Explore More »

Robbed Futures: Seeking Asylum in Denmark as a Child

“If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.” – Marian Wright Edelman, American activist for the rights of children 

In January of 2007, after taking a poll asking Danes how content they were with their lives, ABC News concluded that Denmark, the country that “spends more on children and the elderly than any country in the world per capita,” was “the happiest place on earth.”  “With just 5.5 million people, the system is efficient,” ABC News reported, “and people feel ‘tryghed’—the Danish word for ‘tucked in’—like a snug child.” 
Yet in Denmark, there are children who are growing up feeling anything but ‘tucked in.’ They are children being denied a proper education, a proper home, and, for many, they are being denied the national identity of the only country they’ve ever known.  They are child asylum seekers.  Many of their parents brought them from war-torn countries like Iraq and Somalia, praying that Denmark would take mercy on them and give their children a future.  Yet in recent years, changes in the political climate and their resulting policy changes have ensnared these children in an unthinkable situation: having been denied asylum, they are wasting their childhood away in deportation centers, with absolutely no future in sight.  

These policies, then—having purported to preserve the remaining homogeneity of Danish society and to keep outsiders away—have, in effect, been the overwhelming factor in deciding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the question of whether these children should be given a future; and for most of them, the answer has been a resounding ‘no.’ Apart from the tragedy marked by these children’s robbed childhood and futures, the costs that Danish society continues to accrue as a result of these bad policies—mental health disorders and development problems among the children and their parents, for example—are endless.    


Merna Samir is a 20-year-old girl from Mosul, Iraq living in Denmark.  Walking around along the streets of Copenhagen, she stands out minimally.  Aside from her medium brown complexion and her long, straight hair, which has been noticeably dyed from a dark brown to a much lighter shade of brown—physical characteristics that immediately give away the fact that she is not, in fact, an ‘ethnic Dane’—it would be easy to mistake Merna for a well-integrated immigrant.  Her ‘Western’ dress and style, for example, certainly give off this impression—the day we met her, she was clad in a fitted, black top, blue jeans, and white tennis shoes, while her dark, thick eyeliner accentuated her brown eyes and her unabashed femininity.  

Yet Merna’s outward appearance belies the reality that confronts her: after all, Merna is not a young, well-integrated immigrant in Denmark who is going to school or working.  Rather, she is an asylum seeker—a refugee who makes her way into the city a couple of times a week to attend a hairdressing course paid for by the Red Cross, but who spends most of  her time with her mother and two younger siblings at Sandholm, an asylum center located about 30 kilometers northwest of Copenhagen.

When Merna speaks, she is confident and articulate, looking you straight in the eye.  At times, smiling, she’ll forget a word in English—a language she learned in Thailand, where she spent three years in hiding—and the word will either come to her in her native language of Arabic, of which she knows all colloquial dialects, or in one of the other languages she has come to speak fluently during her experience as a refugee: Danish, Thai, Kurdish, or Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.

Merna’s journey began over ten years ago in 1997, when she and her family fled Iraq.  Before that, her father, who worked under Saddam Hussein’s regime, had wanted to flee the country for some time because of growing government corruption.  He knew, however, that if it were discovered that they were leaving, he would automatically be jailed for life—which, according to Merna, was the fate of many working under Hussein who tried to flee.  Instead, Merna’s father tried to conceal their planned departure.  Knowing that selling the house would be a deadly giveaway, he decided he would first move the family further north in Iraq, and then go back and forth for a few months between the two homes, gradually moving things out of their old house in Mosul.  When this was done, he hoped to flee with the family to the United States.

At times, Merna said, the authorities, suspecting their imminent departure, went to Merna’s house in Mosul when her father wasn’t there and beat her mother, which she had to watch.  After the family moved further north, the authorities followed Merna’s father back to their old house in Mosul one day and killed him.  After shooting him dead, they burned the house.

That was the moment, Merna says, when her mother decided they had to leave right away out of fear for the family’s safety.  “That’s how it is over there,” Merna explained.  “Because it’s like that in Iraq.  If they killed my father, they knew that when my brother was grown-up, he would go and avenge our father’s death. That’s why they have to kill the whole family.” 

Their planned destination was the United States.  The family managed to be smuggled to Jordan and then Thailand, at which point their smuggler stole all their money, threw them out, and abandoned them.  Terrified of being returned to Iraq by the Thai authorities, Merna’s mother, desperate, made her way to the closest United Nations office, where she pleaded for protection and begged them not to notify the Iraqi government.  Merna and her family ended up staying in Thailand for the next three years; the whole time they were there, panic and fear overcame Merna and her family every time they sighted uniformed authorities.  Merna still jumps every time she sees police officers, she said, even though she admits the police in Copenhagen don’t bother people too much.

