Denmark was one of the first countries to sign the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and ratify its Protocol in 1968. As established by the Copenhagen criteria (symbolically “hosted”, indeed, by the Danish capital), respect for human rights and migrants’ dignity is considered a founding, irreplaceable pillar of Danish society and its established liberal democratic tradition. In 2021, 70 years later, the refugee protection situation in the Scandinavian state and the current government’s approach towards asylum seekers could not be more different from the past.
The European Union as an intergovernmental organisation and the single-member states have long been dealing with refugee flows from the Mediterranean area. The “challenge” represented by the necessity to approve and coordinate the implementation, at an EU level, of an accurate joint migration and asylum application procedure, with a distribution of responsibility for refugee protection among the EU members, has pushed more and more EU state governments to adopt restrictive domestic immigration policies. Over the last decade, Denmark has been gradually and inexorably aligning with such a widespread anti-migrant strategy carried out by a worryingly increasing number of states. Following the broader European trend, centre-right ruling governments have shifted the focus from integration to national security, from human rights protection to domestic interest defence.
A first significant stance in that direction was shown, not by chance, in 2015, when the peak of the so-called “migration crisis” was reached. In those circumstances, Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Venstre) proposed to amend the Refugee Convention from 1951, since, in his understanding, the migratory situation towards Europe was raising the necessity to “adjust the rules of the games”, i.e. to revise the definition of refugee and the obligations of receiving countries in a way to make them more suitable to the ideological and political needs of the euro-sceptic, anti-migrant ruling coalition. Moreover, the Immigration, Integration and Housing Minister Inger Støjberg criticised Sweden for its “gentle” immigration policies, which she considered to have detrimental consequences for neighbouring Denmark since they would have made it a more suitable arrival destination for migrants transiting through Sweden. Other pillars of the future Danish anti-migrant strategy emerged in such a hostile atmosphere. Firstly, Rasmussen favoured the “migrants confiscation law” approval, seizing a part of the asylum seekers’ belongings and cash to cover their protection costs. Secondly, he stressed the necessity to build stronger cooperation with Mediterranean non-EU countries to detain migrants in those states and prevent them from arriving in Europe.
In 2021, the hostile state approach towards refugees further exacerbated. The Danish government refutes the idea of refugee integration in society as a mechanism of enrichment to ensure security and stability. Instead, it has been carrying out drastic changes in its refugee treatment policies. Since the beginning of the year, over 200 refugee status certifications and residence permits have been revoked from Syrian refugees. This decision was made under the assumption that some areas of Syria, such as the Damascus region, are now secure enough to ensure the safe return of refugees to their country and that this condition would no longer justify the grant of refugee status and residence permit. As Immigration and Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye stated, “we are ready with a huge bag of travel money for those who have to go back and rebuild their lives in Syria”. The scenario presented by the Danish government, however, is far from reality. Despite the fact that the Danish Immigration Service formally supports this argument, 11 out of the 12 experts distanced themselves from the 2019 report the government decision was based on. The most recent UNHCR report (June 2021) on the refugee situation in the Syrian Arab Republic clearly pointed out that the need for humanitarian intervention actually increased during 2020, and the “security situation is still volatile”. A meaningful joint statement was also signed by Human Rights Watch’s representatives, who expressed their deep concern for Denmark’s decision by affirming that “no Syrian can presently be reasonably believed to be safe enough to remove their protected status in order to force their return in Damascus, not to anywhere else in Syria”.
However, since Denmark does not have diplomatic relations with Bashar Al Assad’s Syria, it cannot forcibly deport refugees. In such a case, the returns should be either voluntary or directed to another country in Denmark’s understanding.
To circumvent this situation, the Danish government is also using strategically crafted domestic legislation to allow the externalisation of the asylum procedure. This means that Denmark will be delegating the responsibility of processing asylum seekers’ asylum claims to partner countries such as Rwanda, recently visited by minister Mattias Tesfaye. The legislation will enter into force when agreements with third countries are signed. Such legislation voluntarily complicates the asylum application and, consequently, seriously endangers the protection of refugee rights, for example, among others, the right to a family reunion. The government’s purpose is to employ this “logic of deterrence” to “trap” asylum seekers in the red tape: “if you apply for asylum in Denmark you know you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark”, said Rasmus Stoklund, ruling party’s spokesperson.
This legislation breaches the international humanitarian law principle of nonrefoulement, which states that “no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, as well as article 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the right to claim asylum. Moreover, Denmark is violating, among other things, the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaty, since it is using its domestic law to attempt to navigate its obligation under international law (article 27), despite the fact that it has signed numerous treaties binding it to ensure refugee protection (article 46).
The new Danish immigration legislation provoked condemnation from the international community regarding its violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. At the EU level, the European Commission declared that the law is incompatible with Denmark’s international obligations in refugee rights. At the same time, 30 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the Danish current prime minister Mette Frederiksen asking to reconsider the decision on the revocation of residence permits of hundreds of Syrians. The UN High Commissioner of Refugees Filippo Grandi also opposed Denmark’s action to “evade responsibility” in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. UNHCR also urged the country to change its policy to contribute to the EU refugee protection system properly.
These condemnations will more likely not affect the decision taken. The Danish government’s adoption of the new immigration law is not to be underestimated since it is significantly complicating and further fragmenting the EU migration management. It also has the potential to encourage other EU states to follow a similar path towards increasingly hostile refugee policies.