many years, you’ll get sick, have no rights, have no private life.” 
 
While this view is shared by other left-wing parties in Parliament, Karsten Lauritzen of the government party Ventsre (Liberal Party) says simply, “We have an independent court who decides who gets asylum and who doesn’t.  We should respect that.”  Such a curt denial of responsibility is the hard line currently being taken by the ruling parties, which are supported by the openly anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).
  
In 2001, the new Liberal-Conservative alliance took power, with strong backing from the Danish People’s Party.  By January 2002, stricter immigration laws were on the books, harshly affecting those seeking asylum in Denmark.  Already at that time, the language being used to support more stringent policies was inhumane, focusing on a cost/benefit analysis instead of on the people it would affect.  
Former Refugee, Immigration and Integration Minister Bertel Haarder, said of the initial bill, “We think the proposed measures will allow us to reduce the number (of asylum seekers) in order to concentrate on the integration of those who live in our country.  Foreigners today represent a net burden on society. They cost more than they give back. This must be changed."  The change in policy forced asylum seekers to prove that they were being individually threatened in their home country in order to receive refugee status, a task which is often very difficult.
Since 2002, additional measures have been passed, further tightening the rules.  For instance, family reunification is now much more difficult. “De facto” refugees (people who do not specifically qualify under the Geneva Convention but are faced with very similar circumstances) are no longer considered for asylum, and according to the updated Dublin Regulation of 2006, asylum seekers rejected from one EU country do not have the option of applying again in another.  Due to these regulations, the total number of people seeking asylum in Denmark has fallen continually, from 6,068 in 2002 to 2,246 in 2007.
However, the average length of time spent in Denmark by each asylum seeker has steadily grown, creating a community of people living in limbo with nowhere to turn.  According to Red Cross data taken from Center Sandholm, the length of a typical applicant’s stay tripled between 2001 and 2005.  As one might suspect, providing for these people, who are not legally allowed to provide for themselves, has become quite costly.  It is estimated that over the past ten years Denmark has spent more than 600 million Kroner on Iraqi asylum seekers alone. 
However, unlike in other Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, there is no trend towards granting residency or work permits to rejected asylum seekers who have already been in the country for numerous years. Such a shift would allow them to become contributing members of society, and less of a financial burden.  Instead, the conservative government is using the high price tag of their internment as a justification to push for speedy and ethically questionable deportations.
  
As MP Mogens Camre from the Danish People’s Party put it, “if we just said, 'Well, you have been denied asylum, you do not want to go home, then stay', then there is no asylum system, because then you are granted asylum irrespective of whether you need it or you don't."  Yet, this reasoning fails to address the root of the problem: the flawed asylum policies resulting in the forced repatriation of 244 Iraqis to unsafe regions of Iraq.  After the creation of the shaky repatriation agreement with a still war-torn Iraq and the enactment of strict laws concerning asylum seekers, many feel the message has been made clear – don’t come to Denmark.

Public Reaction

Though many politicians are blithely pushing this conservative agenda forward, some segments of society are mounting a heated response. Since the beginning of 2009, several groups have organized protests and demonstrations, held benefit concerts, collected signatures, and lobbied members of Parliament, all in an effort to draw attention to the issue and effect policy changes. 
While deliberations on the Iraq-Denmark repatriation agreement were taking place, a steady buzz of activity on the part of advocacy organizations and concerned individuals, as well as frequent media coverage, kept the issue in the public light.
 