After three years, Merna’s mother could no longer bear living in constant fear of being caught.  Racked by overwhelming concern for her children’s futures, she decided to move the family to Denmark, where her sister lived in Jutland.  “My aunt told us to come to Denmark, because they would take care of us there,” recalls Merna.

Knowing that a foreign woman with three little children would undoubtedly alarm the Thai authorities, Merna said, her mother decided to send her first alone to Denmark, with a smuggler.  Terrified of leaving her mother’s side and of dying on the way, Merna, only 12 years old at the time, had no other choice.  The memories of being smuggled so many different places still haunt her: first she’d be in the back of a truck for hours on end, not knowing what time it was or where she was going, she said, and then suddenly, she’d have to switch to a train or a boat.  One of the scariest things, Merna said, was having to jump off of moving trains.  Yet according to Merna, the absolute worst was crossing bodies of water: “On the way, you have a 60 percent chance of dying. Because they tie you to the back of a boat, and you just hang on, with your legs in the sea… and you have to do that for two hours. And you just hold on and you freeze.”  

It took Merna eight days to get from Thailand to Denmark—her family in Jutland was sure she had died.  After her smuggler left her alone at the Central Station in Copenhagen, telling her not to move, and  that he’d be back in a couple of hours with her family, Merna waited alone for five hours—cold and hungry, needing to go desperately to the bathroom, with unstoppable tears running down her face.  “I didn’t even know where I was,” she said.  “When I asked a woman passing by where I was, and she said Denmark, I didn’t even know what country that was… I was so scared and confused.”  

Not knowing what else to do, Merna heeded the advice of the woman and walked alone to the police station, where she would turn herself in to a police officer who, upon hearing her story, would close the door, and sit and cry with her.  Merna recalls these moments with an enduring sense of humor, a part of herself which she has managed to maintain over the years: “He said, ‘Are you hungry?’ I said, ‘Yes, very hungry, and thirsty also.’  So he brought me some bread… and you know in Denmark, they have this cheese, this smelly cheese—I hate that cheese!  So he brought me some bread with this cheese, and a kanelsnegl, this Danish cookie, and some carbonated water… and I didn’t like anything!  And I thought, ‘Oh my god, how can Danish food taste like that?  How can I eat?’ But I was so hungry that I ate everything.” 

Merna’s family arrived two weeks later.  Filled with joy at seeing her family, whom she believed had died, Merna became hopeful: “When we got to Sandholm, I thought all our pain and suffering was over… that we were going to live in peace, we would get to go to school, and that everything would be good.”  Little did she know, she now says, that was only the beginning of their problems to come.  
Denmark at First Glance
For many foreigners coming to Denmark for the first time, there are certain features of this Scandinavian country’s society that do nothing short of leaving its visitors in awe.  Go out with a couple of Danes for a night, and you’ll be left reeling from their unrelenting and sometimes even brutal sarcasm, not to mention their uncanny ability to consume ungodly amounts of alcohol.  Walk along the gleaming streets of Copenhagen—where you’ll have to mind, of course, the masses of normally well-dressed, thin, healthy-looking people whizzing by you on their bikes—and unlike many other big cities around the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any visible signs of poverty.  Homeless people are virtually nonexistent, it seems, while people lining the streets begging for money are few and far between.

At first glance, Denmark is, in so many ways, a country that just seems to have gotten it right.  Like many other Scandinavian countries, Denmark boasts a welfare state that is, by global standards, exceptionally inclusive and egalitarian.  It is a land where every Danish citizen has access to free healthcare, free education, and a pension apart from their savings and regular income (here in Denmark, in fact, students are paid to attend university).  It is a place where crime rates are low, where life expectancies are high, where nearly 100% of the population is literate, and where even the prison system has been praised for its markedly humane treatment of inmates.  Meanwhile, what renders the Danish case even more remarkable is that Denmark is a free and open democratic society with a notably robust economy.  For the wide-eyed foreigners discovering all these things about Denmark at the same time, one question comes inevitably to mind, namely: ‘How is it that this country has come to take such good care of its own?’  It’s this question precisely, though, that leads us to the unpleasant reality that this country now faces: if Denmark seems too good to be true, that’s because it is.  After all, in recent times, Danish society has seemed to become obsessed with taking care of its own, and only its own. 

