Helle Thorning-Schmidt was announced as a candidate for the UNHCR post by Lars Løkke Rasmussen on Friday. Photo: Søren Bidstrup/Scanpix
Helle Thorning-Schmidt is considered a strong candidate to the fill the post of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the agency that she could be heading has been a very vocal critic of the policies she implemented while Denmark’s prime minister.
As PM, Thorning-Schmidt introduced new, one-year temporary residence permits for refugees fleeing the civil wars like the one in Syria so that they could, in the words of her justice minister, “be sent home as soon as conditions improve in the home country”.
Thorning-Schmidt shortly thereafter followed that up by making it harder for refugees to bring their families to Denmark, only allowing for family reunification if and when refugees' one-year residence permits were extended.
The UN Refugee Agency, which Thorning-Schmidt could head next year if Denmark’s formal application is successful, slammed the family reunification restrictions by saying they were “on the edge of international law”.
“It is unrealistic to believe that Denmark can isolate itself from what is happening globally. If there are conflicts and disasters, they are something that we must all take responsibility for. If we talk about Syrians – most of whom, we believe, are refugees under the international convention – and you don’t immediately give them family reunification, you are on the edge of international law,” Pia Prutz Phiri, the UNHCR’s regional head in northern Europe, told public broadcaster DR in October.
The following month, the UNHCR filed an official statement to the Danish parliament, calling on the family reunification restrictions to be dropped and urging Denmark to reconsider other elements of its asylum policies.
Likewise, the person currently holding Thorning-Schmidt’s coveted post, former Portuguese PM Antonio Guterres, indirectly criticized Denmark for its unwillingness to participate in a European quota system when he visited Stockholm in February.
“Quota systems are always an extreme solution. Ideally, the system would work naturally to produce a fair share among European countries,” Guterres said.
Because of its opt-out on EU Justice and Home Affairs, Denmark is exempt from having to participate in a shared European approach to the current refugee crisis, even though joining a EU-wide solution could result in Denmark taking in fewer refugees than it does now.
Denmark will hold a referendum on ending its opt-out on December 3rd, but the new proposed ‘opt-in’ model would have no bearing on Denmark’s asylum and immigration policies.
Thorning-Schmidt was introduced as an official candidate for the UNHCR post on Friday by current PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen. She said it would be “a big honour” for her to fill and defended her administration’s asylum policies.
“I stand fully behind the decisions I made as prime minister and one should remember under all circumstances that Denmark is a strong partner with the UNHCR and has been that since it began way back in the 1950s,” she told reporters.