No Safe Haven: Iraqi Asylum Seekers in Denmark

Iraq is safe now—this is the message being touted by the Iraqi government and its occupying forces, and one that is increasingly targeted at the 2.4 million Iraqis who have fled since the 2003 invasion. Iraqi television channels show state-run advertisements asking people to tell friends and relatives to return home. Worldwide media outlets report marginally improved security in Iraq, and an increase in “voluntary returns.” Even humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross are providing “reintegration assistance” for rejected asylum seekers willing to go home.

In reality, there has been an upsurge of violence in Iraq in the past few months, and the number of displaced people is at its highest ever—4.7 million—many of whom are internally displaced or harbored in bordering countries which are being overwhelmed beyond capacity. In whose interest is it to accurately portray this refugee crisis of catastrophic proportions? Not in the interest of governments like Denmark who are trying to keep Iraqi refugees out, or send them home.

Rejected: Asylum Seekers in Limbo

Merna Samir, a twenty-year old who fled Iraq when her father was killed, is still waiting for asylum. Seven years ago, her family paid a human smuggler to get her to Denmark. When the smuggler left twelve-year old Merna at the train station in Copenhagen and told her to wait, she stayed put, not even knowing what country she was in. She waited for hours, but he never returned. An old woman directed her to the police station. “The policeman…he spoke so gently… he cried when I cried. I thought all the pain we had gone through was finished,” but, she continues, “I didn’t know… It had just started in Denmark.”

The remainder of Merna’s family, who joined her soon after, has been rejected for asylum status five or six times. She says she feels the constant pressure of a government that wants her to leave. “If I knew what Denmark was like, I would not have come here. I have wasted seven years of my life here…. I have no future.” In a country that recently topped the list of “happiest” places in the world, how could life be so difficult? 

Merna, her mother, and two younger siblings live in Sandholm Camp. Sandholm is not the kind of rows-of-tents refugee camp that you might see on television. The hundreds of residents are housed in former military barracks, painted in a cheery shade of yellow. Inside, there is a school, a playground with walls covered in Disney characters, and even a “discotheque” for teens. Paid for by the government, and run by the Danish Red Cross, Sandholm is meant to be a temporary residence. It serves as an entry point for new arrivals, who typically move to another camp while they await the results of their case. It also serves as an exit for those who have been rejected and await deportation. 

Increasingly, Sandholm is becoming a kind of permanent residence for rejected asylum seekers who refuse to go home. Among the Iraqi refugees there, some have been stuck for more than eight years. Iraq is among the handful of countries with which Denmark has no deportation agreement, leaving hundreds of rejected asylum seekers in limbo. They are not allowed to work, or pursue educational opportunities outside the camp, and are only given 300 Danish Kroner ($60 US dollars) per week. After years of little or nothing to do in the camp, and not enough money to do much outside Sandholm, they become mentally passive. Merna recalls, “I was just sitting watching television, talking with people, sleeping more than 17 hours a day. You sleep in the night, you wake up, you visit the office, you sleep again. Wake up, eat, sleep again. If you don’t sleep time will never pass.”

Languishing in the Camps: The Waiting Game & Mental Health

According to Michala Clante Bendixen from Refugees Underground, which gives legal advice to asylum seekers in Denmark, the conditions of rejected asylum seekers, especially after years of languishing in the camp, can lead to mental illness. “It’s quite evident that if you are stuck in a situation where you can’t work or educate yourself, your children aren’t allowed to go to normal schools, you don’t have any money, you can’t move around normally in society, it will make you sick sooner or later.” 

Mustafa, a 32 year old Kurdish Iraqi, who was persecuted in Iraq for his political views, and recently granted asylum, remembers what it is like to wait. “I think the worst thing is to wait. Waiting and waiting and not knowing what will happen to you!” His friend, Youssef, whom he met at an Arabic music concert in Denmark, is still stuck in a refugee camp. Youssef left Iraq when he was 17 years old. He is now 25, and has been rejected more times than he can remember. 

As a rejected asylum seeker, Youssef has to report to the police twice a week, a trying process for someone who has had scarring experiences with authorities in Iraq. “It is stressful to be asked all the time: ‘Why don’t you want to go home? Have you thought about it?’ I don’t understand why they keep asking these questions! Watch the news reports from Iraq—there is the answer to why I don’t want to go home!”