A Struggling Multicultural Denmark  

Since the early 1980s, Denmark has received a relatively steady flow of immigrants.  While the majority of them have come from Asia or Africa, a large group from the Balkans also arrived in the early 1990s, fleeing the Bosnian War, while in recent years more and more people have arrived from Middle Eastern countries torn by war and conflict, particularly Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia.  As of 2006, non-naturalized Asian an African immigrants along with their descendants made up six percent of the Danish population, whereas in 1980 this figure stood at a mere one percent.  

Meanwhile, in response to this, Denmark—which in bygone days was known for its liberal values and tradition of openness, a national image that has now come to crashing halt, especially after its two Mohammed cartoon crises—has struggled considerably with the notion of becoming a multicultural society.  It has been intensely debated whether or not these new immigrants have, in fact, the ‘integration potential’ it will take to integrate into Danish a society, a society of 5.4 million people that, until a few decades ago, was largely used to being culturally homogeneous.  

In the past few years, the underlying societal tensions highlighted by this debate have managed to manifest themselves in concrete policy changes.  2001 was a particularly important year: in November of that year, a new center-right coalition government, consisting of the Liberal and Conservative parties, came into power, replacing the left-wing government led by the Social Democrats, while relying on the support of the far-right Danish People’s Party for a parliamentary majority.  Since the takeover of the coalition, Denmark’s policies concerning immigration and asylum-seekers—i.e., its policies affecting the lives of all ‘outsiders’—have taken an enormous conservative leap, making it nearly impossible for certain outsiders to gain citizenship.  

Language tests required to gain citizenship, for example, have increased in difficulty, while the number of residence permits given for family reunification has fallen significantly.  Meanwhile, under new laws, it is now illegal for a Danish citizen to bring a spouse from a foreign country into Denmark unless both partners are over 24 years of age.  These tightening restrictions on who is able to become a citizen, and on who is therefore able to reap the full benefits of the Danish welfare state, negatively affect many immigrants who have already acquired residence permits—a large number of whom have been living and working in Denmark for years.  Meanwhile, for those on the outside who have come to the country seeking political asylum, it has become nearly impossible for them to make a home in Denmark, regardless of the seemingly impossible and dire situations many of them find themselves in. 

“Are you all racists in Denmark?” 

“If they [Swedes] want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmoe into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Oeresund Bridge.” – Pia Kjaersgaard, Leader of the Danish People’s Party

From 2001 to 2002, following the right-wing coalition government’s takeover, the number of asylum seekers in Denmark, in one year alone, dropped by 58% to 6068 asylum seekers.  This massive drop came as a result of policy changes, instituted by the new right-wing government, which served to significantly narrow the criteria under which asylum seekers could gain residency in Denmark.  Under the new measures, Denmark would only admit refugees who were deemed as entitled to protection under international conventions such as the Geneva Convention, which aims to protect those who have been or are in danger of being persecuted for their race, religion, or political beliefs.  This new measure, however, would come with a twist: Denmark would only accept asylum seekers who could prove individual persecution—often nearly impossible—as opposed to group persecution.  According to Michala Clante Bendixen, spokesperson of the Refugees Underground Committee, if this law had existed during World War II, Jews would not have qualified for asylum.   

At the same time, the government would cease to heed recommendations from The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, while doing away with the broad category of ‘de facto refugees,’ a term which has been aptly defined by Atle Grahl-Madsen, a scholar in the field of international law, as “a person not recognized as a Convention refugee but who is in a similar predicament” (Grahl-Madsen 18).  

Furthermore, under the new tighter measures, no longer would a Danish citizen’s spouse have the right of automatic entry; meanwhile, permanent resident permits, instead of being distributed after three years, would be normally given in most cases after at least five years.  As of November of last year, there were 1,853 asylum seekers in Denmark spread across the country’s nine asylum centers, seven of which are run by the Red Cross. 

It has been argued by many that the Danish People’s Party—whose support the government relies on to maintain its parliamentary majority—has been an overtly xenophobic political force that has helped push the government’s policies, as well as the general political rhetoric, in an increasingly anti-immigrant direction.  In a session our group had with one of the People’s Party MPs, Morten Messerschmidt—a young, glowing 27-year-old—Messerschmidt said he was puzzled by the fact that so many accused his party of being anti-Muslim.  This is interesting, considering the fact that Jesper Langballe, a priest who also serves as one of the party’s MPs, was quoted in a speech given in 2002 before the Danish Parliament as saying, “Islam is a plague on Europe.”  Meanwhile, other members of the party have described Islam as a terrorist organization, while Pia Kjaersgaard herself, the party’s leader, has characterized Muslims as backwards people who are hostile to civilization, and whose customs include arranged marriages and honor killings.