Dr. Rich is among the most outspoken on the conditions faced by rejected asylum seekers. She has appeared on television and national public radio and written newspaper articles about the topic. Additionally, Afvist (‘Rejected’), a book detailing twenty personal accounts of asylum seekers’ experiences in Denmark, was released June 11, 2009.
Dr. Rich believes that raising awareness among the Danish population is essential.  “Until a few years ago, the public didn’t know anything about the situation in the centers,” Dr. Rich said.  “Many people prefer not to know, because then they do not feel responsible. Now that the situation is very public, I think there will be much more polarized views.  Many people have changed their minds – they don’t agree, they don’t want to be responsible for this anymore.” 
After the agreement was reached, the stakes were raised, and more activists took to the streets. Two days after the agreement on May 15, 2009, Kvinder i Sort Danmark (Women in Black Denmark), the Danish branch of an international network of women against “war, militarism, and terrorism,” held a demonstration in Kultorvet.  Similar demonstrations were held by Bedsteforaeldre for Asyl (Grandparents for Asylum) on May 20 in front of the Ministry of Refugees, Immigration and Integration Affairs, and on June 5 in Hertha Valley.  The organization, composed mostly of elderly Danes protesting the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, also organized a June 17 rally in Christiansborg, with more than 5000 in attendance.  In a more drastic attempt to protest the government’s asylum policies, Stop Udvisningerne (Stop Deportations), a group opposed to the forced expulsion of asylum seekers, barricaded the Ministry of Refugees, Immigration and Integration Affairs on June 16, one day before the detention of five Iraqi asylum seekers at Sandholm. 
Anne Nielsen, Chairman of SOS mod Racisme (SOS against Racism), the Danish branch of an international organization that aims to fight racism wherever it exists, says the agreement created a sense of urgency for her organization.  Nielsen comments, “After the agreement, we became more active; we tried to go to the media, we made a press statement criticizing the deportations.”
And yet, only one day after being detained, the five asylum seekers along with one other Iraqi were deported, the first of the remaining 250 Iraqis to be sent back.  With these deportations now underway, the 25-plus organizations agitating for a change are fighting an uphill battle, as the government has remained adamant about its intention to enforce the asylum policies and continue the deportations. 
Deputy Chief of Police Hans-Viggo Jensen, the man responsible for carrying out the deportations, has called for a stop to public support of the Iraqis, arguing that by “making rejected asylum-seekers believe that they have a future in Denmark,” the supporters are “selling a product they cannot deliver and are thus contributing to an escalation of the situation.” 
Jensen’s plea is directed primarily on Brorsons Church, which has become the physical and emotional nexus of the Iraqi asylum controversy.  Kirkeasyl (Church Asylum), the volunteer-led initiative created to support Iraqi asylum seekers residing in the church, boasts more than 200 volunteers, providing services and goods ranging from food and toiletries to medical treatment and legal assistance. 
The church has become a symbol of the asylum controversy, and many see it as a last hope for the Iraqis and their supporters.  Speculation has been circulating regarding the police department’s course of action towards the Iraqis in the church.  Assistant Police Commissioner Per Larsen has said that the police will “wait and see” how the situation plays out, adding that “we don’t like clearing churches.”  But with new volunteers coming to the church every week, and support at benefit concerts for the Iraqis still strong, something will have to give in the coming months.
Nielsen believes that the church could become a volatile focal point for the issue.  “It might go in both directions. I hope they stop the deportations and find solutions. I don’t know if we are strong enough, but I hope we will succeed,” she explains. “I cannot be sure. If the police go to the church to forcibly deport people, it will radicalize some of the young people. There will be more fights and more opposition.”
For their part, Nina Lørring and Mogens Busse, members of Grandparents for Asylum, vow to continue their efforts against the deportations and asylum policies.  “Our role is to inform people and make them aware of the situation, and it may change their attitude towards the problem,” Busse said.  “We don’t think we can change the government’s policy, but we hope to move the public to put pressure on the government.”

A Broader Perspective

For many of those actively involved in opposing the government’s actions and policies, the asylum seekers’ situation reflects broader issues in Danish society.  They believe the asylum dilemma is a function of the character and nature of Danish society today, which was once perceived as open and welcoming. 
“Denmark’s positive image goes back a long way,” Nielsen said. “Everyone was proud that the Resistance had fought the Nazis—at least the civilians did. And in the 70s, Denmark was rather open.  We took in refugees from all over the world, and I think they were quite well received and accepted.”  Nielsen says Denmark has changed a great deal since then.  “It’s a shame,” she said. “It’s an offense against humanity that we deport the asylum seekers to Iraq. It’s really inhumane in a way I had not thought the Danish government was capable of being.”
Yet, there is evidence that the efforts of groups like Grandparents for Asylum and SOS against Racism have not been fruitless.  It’s becoming clear that not all Danes agree with the government on the deportation issue.  According to polls conducted by Rambøll/Jyllands-Posten, public support for the deportations declined from 66% to 48% from May to June of 2009.

