Denmark’s government changes policy on UN quota refugees with new bill

The UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council have criticised the government for a new bill which seeks to ease the path to repatriation of UN quota refugees.

Denmark’s government changes policy on UN quota refugees with new bill
Syrian refugees at the al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. File photo: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/Ritzau Scanpix

A new immigration bill seeks to apply the government’s general change in approach to giving asylum status to UN quota refugees, newspaper Politiken reports.

The bill provides for quota refugees to be subject to the same rules regarding their asylum status as all other types of refugees taken in by Denmark.

That means the application of the government's view that the status of refugees should always be considered as temporary, and that their status should be revoked as soon as conditions in origin countries are deemed to enable this.

“We wish to send a very clear signal to refugees that, if you are given permission to stay in Denmark, this is temporary, and this also applies to quota refugees,” immigration minister Inger Støjberg said to the newspaper.

United Nations refugee agency UNHCR considers the proposal by the Danish government to be a break with the historical spirit of international participation in its refugee programme, although there are no legal obstacles to withdrawing the status of refugees if conditions in their home countries are considered peaceful, Politiken writes.

“The key aspect with regard to quota refugees is that this small group of refugees have come to Denmark via UNHCR’s quota programme, and there has been a general understanding that resettlement via the quota programme takes place with a view to a long-term and permanent resolution,” the agency spokesperson for Denmark Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund told the newspaper.

“It is also worth remembering that, before quota refugees come to Denmark, they have been through a thorough and comprehensive selection process and have been prepared for life in Denmark,” Haslund added.

READ ALSO: 'Good time to take in your share of refugees': UN to Denmark

The Danish Refugee Council’s head of asylum Eva Singer said in comments given to the paper that other countries generally perceived quota refugees to belong to a specially protected group who could consider their resettlement in a new country to be permanent.

“There has always been a near-unspoken perception of resettlement of quota refugees as a permanent resolution. This will change that,” Singer said.

Quota refugees are distributed by the UNHCR from refugee camps in areas close to conflict zones and therefore arrive in Denmark and other countries via a different route to those who make journeys to, for example, northern European countries.

Denmark has, since 2016, refused to take in any refugees under the UN quota system, with Støjberg saying the country needs to focus on integrating refugees recently arrived in the country.

Until 2016, Denmark received around 500 quota refugees per year from the UNHCR, before the government temporarily suspended Denmark’s participation. It extended that suspension in both 2017 and 2018.

Refugees who arrived under the quota scheme prior to its suspension, and any who come at a later date should Denmark resume its participation, would be considered to have been given temporary protection in the same way as all others granted asylum in the country, under the new proposal.

The term ‘paradigm shift' has been used to refer to the government's change in approach to asylum policy, initially driven by the anti-immigration Danish People's Party. The change reflects the view that all refugees should be seen as temporary guests and that less emphasis in general should be placed on assisting them to integrate, as this would aid their long-term prospects in Danish society.

The opposition Social Democrats generally support the ‘paradigm shift’ to considering all refugees as temporary, but the party’s immigration spokesperson Mattias Tesfaye said during the first round of parliamentary procedure of the bill that his party considered resettlement of quota refugees to be for “people who will stay in Denmark”.

The party, which takes a hard line on immigration similar to the government, has, however, confirmed it will vote for the bill.

READ ALSO: New Danish asylum curb could restrict refugee access to medicine and dental care

For members


OPINION: Why reaction to Støjberg verdict is important for democracy in Denmark

Former immigration minister Inger Støjberg was on Monday sentenced to 60 days in prison after a special impeachment court found her guilty of deliberately issuing an illegal order while in office.

Inger Støjberg speaks to Danish media after being sentenced to 60 days in prison by a special impeachment court on December 13th.
Inger Støjberg speaks to Danish media after being sentenced to 60 days in prison by a special impeachment court on December 13th. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The rare trial, only the third of its kind since 1910, took place because a majority in parliament – including most of Støjberg’s own party, the Liberals (Venstre) – voted in favour of it earlier this year after an independent commission concluded there were grounds for an impeachment case.

Støjberg left the Liberals after that vote but was still part of the party she represented as a minister at the time it voted for the impeachment court.

After over 30 court meetings throughout the autumn, an overwhelming majority of 25 out of 26 judges decided on Monday that the ex-minister was “guilty of a deliberate violation of the Ministerial Responsibility Act,” the Court of Impeachment of the Realm said in a statement.

A majority of 15 of the judges were in favour of an unconditional prison sentence, which was set at 60 days. Of the 26 judges, 13 of which were selected by parliament with the other 13 coming from the Danish supreme court, Højesteret.