Much to the disappointment and disbelief of more liberal-minded Danes, this xenophobic language of the People’s Party has managed to resonate within certain sectors of the Danish population, as the party’s popularity, after having expanded considerably, has remained steady in recent years.  The provocativeness of this language itself, however—stirring as many emotional and bitter reactions as it has—has managed to cloud the issue of immigration and asylum seekers in Denmark.  

In that way, it has actually drawn attention away from one of the very real and pressing issues at hand, namely, how the policies accompanying these divisive words have put asylum seekers, particularly child asylum seekers, in an increasingly vulnerable and impossible situation.  


“When we got to Denmark, my mother expected us to have peace… peace, and a good future for the small kids with a good education and good health.  Because we don’t have peace in our country.”

These are the words of 24-year-old Ahmed Isag, a young Somalian man who came to Denmark six years ago with his mother and four younger siblings.  In Somalia, in the town outside Mogadishu where he and his family lived, Ahmed’s family owned a shop selling clothes and toiletries—the family’s only livelihood.  One day, when people came to attack and loot the shop, his uncle and his cousin happened to be there and were both killed.  Following the initial attack, Ahmed’s father was threatened and assaulted several more times.  When it finally became clear that the family’s safety and livelihood were in danger, Ahmed, his mother, and his younger siblings, seeing no other option, fled the country and came to Denmark—selling the shop and everything they had before leaving.  They left behind Ahmed’s father, who later fled to another African country because of reoccurring threats on his life, and with whom they have lost contact since. Ahmed and his family arrived to Denmark in August of 2002.  Within 13 months, his family’s application for asylum was rejected.  Desperate, the family moved on to Sweden, where they were later turned back after the Swedish authorities discovered that Denmark had their fingerprints—this was done under the Dublin Regulation, which mandates that all asylum seekers coming to EU countries must be processed in one country only, usually the first country in which they’re registered.  Since 2002, Ahmed and his family have been touring the different asylum centers of Denmark—they were at Sandholm three different times, and are now, for the second time, at Avnstrup, located southwest of Roskilde in the middle of the woods.  Avnstrup is known to be one of the worst asylum centers in Denmark.  Formerly a mental institution, it boasts a huge chimney, reminding many of a concentration camp. 

Six years as asylum seekers have taken their psychological and physical toll on Ahmed and his family.  According to Ahmed, his mother, who is 46, was a completely different person when they first arrived to Denmark: “It’s very difficult… because she has changed in bad ways.  When we came here, she was a good person… no health problems at all.  And all of a sudden she gets high blood pressure and kidney problems… and the doctors weren’t telling her about these problems from the beginning.  When a doctor she saw recently said, ‘Why didn’t you go to the doctor for these problems?’ we told him she had been asking for a doctor for a long time!  But no one would see her… now she’s at home, lying on the bed, without sleeping, without waking, not moving… just on the bed like that. Nothing.”

When asked why he believed his mother had gotten sick, Ahmed’s answer was simple: “Because she sees her children losing their future in front of her, and she can’t do anything to help them.”

Ahmed’s youngest brother, who is 11, has also had problems.  Having only attended Red Cross schools his whole life, his brother can speak Danish fluently, but is completely unable to read or write.  “They go to school not to study… just to play games and to have fun, every time, the same thing… but outside kids are able to read and everything.”  Furthermore, Ahmed says, his brother has exhibited frequent signs of aggression.  “When he goes to school, the teachers say, ‘Your brother’s confused, he doesn’t listen… sometimes he throws things, sometimes he breaks windows.’”

Ahmed himself is often angered by his own situation as well.  “I have been here for six years, and I don’t even speak Danish,” he said.  “Because I didn’t get the chance to go to school to study Danish… every time I went to school, they said, ‘You don’t have the right to be in Demark so you can’t study here.’”  In order to keep himself busy, Ahmed has attended computer courses and English courses paid for by the Red Cross.  He also plays football to pass the time.  

But when there’s nothing to do—which is almost always, he says—he often experiences trouble sleeping, staying up all night, thinking about his problems.  Despite the stress that often overwhelms him, however, Ahmed does his best to not think about it.  “I’m trying to forget it,” he said, “because now I’m in the position of a father for my brothers and sisters… I’m the oldest, so I’m in a position of responsibility.”