Politics in Play

Most who actively oppose the government’s asylum policies agree that the politicization of the issue has complicated matters. Lørring says that, “It’s not about the 282 Iraqis anymore – the government doesn’t want to lose honor now. They’ve been pressed in a corner, and they are sticking with the policy because that is their political identity – to be against outsiders.”
According to Lørring and Busse, since coming to power in 2001 the ruling government, and especially the Danish People’s Party, has increasingly adopted what is tersely referred to by many as the “Denmark for Danes” ideology.  This stance, characterized by protectionist and sometimes xenophobic rhetoric, stresses the need to preserve the cultural integrity of a small nation with a traditionally homogenous population.  As members of Grandparents for Asylum, they see their challenge as getting the public to move beyond the isolationism and intolerant nationalism perpetuated by the current political climate.
“If you ask people in the street, they give the easy answer—that the Iraqis should be sent back,” Busse said.  “But when we speak with people and tell them about the conditions of the individuals, they understand and change their attitude.”  Busse believes that this political slant points to a bigger problem. She explains, “that’s probably because it has been difficult for our little country to find out how to take people from other parts of the world, how to integrate people,” he said. “The easy argument against it is always that foreigners create problems and that they’re criminal. They come here only because we have social welfare in Denmark. They take our money, they take our jobs.”  
Lørring notes, “We don’t agree.  We know people and the problems they had at home. People don’t leave to come here without good reason.”
Nielsen agrees that the asylum issue has deeper implications for Danish society, saying, “I think that Denmark’s values are in danger.  It’s a kind of test. If the government succeeds in the forced returns, then they will return others. If the Dansk Folkeparti has its way with the forced deportations, it is probable that it will become accepted by the Danish people. I think it’s horrible. It says that Denmark does not count human lives if they are Iraqi or Iranians or Somalis.”
If, as Nielsen and many others opposing the current asylum policies believe, they are locked in a battle of values with the government, then the key to rousing the Danish public’s conscience on this issue may be to cast the asylum dilemma in terms of human and minority rights as opposed to politics. 
Husse believes that in large part, fear is standing in the way of this vision.  “A great part of the issue is fear of foreigners, fear of changes,” he said.  “But, if these people are integrated, they can be a positive in our society.”  Lørring added, “instead of seeing the changes with fear, we should see it as a challenge for us to take on.”
The most pressing issue at hand, the fate of the remaining 244 Iraqi asylum seekers, remains bleak.  Despite the odds, Schmidt-Nielsen is determined.  “Even though there’s no reason to be optimistic, the only thing we can do is to keep fighting,” she said.  “The strategy right now is to keep telling the stories of these people, taking the discussion into the media, writing in the newspapers, taking the discussion into the schools.  The strategy is to let everyone in Denmark know what the situation is.  It’s easy to say you don’t care if you don’t know anything about the refugees, so we have to make them human.” 

References

Personal Interviews

Dr. Rich, Bente.  Psychiatrist.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  June 29, 2009.
Lauritzen, Karsten.  Member of Parliament, Venstre.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  June 30, 2009
Lorring, Nina and Mogens Busse. Members, Bedstefoældre for Asyl. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1, 2009.
Nielsen, Anne. Chairman, SOS mod Racisme. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1, 2009.
Rosenberg, Mona.  Press Spokesperson, Brorsons Kirke.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  June 28, 2009.
Schmidt Nielsen, Johanne.  Member of Parliament, Enhedslisten.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  June 30, 2009.

