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'Potato and broccoli' video sparks new debate over treatment of Denmark's rejected asylum seekers

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'Potato and broccoli' video sparks new debate over treatment of Denmark's rejected asylum seekers
A file photo from 2013 of the former Sjælsmark Barracks, before the facility was converted to accommodation for rejected asylum seekers. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
16:10 CET+01:00
A video which appeared to show a five-year-old boy being refused boiled vegetables at the Sjælsmark Departure Centre for rejected asylum seekers has sparked new debate over treatment of people refused refugee status in Denmark.

The video was taken by Syrian Mohammed Amin, father of five-year-old Amin. The two are amongst 250 people accommodated at the Zealand facility following rejection of their applications for asylum, newspaper Politiken reports. As of September 2018, 93 children live at Sjælsmark, according to official figures.

The five-minute clip was posted on social media by organisation Sjælsmarks Venner (Friends of Sjælsmark), which supports residents at the centre through, for example, donations of food and funding for costs such as dental bills.

Sjælsmark, like Kærshovedgård in Jutland, is a so-called udrejsecenter (departure or expulsion centre), housing rejected asylum seekers who have not yet left Danish territory, for example due to being stateless or because no readmission arrangement exists between Denmark and their home country.

READ ALSO: The middle of nowhere: Inside Denmark's Kærshovedgård deportation camp

In the video, which emerged online on Thursday, Mohammed Amin appears to repeatedly ask for his son to be given boiled broccoli and potato at the Sjælsmark canteen before being told that this type of food is only being given to smaller children whose teeth have not come through.

Amin's son had been given a banana and salad but had also asked for broccoli and potato, according to quotes given to Politiken by Amin.

Later in the video, Amin appears to call over a security guard who confirms that the five-year-old cannot have the boiled vegetables, but that Amin could speak to a member of the centre's medical staff for special permission to take food from the menu for younger children.

The exchange between Amin and centre staff appears to take place calmly but a sense of conflict is clear and the younger Amin looks upset towards the end of the clip. The father, while filming, later threatens to throw canteen food on the floor, although he does not follow through on this before the video ends.

Staff at the facility refer in the video to rules regarding which food is available to younger and older children, which employees at the canteen are obliged to follow, writes Politiken, which has reported closely on conditions at the centre since its opening in 2015.

Rules for running of the facility are set by the Ministry for Immigration and Integration's Immigration Agency (Udlændingestyrelsen) and enforced by the Danish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalforsorgen), according to Marianne Haugaard, a spokesperson for Sjælsmarks Venner, who spoke to Politiken.

“It is the Immigration Agency which defines the rules. Amin turned five before Christmas, and that means he is now two years too old for broccoli and potatoes,” Haugaard said to the newspaper.

The Danish Prison and Probation Service did not wish to comment on individual cases when contacted by Politiken.

Media are not permitted to visit the canteen at the facility, the newspaper adds in its report on the video.

Politicians have criticised rules which enable the situation shown in the video to arise.

“We have created a monster when a five-year-old boy is denied a boiled potato at Sjælsmark. We want to motivate rejected asylum seekers to return home. But are we really prepared to let these children pay such a high price?”, Social Democrat Mette Gjerskov wrote on Twitter.

A fellow user of the social media responded to Gjerskov's comment by pointing out the scenario reminded her of Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, which is set in a 19th-century British workhouse for orphans.

Sofie Carsten Nielsen of the Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party called the policy of accommodating children at the Sjælsmark facility “pure harassment”.

“This shows quite clearly that children should not live at Sjælsmark for extended periods. It's pure harassment. It has long since been documented that it does not cost a single krone extra to let families make their own food,” Nielsen said to Politiken.

Anyone drawing conclusions from watching the video must do so with the acknowledgement that the exact events taking place, as well as the overall context, are not fully clear.

But controversy over an incident at one of the centres once again brings to the forth the issue of their psychological and social impact on the children and adults accommodated there.

In October 2017 Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, assistant professor in Global Refugee Studies at Aalborg University's Department of Culture and Global Studies, told The Local that the circumstances at the Kærshovedgård centre had been proven by studies to cause psychological illness.

“(Departure centres) are built on a logic that people can be motivated to leave the country. This means that the centre's main function is to impose living conditions so intolerable that people will leave. Consequently, [the centres] are not created in a way that allows for a normal, healthy life,” Lemberg-Pedersen said.

“Centres like this have a track record of breaking people down. Research tells us that people reach a threshold after which they begin to break down, with a range of severe psychological and psychosomatic consequences,” the assistant professor added.

Four of Denmark's five opposition parties – the Social Liberals, Socialist People's Party, Alternative and the Red Green Alliance – are to propose housing outside of the centres families whose asylum claims have been rejected, left-wing media Arbejderen reported earlier this week.

The proposal follows an assessment by the parliamentary ombudsman that children at Sjælsmark live “under difficult conditions” which are “designed to significantly complicate their formative years and limit their opportunity for natural development and life experience.”

Conditions at the facility are not in breach of international rights conventions, the independent assessor found.

Martin Henriksen, immigration spokesperson with the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, told Politiken he did not want to make conclusions based on the video, given it was not completely clear what had taken place.

Henriksen said that, regardless of what had happened, he did not see any need for a change in the way rejected asylum seekers are accommodated, whether child or adult.

“Rooms are made available, there is food, there is drink, there is access to medicine, there is access to childcare, it's all paid for by Danish citizens and the people that are there have been asked to leave. So this is not something we are considering making an issue of,” he said.

READ ALSO: Denmark rejected asylum seekers hunger strike against 'intolerable' circumstances

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