According to Amnesty International, about half of the people they interviewed in Sandholm had experienced torture. For asylum seekers whose cases are pending or rejected, treatment for torture is not considered a right. Sandholm provides treatment for acute medical conditions, but not for preventive or psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eyvind Vesselbo, a Member of Parliament with the ruling Liberal party, who also sits on the Immigration and Integration Affairs Committee, finds this puzzling. “It is a paradox that people who are stuck [at Sandholm] can later on get humanitarian asylum, because they get mental problems from staying at the centers.” This, he admits, is “horrible,” but he has difficulty finding a solution to this “political game.”  

Mustafa, reflecting on the waiting game he played for years, says the process is a form of torture. “How can they go to war, and then treat people the way they do! In my opinion, it is a sort of torture—maybe the torture of a democracy.”

“Voluntary Return”

Non-refoulement—The most basic principle regarding refugees—as it is enshrined in the Refugee Convention, is the right not to be forced back to a place where one may be at grave risk of human rights violations. The question of whether Iraq is “safe” enough for refugees to return is hotly debated. The United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees has taken a clear stand—all asylum seekers from Central and Southern Iraq should be granted refugee status, and no government should force or coerce returns to Iraq. 

Danish policy, with its focus on “voluntary returns,” and strident efforts to reach a bilateral agreement with Iraq, in order to deport rejected asylum seekers, indicates a disagreement. The question is, are these “voluntary returns” truly voluntary? Not according to Michala Clante Bendixen from Refugees Underground. “When you deliberately put pressure on people and make their lives as bad as possible, it’s a kind of pressure that’s almost the same as forcing people to go. It is a kind of violation [of the Refugee Convention].” These systematic efforts to coerce people to leave Denmark “voluntarily” are part of the Danish Aliens Act and hence a procedural part of the treatment rejected asylum seekers are exposed to. The denial of the right to work and the right to continuing education, as well as the financial and psychological conditions in the camp are all examples of such treatment. 

Some initiatives are positive incentives to return to Iraq. A few months after Merna started at a hairdresser school, the government changed its policies. Since then, to sign up for a job-training program like hers, one has to first sign a letter stating an intention to leave after completing the training. “They even promised to help with money in my country, a job, if I promise to go back. I said, what if I don’t want to sign? You might be thrown out! If you sign you will get your education completely.” Luckily for Merna, she had already started her training.

Refugee Politics in Denmark: The 2007 Election and Beyond

What can account for such a stringent policies for asylum seekers? Danish policy towards refugees has become less reflective of the security situation in Iraq than the current political climate in Denmark. 

The conditions of rejected asylum-seekers from Iraq became a heated issue during the election campaign in November 2007. The opposition parties criticized the government for the abysmal living conditions for refugees stuck in Danish asylum centres, and pushed for improvements. Among other parties of the opposition, the Social Democrats wanted to offer the rejected asylum seekers the opportunity to work while residing in Denmark. The incumbent coalition government vehemently attacked this suggestion. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of the Liberal party warned the public that such a change would turn Denmark into an “asylum-magnet.” Such arguments reflect the ever-increasing atmosphere of xenophobia and Islamophobia in Danish society. The rise of the Islamophobic Danish People’s Party, and their large influence on the ruling government, is a sign that such rhetoric has an audience within the Danish public.   

The “asylum magnet” argument fanned the flames of the debate, inciting the opposition to respond. In May 2007, the New Alliance Party was formed, offering an alternative to what they viewed as the inhumane politics of the right-wing People’s Party. Improved conditions for asylum seekers became a major part of the new party’s platform.

Shortly before the election, the Prime Minister tempered his previously inflammatory rhetoric, expressing a wish to reach a broad agreement amongst parties in parliament to change the conditions of the rejected asylum seekers in the camps, but he stopped short of offering them employment or any formal recognition status. 

In the November election, the ruling government had a clear victory. The New Alliance Party acquired a disappointing five seats, whereas the xenophobic People’s Party significantly increased its seats in parliament. In the aftermath, the main opposition, the Social Democrats, came to the conclusion that it was their support for asylum seekers that in large part cost them the election.

Unfulfilled Promises: The Post-Election Landscape

In January of 2008, the government brokered a deal to resolve the “refugee issue.” Instead of forming its promised broad alliance to legislate a compromise, the ruling Liberal and Conservative coalition government reached out only to its frequent right-wing partner, the People’s Party. The government’s pre-election plan to improve conditions for rejected asylum seekers became only one small part of the overarching legislation. 