Ahmed’s days are always long, he said, and difficult to get through.  When asked if he had future plans, Ahmed, who has spent the first half of his 20s living in asylum centers, paused, and then said, “No.  Never.  When I came to Europe, I was a football player… I loved studying computers and I wanted to get a higher education and study information technology.  But right now, I don’t have any plans… I don’t have any future.  I don’t even have anything else to study… I can’t see any good future ahead of me.” 

Traumatized Upon Arrival 

The mental health problems faced by asylum seekers in Denmark are multifold and rooted in many factors.  Many of the people who arrive as asylum seekers—parents and children—are already traumatized in some way.  According to Andreas Kamm, the Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council, an independent organization that seeks to protect refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), up to “45% of adult asylum seekers have been tortured back home, and many of them need treatment but are not getting the proper treatment.”  

Henriette Cranil, a psychologist who has worked for the past two years at NOOR, an organization that aims to advise former refugees and to help integrate immigrants in the workplace, confirmed this trend of people coming who are already suffering from trauma.  “The men we have here suffer most often from primary trauma,” she said.  “They have been at war, have seen executions, have been tortured, and have been persecuted politically.  They typically come with PTSD symptoms, depression and anxiety.”  Women coming independent of their families and who have been tortured, raped, or persecuted themselves also suffer from similar problems, Cranil added.  Meanwhile, she said, some of the wives of men who have been tortured end up experiencing secondary trauma from being deeply engaged with traumatized persons, exhibiting “habits, thoughts, and feelings” that point to trauma.   

As for the children, there are also multifold factors that affect their mental health from the beginning.  According to Bendixen of the Refugees Underground Committee, many of the child asylum seekers have had to witness awful things, such as their family members being killed or their mothers being raped.  On top of that, she added, the flight itself to Denmark—the process of being smuggled overseas in the back of a truck or on a boat—has also left many children traumatized.  

In other words, many asylum seekers who come to Denmark already suffer from mental health problems.  Based on Merna and Ahmed’s stories, however, we also know that there are healthy parents and children who, despite the extremely trying situations they’ve had to face, arrive with hope for the future.  Yet because of the new laws which have made it nearly impossible to gain asylum in Denmark, nowadays this hope is often in vain.
Living on the Fringe: The Declining Mental Health of Asylum Seekers in Denmark
According to the Danish Association to Help Refugees, the suicide rate in asylum centers tripled from 2001 to 2006.  Anne la Cour, an official from the organization, called this increase “alarming” and said it translated “into a cry of despair.”

Last May, when the UN Committee against Torture visited the asylum centers in Denmark, it issued a report expressing concern about what it had observed.  According to the report, “The committee is concerned about the unnecessarily long waiting periods in asylum centers and the negative psychological consequences of waiting for extended periods, along with the uncertainty that characterizes asylum seekers’ daily life.”

Why the ‘unnecessarily long waiting periods’?  Since the policies of the current right-wing government have made it harder to gain asylum, families who have been rejected are now staying in the centers for years, refusing to go back home, sometimes for up to eight to ten years.  According to Bendixen, half of the rejected asylum seekers in Denmark have found themselves in this “limbo situation” for over four years.”  Under international refugee law, these asylum seekers cannot be returned forcibly to their home countries unless their receiving countries accept them.  And while the Danish authorities do everything they can to acquire the permission to repatriate the asylum seekers, this is often difficult, though they do sometimes succeed.  This means that all the families who have been rejected and yet who remain in the center live in a constant state of fear of being deported.  The effects that this ongoing fear and their prolonged uncertainty have on the asylum seekers, it seems, are devastating.  

Members of the Red Cross themselves have also criticized the long periods families are spending in the centers.  Fateh Zibar, 62, worked as a teacher at Avnstrup from 2006 to 2008, after coming to Denmark in 1992 as a refugee fleeing the Bosnian War.  When asked if the children he worked with showed signs of mental health problems, he responded, “I would guess that around 90 percent of the children showed signs of trauma because of their war experience and the uncertainty in the refugee camp.”  Many of the children, Zibar added, had trouble concentrating or were notably aggressive, hateful, or indifferent—behaviors he attributed to camp conditions.  At the same time, Zibar said, he believed the Red Cross was doing everything it could to help the children at the time. 