Articles

de Laine, Michael, “Iraq threatened to agreement with asylum seekers,” The Copenhagen Voice.  May 27, 2009. http://cphvoice.ning.com/profiles/blogs/iraq-threatened-to-agreement
Hugesh, Dominic, “Iraq’s refugees in legal limbo.”  BBC, June 17, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7458967.stm
Isherwood, Julian, “Iraqis waiting in Denmark for many years,” Politiken, April 15, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article689978.ece 
Isherwoord, Julia, “Minister: No Sanctuary for Iraqis,” Politiken, May 19, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article714332.ece 
Isherwood, Julian, “Amnesty Criticizes Denmark,” Politiken, May 28, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article720060.ece 
Isherwood, Julian, “Activists Barricade Ministry,” Politiken, June 16, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article733097.ece
Isherwood, Julian, “Rejected Iraqi asylum-seekers detained,” Politiken, June 17, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article733779.ece 
Isherwood, Julian, “Police Chief: Stop Supporting Rejected Iraqis,” Politiken, June 26, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article740898.ece 
Isherwood Julian, “Officials Shun Central Iraq,” Politiken, May 28, 2009. http://politiken.dk/newsinenglish/article720146.ece 

Websites

“40 Arrested While Protesting Deportations.” Jyllands-Posten. http://jp.dk/uknews/article1355104.ece 
“Adult asylum seekers.”  Dansk Røde Kors. http://www.drk.dk/roede+kors+i+danmark/asyl/voksne 
Amnesti Nu! (Amnesty Now!). http://www.amnesti-nu.dk/ 
Bedstefoældre for Asyl (Grandparents for Asylum). http://www.bedsteforaeldreforasyl.dk/ 
“Bomb Explosion in Kirkuk: 250 Dead and Wounded.” Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq. http://www.heyetnet.org/eng/iraq-news/4527-bomb-explosion-in-kirkuk-250-dead-and-wounded.html 
“Central Iraq too Dangerous for Officials to visit.” Jyllands-Posten. http://jp.dk/uknews/article1707145.ece 
“Denmark’s forgotten asylum seekers,” AlJazeera. http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/03/20093111200253161.html 
“Denmark, Iraq reach deal to repatriate Iraqi refugees.” Google News. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jeHTbmQ9pta2nmIds9_upk3-3hYA 
“The Dublin Regulation.”  New to Denmark.  February 16, 2009. http://www.nyidanmark.dk/en-us/coming_to_dk/asylum/application_for_asylum/dublin_conventionen.htm
“Helge Johan Kjersem.” Wikipedia. http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helge_Kjersem 
Karsten Lauritzen: “Disapproved Iraqis has cost over 600 million DKK.”  June 18, 2009. http://www.stemlauritzen.dk/ 
Kirkeasyl (Church Asylum). http://kirkeasyl.dk/ 
Kvinderi i Sort Danmark (Women in Black Denmark). http://www.kvinderisort.dk/ 
“MEPs concerned about children in Danish asylum centers.”  April 15th, 2008. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+IM-PRESS+20080407IPR25982+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN
“Scandinavia: Denmark.”  Migration News.  February, 2002. http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=2561_0_4_0
SOS mod Racisme (SOS against Racism). http://www.sosmodracisme.econtent.dk/
“Support for Iraqi Repatriation Declining.” Jyllands-Posten. http://jp.dk/uknews/article1720201.ece
“Sweden slashes asylum grants to Iraqi refugees.”  The Local – Sweden’s News in English.  February 2, 2008. http://www.thelocal.se/9856/20080202/ 
Stop Udvisningerne (Stop Deportations). http://stopudvisningerne.blogspot.com/ 

Other

Bendixen, Michala.  “Danish Asylum Policy and Human Rights.”  Refugees Underground Network (June 2008). 
Dr. Rich, Bente.  “Comments on the Third Danish Report on the Observance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”  Center for Refugee Health (February, 2005).
Selton, Emily Gayong and Anne Sørensen.  “No Safe Haven:  Iraqi Asylum Seekers in Denmark.”  Humanity in Action (June 2008).
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