But more is at stake than the matter of what food is offered at facilities for those who have applied for refugee status in Denmark, according to party leaders Kristian Thulesen Dahl of the Danish People’s Party (DF), Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen and Morten Østergaard of the Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party.
The comments from party leaders follow a five-minute video clip which was posted on social media last week by charity organisation Sjælsmarks Venner (Friends of Sjælsmark).
In the video, Mohammed Amin, a rejected asylum seeker housed at the facility, 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.
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.
The video has sparked debate over the psychological and social impact of the centres on the children and adults accommodated there.
“I think that (children at Sjælsmark) should be given potatoes, and they should also have broccoli as far as I’m concerned,” Thulesen Dahl said at a debate between party leaders in Nyborg on Sunday, Ritzau reports.
“But when I look at the Sjælsmark menu, it seems very balanced,” he added.
The DF leader also said that he felt conditions at the centre should reflect the fact that residents’ asylum applications had been rejected and authorities’ wish for them to agree to leave the country.
Frederiksen, also speaking at the event, expressed similar sentiments.
“It is a regrettable situation for the children to be in and therefore a difficult dilemma. Rejected asylum seekers are required to leave so we have space for actual refugees,” she said.
“That’s why there must be a balance between them actually leaving Denmark and being treated decently while they are here,” the Social Democrat leader said.
Unlike the two other party leaders, Østergaard said he disagreed with accommodating children at the facility, and appealed for the reimplementation of a 2012 law preventing families from being housed in departure centres unless their travel arrangements for leaving the country have been secured, Ritzau writes.
“Potatoes and broccoli are just an illustration of what it is like to live at Sjælsmark, and that it breaks children down in the long run,” he said.
“Nowhere else in Danish society would we accept children living in this way,” he said.
In December, an assessment by the parliamentary ombudsman found 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.
Meanwhile, Social Democrat spokesperson for immigration Mattias Tesfaye said in an interview with Altinget that children at departure centres should be separated from their families if conditions at the facilities were deemed to be damaging.
“The municipality must conduct inspections, further investigate and intervene in the (individual) family. The last resort can be forced separation, but that would be in very, very few cases. Support or inspection visits could also be used,” Tesfaye said.
Children living at Sjælsmark are encompassed by the same social legislation as anywhere else in Denmark, Tesfaye noted, meaning the same mechanisms can be used to protect them.
Morten Slotved, the Conservative mayor of the Hørsholm Municipality where Sjælsmark is located, called Tesfaye’s comments “embarrassing”.
“Mattias Tesfaye’s calls (for inspections) are embarrassing. If he had made an effort to understand the issue, he would know that we already do exactly what he is suggesting. In 2018, we found 51 cases of children suffering from a lack of wellbeing at Sjælsmark. That corresponds to over 40 percent of such cases reported in the municipality,” Slotved told Altinget.
“I can guarantee that we treat the Sjælsmark children with the same respect as the rest of the children in the municipality,” Slotved said.
The Hørsholm mayor has previously called for Sjælsmark Departure Centre to be closed and has cited the conditions for children living there as a factor in this, Ritzau writes.