Ditte Bartholdy, the head of the kindergartens at Sandholm at Avnstrup, said that studies have shown that “when one has been waiting in uncertainty for more than two years, this will leave a lasting imprint on that person’s mental health.  I think that the staff’s experience confirms this study.”  To assert that the mere uncertainty about the future is the only reason that children’s mental health deteriorates, however, would be an oversimplification of the issue.  According to Bente Rich, the reasons are much more complex.  

A Loss of Childhood

Bente Rich is a child psychiatrist who worked as a consulting psychiatrist for the Red Cross from 2000 to 2005.  She has worked with hundreds of asylum seekers—parents and their children—and has been one of the most outspoken critics of the conditions under which asylum seekers in Denmark now live.  Rich has had extensive experience in this area; she also worked as the chief doctor for the Center for Rehabilitation and Investigation of Torture Victims in Copenhagen and with traumatized orphans in Romania.

Throughout her time at the asylum centers, Rich became intimately familiar with the process through which asylum seekers’ mental health diminishes.  According to Rich, most of the parents who come as asylum seekers—despite the traumatic experiences they’ve been through—“are very good at parenting when they arrive.”  Within years, however, she said, “they lose faith and they begin to see no future… they become more and more stressed and develop severe personality disorders, the same disorders we saw from the people coming from the concentration camps in Germany after the Second World War.” 

According to Rich, many of these parents begin to have nightmares, develop paranoia, and become violently distrustful of everyone around them.  What this means, she said, is that these parents lose the ability to be good parents: “You cannot see to the needs of your child… you cannot tell your child about the world or give your child hope for the future.”  Many of the parents, Rich said, sit in front of the T.V. all day long, watching news about the deteriorating situations in their home countries.  “The parents don’t talk very much to the children because they have nothing to tell them.”

What this amounts to for the children in the asylum centers is a loss of childhood, Rich said.  Not only do they begin to develop severe mental health problems, such as symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety—according to Rich, up to 83% of the children suffer from these problems—but many children have nightmares, trouble sleeping, and problems concentrating.  Furthermore, Rich added, the language skills the children develop are extremely poor.  Not only are most of them barred from attending Danish public schools and only allowed to attend the Red Cross schools, but the majority of them are exposed to up to 60 languages.  This means, Rich said, that many of the children learn something called ‘asylum English’—the kind of language you’d encounter if you “met a small boy selling things to you as a tourist in a marketplace.” 

This poor development of language skills, said Rich, have dramatic long-term effects on their future prospects.  According to Rich, a good language base is crucial for advanced cognitive development, which means that many of the children in the asylum centers “will not be able to develop the way we analyze things… that means that when they become adults, they will not be able to function, not in Denmark or in their home countries.”

Furthermore, Bartholdy from the Red Cross added, “The rejected children, whose future is still uncertain, are in an especially difficult situation… we have learned that it is particularly difficult for young people to develop a positive identity and self-esteem because they feel rejected and marginalized by the Danish society, which will not give them a future in Denmark.”

What Can Be Done? 

It is clear that under the new policies of the current right-wing government, in concert with much of the xenophobic rhetoric that has come to dominate the political climate, the life of immigrants and asylum seekers in Denmark has become much more difficult.  It is also clear, however, that the children in the asylum centers have been placed in the most vulnerable position of all. According to Hanne Møller, who is in charge of maintaining a healthy work environment at Sandholm, “Some of the families have stayed in the refugee camps for up to eight years, and that means that the children are practically growing up in the centers… and that is very inhuman.”  

So what can be done?  According to Søren Krarup, 71, a priest and one of the People’s Party MPs with whom we spoke, the answer is simple:  “Well, you see, the children are stuck in the refugee camps because their parents refuse to go back.  So everything could be solved if the parents took the responsibility for their children and went back to the country they belong to.  They have no right to be in Denmark, and it is only because they are stubborn that they won’t go back.”

According to asylum seekers like Ahmed, however, such an option simply does not exist: “We left our home.  We left our families.  Now we don’t have a father… we don’t even know where he is.  When we left Somalia we sold our home and everything we had.  If we go back now, we won’t have anything to start from.  And if we go back, we will be attacked by people who believe that everyone who comes from Europe has money. It’s easy to attack us because we’re part of a minority clan, the Reer Hamar.”  

