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Over half of children at Danish refugee centre have symptoms of mental health problems: Red Cross

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Over half of children at Danish refugee centre have symptoms of mental health problems: Red Cross
A Red Cross report that found significant risks to the mental health of children at the Sjælsmark departure centre. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
18:01 CEST+02:00
A Danish Red Cross report has found that a large proportion of children accommodated at a centre for rejected asylum seekers have problems ranging from difficulty sleeping to loss of appetite.

A systematic screening of 56 children who stay at the Sjælsmark facility showed significant risks to their mental health, media including Politiken reported on Friday.

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.

The Red Cross report concluded that as many as 61 percent of the screened children fulfilled criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis, with a further 19 percent also possibly meeting the criteria pending further examination.

There is a "real risk" that symptoms currently seen in the children could become chronic, the report concludes.

The report is based on a systematic screening of 56 children who live at Sjælsmark, conducted during the last six months.

“The results show that the well-being of children is massively lacking,” Danish Red Cross general secretary Anders Ladekarl said as the report was released.

Politicians from parties across the political spectrum commented on the Red Cross report.

“This is crystal-clear documentation that children are suffering at Sjælsmark,” Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen of the Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) party told Ritzau.

“I don’t believe that any minister – regardless of party – can see this without acting,” Schmidt-Nielsen said.

“We are dealing here with children who are being made very, very sick by living in Denmark,” she added.

Another opposition politician, Sofie Carsten Nielsen of the Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party, said that suffering of children at Sjælsmark had long been evident.

“Actually seeing that over half of the children (living at the facility) are in danger of being diagnosed with an illness really shocks me,” Carsten Nielsen said.

“We cannot dehumanise these children just because it suits our political goals. These are children who are being damaged while we are aware and the state is aware of what is going on,” she said.

The Social Liberal immigration and integration spokesperson said she hoped that the evidence presented by the report would sway other parties over their positions on housing children at Sjælsmark.

Psychologists Rie Bornfeld and Solveig Gunnarsdottir, who authored the Red Cross report, recommend that families are not housed at Sjælsmark until their departure from Denmark is “imminent”.

There is currently not a political majority in support of such a measure.

“I hope that this will push people outside of (parliament) into action. Because that is what normally gets the bigger parties to act,” Carsten Nielsen said.

“I am thinking here of both the (opposition) Social Democrats and what was once a decent party in (senior government partner) the Liberals. Things cannot go on like this,” she added.

In a written message provided to newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, Social Democrat immigration spokesperson Mattias Tesfaye underlined his party’s hardline stance on immigration.

“We do not have free immigration to Denmark, and that’s why these families must travel home. That is the responsibility of the parents. Until that happens, the children will be caught in the middle,” Tesfaye said to Kristeligt Dagblad.

“Here, we have a political responsibility to protect children better than we do today,” he added.

Rasmus Kjeldahl, director of children’s charity Børns Vilkår, said he believed Danish society was failing children at Sjælsmark.

“This is scary and sad reading. Children are suffering because of the pressure being placed on their parents.

“Although parents have a responsibility for not travelling home, we as a society have totally neglected to protect them from the consequences of their parents’ choices,” Kjeldahl said.

All of the children who were screened in the report are children of rejected asylum seekers who have refused to voluntarily leave Denmark.

But parents housed at the facility may be facing very difficult choices over whether to leave.

Sjælsmark, as well as Kærshovedgård, houses 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.

In other cases, asylum seekers may refuse to leave because they do not agree with the outcome of their asylum application.

Others reject voluntarily returning to their home countries due to the danger they believe that will place them under.

In January, a video which appeared to show a five-year-old boy being refused boiled vegetables at Sjælsmark sparked new debate over treatment of people refused refugee status in Denmark, with calls for children to be allowed to live away from the facilities.

In December 2018, an ombudsman report 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.

153 children currently live at Sjælsmark.

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

 
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