On the one hand, the new deal makes it possible for families who have been stuck in the camps for three or more years since their rejection to live elsewhere. This compromise theoretically affects about fifty families—Iraqis, Kosovars, and others who cannot be forcibly returned. In practice, it has been implemented slowly because parents must first be deemed competent caretakers. However, the deal also included a number of less than positive changes for asylum seekers, including stricter enforcement of penalties for those who work illegally.

There has been one notable improvement, however, based not on legislation but implementation. Statistically speaking, there has been a dramatic shift in terms of the percentage of asylum seekers accepted. Compared to 2006, when Denmark granted asylum to only 7% of Iraqi asylum seekers, thus far in 2008, it has recognized 46% of applicants (see below figure). The media has tended to focus mostly on this fact, presenting a positive outlook for asylum seekers. With headlines claiming that there is a “Boom in grants of asylum,” at first glance, Denmark seems to be making great strides on this issue.

According to Esben Geist of the Danish Refugee Council, a humanitarian non-governmental organization, things are looking somewhat brighter for asylum seekers. He admits, “The willingness to grant asylum to more people is connected to the [political] focus on the issue. In 2006, when Iraqis really needed help due to the sectarian violence, Denmark granted asylum to only 7% of the asylum seekers.” We are left to speculate as to why the percentage of asylum seekers granted recognition has increased. It could be, as Geist suggests, due to the attention paid to the issue during the previous election. Another possibility is the increasing international criticism of Denmark and other countries that are hostile to refugees.   

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited Denmark in June 2008 to urge Denmark and the rest of Europe to ease the tight grip on their recognition of asylum seekers. While visiting London, Guterres expressed his concern for the Iraqi situation: "I think it is very important for the Europeans to understand that this is not the moment to send Iraqis back." The appeal, directed at all of Europe, stressed the collective responsibility across the continent to provide a safe haven for Iraqis and other refugees. It also echoed a wish to harmonize asylum policies across Europe, a European Union effort begun a few years ago and aimed for completion in 2010. 

This combined EU initiative comes at a time when European countries, in response to the increasing number of asylum seekers, are closing off their borders, even to refugees fleeing persecution. Sweden, which has thus far accepted almost 20,000 Iraqis, accounting for approximately half of the entire Iraqi refugee population in Europe, has made a quick turn around in recent months. Most notably, the Swedish Supreme Court has ruled that there is “no armed conflict” in Iraq. The effect of this decision is that, to receive asylum in Sweden, an asylum seeker has to prove that he or she is individually threatened. More than ever, there seems to be a need for a broad European debate on the issue. 

How might Denmark fit into this broad policy proposal? Esben Geist of the Danish Refugee Council, having spoken with numerous government officials, says, “The government doesn’t even wish to discuss the issue, and that is really disturbing. I don’t understand [why] they don’t want to find a solution on the EU level to solve this problem. Denmark feels it has little need to discuss the EU agreement because it has the option to opt out.”

Even domestically speaking, in recent months, the refugee issue has gone off the political radar. The government has not delivered on its vague promises to “improve conditions,” and the opposition seems reticent to take up the unpopular issue once more. Esben Geist explains the silence. “The opposition is trying to get back the voters that they lost. This means that there is effectively no opposition on this issue. It is really quite troubling.”  

The only sign of continued government efforts on behalf of Iraqi asylum seekers is in its methods to get them to leave, by negotiating a bilateral agreement with Iraq to deport the rejectees. According to Esben Geist, “There have been more than twenty attempts to get such an agreement, even though violence has been increasing, and most of the people in the country are in risk of persecution.” Youssef is particularly worried about a possible bilateral agreement. He tells us that he has difficulties sleeping. “If they send me home, I will kill myself. Here or in Iraq.”

Denmark’s Role in the Iraq War: A Moral Duty?

The United States has come under intense criticism for not taking in more Iraqi refugees, especially in regard to its responsibility for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Recently, it has agreed to resettle 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September 2008. A recent Amnesty International Report on Iraqi Refugees also points the finger at Denmark, for its added responsibilities as one of the four countries who provided troops to the invading coalition.