The verdict means the ex-minister was guilty of violating the European Convention on Human Rights when she ordered the separation of asylum seeker couples in 2016 where the woman was under 18 — though the age differences were mostly small — without examining the cases individually.

Her decision was found to be “unlawful” because the arrangement was made without exceptions and the immigration service did not consider individual cases.

Throughout the time of the official commission and the trial itself, Støjberg has repeatedly tried to pivot the focus of discussion around it to a question of whether or not arranged child marriages should be allowed in Denmark.

This is what she was trying to prevent with the 2016 order, went her argument, and therefore anyone seeking to punish her for issuing that order does not oppose arranged child marriages and, by extension, “Danish values”.

READ ALSO: Controversial email changes nothing: Danish immigration minister Støjberg (2019)

There are two very obvious flaws to this deflection: First, Støjberg was on trial for issuing an illegal directive which broke the ministerial law, not for opposing child marriage.

Second, she could have issued a legal order which would have had the effect she claimed to desire: individual case assessment could have resulted in separation of couples which were formed as a result of duress on an underage bride. Other, legitimate couples – with children and age differences of as little as two years – would have been unaffected.

Reports on the affected couples in Danish media, particularly newspaper Politiken, have shed light on how some of the women affected by the order had in fact fled with similarly-aged partners from forced marriages in their home countries. A woman separated from her partner by Støjberg’s illegal order attempted suicide around 14 days after the separation. The couple had a seven-month-old infant at the time.

It’s worth noting that pre-existing laws already provided some protection against forced marriages. A 2017 report by Dagbladet Information suggested that either one or zero women had been able to escape a forced marriage as a result of the controversial order. 23 couples in total were forcibly separated by the directive.

Critics of the former minister have argued that, in contrary to her own claims, she was never motivated by a desire to protect young refugee girls and women but rather sought to push through yet another harsh rule aimed at immigrants or refugees. That is something she has a track record for; humanitarian concern for young Muslim women is not.

It’s clear that Støjberg elicits both strong opposition and strong support amongst the Danish public. For every person who showed up outside the court at Eigtveds Pakhus in Copenhagen on Monday to support her (some supporters brought a large banner which simply read “F*CK ISLAM”), there must have been dozens of tweets gloating about the verdict, with no lack of references to cakes or spending time looking at fences.

Nevertheless, the court’s decision was very close to being unanimous. All parties, including the Liberals, fell in behind it with one exception: the struggling Danish People’s Party which has in recent weeks been desperately courting Støjberg to become its new leader.

This aside, we have not seen the bipartisanship or the closing of ranks which you might have expected had this story played out in other countries.

Former high-profile government colleagues of Støjberg, including previous Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, have spoken in acceptance of the court’s judgement. So have the governing Social Democrats, who themselves rely upon a hostile stance towards immigration and refugees as part of their political platform. The Liberal party said it had “taken into account” the sentence given to its ex-minister.

By convention, politicians with criminal convictions are excluded from being members of parliament but there is no exact precedence in Støjberg’s case because she was found guilty by a special impeachment court, rather than in a regular criminal trial.

The centre-left Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party said on Tuesday it supports firing Støjberg as a lawmaker, as did a party on the right in the form of the libertarian Liberal Alliance.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?

The Social Democrats, the Conservatives, and the Liberals are yet to state their position, pending meetings between their parliamentary representatives. An outcome is expected by next week.

Should a majority decide Støjberg’s conviction makes her unworthy of sitting in parliament, she will be fired from her elected position as lawmaker. It should be noted that this does not exclude her forever: she could run for election in 2023 and be voted back in.

It feels relevant to point out here that a majority in parliament earlier this year voted through new laws which permanently prevent anyone from becoming a Danish citizen if they have past conditional or unconditional sentences, much less served a jail term for breaking the law as a minister. But that is not the point of this article.

The correct and seemingly only logical decision for parliament is now to fire Støjberg. Almost all parties on both sides of the political fence have accepted the outcome of the trial, eschewing the possible political gain from following a populist line, which would have been to criticise the court or in some other way seek to undermine the verdict and cast Støjberg as an innocent victim.

By not doing this, they have exposed the one party, the Danish People’s Party, and Støjberg herself, who chose to espouse a narrative which does not reflect the substance of the impeachment trial. The lesson here is that if you want to talk up Danish values, that must include Danish rule of law.

This is a good sign for the separation of powers in Danish democracy because one politician – a very charismatic, influential, popular one at that – was not bigger than the system, unable to spin her way out of trouble by pushing a misleading narrative.