Meanwhile, for Merna and her family, it is also impossible to return to Iraq.  Not only has the country become torn by war, but Merna and her family are Christians, presently a heavily persecuted minority in the country.  Merna told the frightening story of a Christian teenage girl living in Iraq who was recently killed.  The girl, who was the family member of Merna’s friends at Sandholm, stepped outside her home in Iraq one evening to take out the trash, dressed in a T-shirt and tight jeans, which is considered inappropriate attire for women.  Spotted by a couple members of the Mahdi Army, they kidnapped her and demanded that her family hand over money if they wanted to ever see her again.  After all, Merna said, people in Iraq believe that all Christians have family members living abroad who are wealthy.  After the family paid, the girl’s charred body parts were returned on a dinner tray, with a note that said, “This is what will happen to your daughters if they behave like this girl did.”  Stories like this one, Merna said, are more than enough to scare many families from going back.

As hopeless as the asylum seekers’ situation seems, according to Karsten Ditlevsen, who works as an adviser to the Unity List’s parliamentary group on issues of equal rights and integration, the measures that can be taken to help asylum seekers are fairly simple. “The party believes that asylum seekers should be allowed to live outside the centers and work—while their case is getting processed, and also if they’re rejected.  I mean, we cannot send people back to Iraq—we’re fighting a war in Iraq.” Aside from these changes, the Unity List believes that the processing time for asylum applications should be shortened, while all refugee children should be allowed to attend Danish public schools, an issue which he believes is a crucial human rights issue.  Rich agrees with such a stance—according to her, if all children in the asylum seekers were allowed to go to Danish public schools, and if parents were allowed to work, many of their mental health problems could be avoided through their interaction with Danish society and with people outside the centers.  

At the same time, many have criticized the Red Cross for continuing to manage the camps, saying that by cooperating with the government, the Red Cross—an international humanitarian organization which is supposed to be neutral—is actually helping to legitimize the conditions in the asylum centers.  Rich would agree with this: after working with the Red Cross refugee children from 2000 to 2005, she began to speak to the press and write articles about the mental health problems of the children.  As soon as she started doing this, she said, “The Red Cross stopped sending me patients, and I had to leave.”  In Ditlevsen’s view, the Red Cross has refused to stop running the camp because it needs the funding.  In his words, “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

In our opinion, it is crucial that the recommendations of experts like Rich—namely, of people who have a deep, well-rounded understanding of the situation—be heeded.  Like Rich, we believe that the children, at the very least, should be able to attend Danish public schools and that their parents should be allowed to work.  At the same time, we believe that the Danish government needs to afford greater consideration for the unique direness of the children’s situation and the extent to which their future prospects are at stake.  For us, the fact that many of these children are growing up in Denmark—and therefore have a stronger, more meaningful connection to Denmark than to anywhere else—means that the Danish government bears a special responsibility towards them, and must do everything it can to ensure their present and future well-being.

The Life of a Refugee

Darko Zibar, 29, came with his parents to Denmark in 1992 when he was 14.  The family fled Belgrade after learning that people were after their family.  Darko came at the same time as his best friend, Emir Karamehmetovic.  Both were able to attend Danish public schools as children—Emir attended high school for two years as an unregistered student, while Darko was able to attend Christianshavns Gymnasium, thanks to the kindness of the school’s principal who decided to allow Bosnian children to attend while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.  

Today, both Darko and Emir have Ph.D.’s in electrical engineering from the Technical University of Denmark and have good, stable jobs.  Nevertheless, Emir will be going back to Sarajevo next month.  And according to Darko, if things were better in the former Yugoslavia, he would be more than happy to go back.  In fact, when asked if he felt completely integrated into Danish society at this point, Darko said, “Not really.  I don’t even know why… I have a lot of things here, but I don’t feel a part of this somehow.” 

There are people who have expressed the fear that immigrants and asylum seekers come to Denmark solely to feed off of the welfare state. According to Bendixen of the Refugees Underground Committee, however, most people cannot even conceive of what it means to be a refugee: “What would it take for you to pick up what you could with your hands and leave your house, your family, your country, your language, and everything you knew to start in a completely unknown other part of the world?  I don’t think many people would do that voluntarily.”

At Avnstrup, one thing that anguishes Ahmed is the treatment he receives as a refugee.  At the center, he says, everyone has to check in and out of the center with electronic cards.  At times, however, Ahmed forgets his card.  Every time this happens, he is reminded of how the workers at the center view him—as just as number: “I hate when I forget my card.  You know, the staff and I know each so well… and when you forget your card, they start to ask you where you live, where you’re coming from, why you forgot your card, as if they didn’t recognize you… stupid questions.  We have a lot of things on our mind… we don’t need more problems.” 