In 2007, the government initiated a resettlement program for Iraqi interpreters who worked for Danish troops in Iraq. The question remains, should this sense of moral duty be extended to the resettlement of other Iraqi refugees or the recognition of asylum seekers already in Denmark? Eyvind Vesselbo, a Member of Parliament with the ruling Liberal Party, thinks not. “We have no particular responsibility regarding these people. Most of the people that are stuck here have been here since before the war.” Youssef, an asylum seeker who arrived before the war, points to the deterioration of conditions in Iraq. “Before it was only Saddam’s regime you had to fear. Now you do not know who could be threatening you. There are many militant groups.” A close friend of his in Iraq was killed by such a group, just a year ago.

Sophie Hæstorp Andersen of the opposition Social Democrats has a different perspective. When asked whether Denmark has a particular responsibility as an actor in the war in Iraq, she says, “Yes, I think we do.” “But,” she adds, “we are only one country…we cannot solve all the problems of refugees.”

Inside the asylum camps, there are forceful opinions on this issue. As Merna puts it: “They have to take some responsibility, because they didn’t build, they destroyed. When somebody destroys, they have to fix it.” Even aside from the war, she adds, they have a moral responsibility to all refugees. Merna is clearly frustrated at what she views as politicians’ inability to understand the plight of asylum seekers like herself. “They have to realize we are human, not stones who can just sit here and not feel. Sometimes I think, if there was a war here in Denmark, and people had to go to other countries, they would realize that this is not a choice. During World War II, the people helped asylum seekers. The old people who remember World War II, they understand how we feel. Every Sunday they have a demonstration. But, the generation now, the politicians, they didn’t live in that situation, so they don’t really know how it feels.” 

The demonstration Merna is referring to is organized by the group Grandparents for Asylum. Every Sunday, they can be seen protesting at Aunstrup and Sandholm Camps in support of asylum seekers. There are other Danes who are speaking out for what they see to be an injustice against the persecuted. In the talk-back session following a Copenhagen-based play, “The Fence,” which follows the story of a rejected Iraqi asylum seeker, many of the audience members felt moved to act. They showed frustration at the government’s inability to do something about those who are stuck at the refugee camps for years. One woman offered to take personal action. “What can I, as an individual, do to change the situation for these people? If I offer you a room, would you be allowed to live in my house?” Even if the politicians are unwilling to talk about it, many Danes are struck by the issue, and want to raise the level of the debate. 

Simple Demands, Complex Politics

Caught in a xenophobic climate especially hostile to the Muslim world, what does the future hold for Iraqi asylum seekers in Denmark? Asylum seekers are often grouped with other immigrants in the public mind, who are seen either as stealing the jobs of native Danes or living off the welfare made possible by tax money. 

Contrary to popular belief, says Michala Clante Bendixen of Refugees Underground, “I’ve never heard an asylum seeker ask about welfare. They always say, ‘If I was just allowed to stay here, I could easily make money, I won’t be a burden to anybody.’ A lot of them have strong backgrounds—they could really be a resource to Danish society.”

Merna, Youssef, Mustafa, and Alan. All of the Iraqis we spoke with had few demands—simply to be allowed to live a dignified life in Danish society, with an opportunity for work and education. They may have once led different lives in Iraq—the ones that can afford to make it all the way to Denmark are better off. But, they are willing to work simple jobs. “I didn’t want to be a hair dresser. I wanted to go to university to be a lawyer,” says Merna. The only options that were given to her were make-up artist, hair dresser, and mechanic school. “When I started, I thought, it’s not the thing you want, but now I tell myself, you will not be a lawyer, you will be a hairdresser… Now I think it’s good.”

Alan, whose poetry and life story has become the basis of “The Fence,” the Copenhagen play about Iraqi refugees in Denmark, speaks along the same lines. “I used to have money in my home country. I am not here to have financial support. If I could, I would educate myself as a mechanic. I don’t want to be dependent of financial help… I want to work.” He fled Iraq because he received threats regarding his erotic poetry. In Denmark, he says, his writing is the only thing that keeps him “alive,” the main thing occupying his time as he continues to wait for asylum. 

The ruling government is not completely without compassion. Liberal Member of Parliament Eyvind Vesselbo seems to understand their plight: “These people are stuck in a political dilemma.” But, he says, “it is a political game where we cannot give in.” In “The Fence,” the character who plays Alan, in one of the most striking lines of the play, reflects on this sad fate. “So now I’m just wasting my life away, serving only as a symbol to tell the outside world to ‘stay away.’” 