When Merna was smuggled to Jordan as a refugee, she, too, felt the pain and disorientation many refugees feel after leaving their home:  “You know, it’s really hard to think about it.  Because when you remember how you lived in Iraq… with a big house, many cars, servants who worked in your home… and suddenly you’re living on the street.  You have no food to eat, nothing to wear, you can’t even go to the toilet, you can’t take a bath…everything is hard.”

At Sandholm, Merna says, she feels completely stuck.  When asked how the relations were between the Red Cross workers and asylum seekers, Merna said they were strained.  While some of the workers are “okay,” she says, every time you go to the office and ask if you can do something, the answer is always no.  “They always say, ‘Sorry, you can’t do that.’  You know what the one thing you can do is?  Breathe.  That’s the only thing you can do—they can never say to you, ‘No, you can’t breathe.’”

Nevertheless, Merna tries to remain positive, even though her sister is having constant nightmares and her mother is sick.  Sometimes, it’s hard to be thinking all the time, she says.  “Thinking in itself is hard, but thinking without a future?”  When Merna is bored, she likes to sing.  Years ago, Merna wanted to be a singer.  Then she wanted to be a lawyer, and now she wants to be a hairdresser—she changes her mind every year, she said laughing. “I only know one thing,” she said.  “I have to fight for my life, no matter what happens.  Never give up.  We have to believe that something will happen… that we will not live like this forever until the day we die.”



Grahl-Madsen, Atle. (1983). Identifying the World's Refugees. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 467, the Global Refugee Problem: U. S. and World Response (May), pp. 11-23.
Montgomery, E. & Foldspang, A. (2005). Seeking asylum in Denmark: refugee children’s mental health and exposure to violence. European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 15, No. 3, 233–237. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the European Public Health Association. 

Newspaper Articles 

Africa News. Somalia; Crisis Deteriorates, Aid Agencies Warn. Save the Children UK. March 26, 2008 Wednesday.
Agence France Presse – English. Amnesty condemns Denmark for forcing Iraqis to go home. Copenhagen, May 24 2008. 
Agence France Presse. Suicide bids tripled among Denmark asylum seekers since 2001. Copenhagen June 7, 2007 Thursday.
Karl Ritter. Associated Press Writer. Iraqi exodus spills into Europe, with Sweden a destination of choice. October 24, 2006 Tuesday. The Associated Press
Marie Hjortdal. UN COMMITTEE CRITICIZES CONDITIONS, LONG WAITS IN DANISH ASYLUM CENTRES. May 23, 2007 Wednesday or United Nations Criticizes Long Waiting Periods in Danish Asylum Centres. Text of report by Danish newspaper Politiken website on 21 May, 2007.
Rikke Faurfelt. DANISH IMMIGRATION SERVICE TO MOVE 50 FAMILIES OUT OF ASYLUM CENTRES. March 4, 2008 Tuesday. Text of report by Danish leading privately-owned independent newspaper Politiken website, on 4 March [Report by: "Rejected Asylum Seekers Can Move Out"]




Bartholdy, Ditte. Head of kindergarten in Sandholm. Phone interview. June 26, 2008.
Bendixen, Michala Clante. The Refugees Underground Committee. Personal interview. Copenhagen. June 26, 2008.
Cranil, Henriette. Psychologist from NOOR, the ethnic council center of Copenhagen. Phone interview. June 26, 2008. 
Darko, Zibar. Former child refugee in the ‘90s. Personal interview. Copenhagen. June 29, 2008.
Ditlevsen, Karsten. Member of Unity List. Personal interview. Copenhagen. July 1, 2008.
Isag, Ahmed. Somalian refugee living at Avnstrup refugee center. Phone interview. June 30, 2008.
Kamm, Andreas. Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council. Phone interview. June 30, 2008.
Karamehmetovic, Emir. Former child refugee in the ‘90s. Phone interview. June 27, 2008 and personal interview. Copenhagen. June 29, 2008. 
Krarup, Søren. Member of Danish People's Party.  Works with immigration policies. Phone interview. June 30, 2008.
Merna, Samir. Iraqi asylum seeker living at Sandholm refugee center. Personal interview. Copenhagen. July 1,2008
Møller, Hanne. Works at Danish Red Cross. Head of work environment. Phone interview. June 30, 2008.
Rich, Bente. Psychiatrist who worked at the Red Cross refugee centers. Personal interview. Roskilde. June 27. 2008.   
Zibar, Fateh. Former teacher at Avnstrup refugee center. Phone interview. June 26, 2008.  

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2008


Related Media

Browse all content