The Future of Iraqi Asylum Seekers: Looking Towards a Solution

In this political deadlock, what are some possible solutions to address the challenges faced by Iraqi asylum seekers? One of the most crucial questions is what to do with the hundreds of Iraqis who have been rejected, but cannot return home, nor are allowed to integrate into society. Opposition parliamentarian Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, suggests permission to be able to work, but offers nothing further. 

Esben Geist of the Danish Refugee Council sees this perspective as short-sighted. “During the election, the debate was about whether the rejected asylum seekers should be able to work or not. I think the question is bigger—the question is about giving protection to these people. Why not just solve the Iraqi question, with a broader perspective?”

Michala Clante Bendixen of Refugees Underground agrees that some form of protection is necessary. “If the Danish authorities are unable to return you after one year, I think you should get some temporary permit, perhaps for five years and then permanent… Most asylum seekers want to go back sooner or later.” She gives the example of Bosnian refugees, many of whom returned after five years, after they saw that it was safe to return. This proposal is also along the lines of what the European Council for Refugees and Exiles suggests—a temporary or permanent legal status that provides basic rights such as housing, health, employment, and education. 

A government concern that cannot be ignored is the continuing tension between a responsibility to provide a safe haven, and the worry of attracting an influx of refugees. One characteristic of the political climate in Denmark is the government’s hesitancy to cooperate with the rest of the EU and increasingly, the UN. The rise of the People’s Party, and the xenophobic public opinion that surrounds it, is reflected in the government’s preference to look inwards to issues within Denmark’s borders, including the perceived burden of immigrants and refugees. To achieve the most holistic solution to the problems facing Iraqi asylum seekers, Denmark may need to look both inside and outside its borders. A joint EU asylum policy would make sure that no one country carries the entire burden of the Iraqi asylum seekers and other refugee crises that may follow. Denmark could also contribute more development aid to countries such as Syria and Jordan, who are unable to properly assist the hundreds of thousands of refugees there. Finally, the government should offer at least a temporary “safe haven,” as suggested by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), for the hundreds of Iraqis who have been stuck in limbo for years, and offer resettlement opportunities for the more vulnerable refugees who cannot make it to Denmark on their own.



Newsletter. Amnesty International in Denmark. “Giv afviste asylansøgere liv.” 

“Artikel 1a”. Nesletter from The Refugee Council. March 2008

Amnesty report “Rhetoric and reality,” June 2008

European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) report “Five years on Europe is still ignoring its responsibilities towards Iraqi refugees,” March 2008

Bo Maltesen: ”Boom I asyl til irakere”. Politiken June 25th 2008

Søren Astrup: ”Verdens befolkninger bliver gladere” Politiken June 30th 2008

Henrik Hoffmann-Hansen: ”DFs islamhetz truer regeringen”. Kristeligt Dagblad May 16th 2008

Søs Lykke Sloth og Elisabeth Haslund: ”Stram udlændingelov virker” Berlingske Tidende June 17th 2008

Claire Soares: “Europe urged not to turn away Iraqi refugees.” The Independent. June 17th 2008

Dominic Hughes: “Denmark’s refugees in legal limbo”. BBC. June 17th 2008.

Philip Egea Flores: “Smal aftale om afviste asylfamilier” Berlingske Tidende January 17th 2008.

Mette Klingsey: “Vi tabte stemmer på asylpolitikken”. Information December 13th 2007

Personal Interviews:

Youssef. Asylum seeker living at Aunstrup Camp, Copenhagen, Denmark June 29th 2008. His name has been changed to retain anonymity.

Mustafa. Iraqi granted asylum. Copenhagen, Denmark June 29th 2008. His name has been changed to retain anonymity.

Pary, Alan.  An Iraqi asylum seeker living at Sandholm Camp. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 28th 2008. 

Samir, Merna. An Iraqi asylum seeker living at Sandholm Camp. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1st 2008.  

Bendixen, Michala Clante. Refugees Underground. Valby, Denmark. June 30th 2008.

Geist, Esben. The Danish Refugee Council. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30th 2008

Andersen, Sophie Hæstorp. Member of Parliament, Social Democrats. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1st 2008.

Vesselbo, Eyvind. Member of Parliament, Liberal Party. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 2nd 2008.

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