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

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.

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

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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Denmark scraps plan for Langeland expulsion centre

The government late on Tuesday announced it will not go ahead with plans to open a so-called departure or expulsion centre on Langeland, in the face of fierce opposition in parliament and from the island's local community.

Denmark scraps plan for Langeland expulsion centre
Langelændere (people from Langeland) demonstrate on Tuesday against the now-scrapped plans for a departure centre on their island. Photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix

Proposed last week, the centre would have housed people with ‘tolerated stay’ (tålt ophold) status, who do not have permission to reside in Denmark but cannot be deported by force. The planned facility was for around 130 accommodate foreign nationals with criminal records who have served their sentences but are awaiting deportation.

The persons who would have been moved to the centre will therefore remain for the time being at a similar facility at Kærshovedgård in Jutland. That centre also houses people who have not committed crimes but have no legal right to stay in Denmark, for example due to a rejected asylum claim.


Opposition parties opposed the Langeland plan following its announcement last week, calling for the centre to be located more remotely. Langeland residents also resisted it, both during a visit to the island last week by immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye and in a demonstration at the Christiansborg parliament on Tuesday.

The centre-left Socialist People’s Party (SF), which is the party of Langeland’s mayor, also said it would block the plan, leaving the minority government without the parliamentary majority needed to push it through.

“It is very obvious that there’s a majority in parliament which is against the establishment of a new departure centre on Langeland,” Tesfaye told broadcaster DR on Tuesday evening.

“That’s a shame in my view, but I have also said from the start that I cannot not conjure up (the centre) against a majority in parliament, after all,” he added.

Cancellation of the plan means that the “status quo” of existing expulsion centres will continue, the minister confirmed.

As such the 130 persons who would have been moved to Langeland will now remain at the Kærshovedgård centre.

In a statement, Tesfaye said that he would welcome suggestions from the other parties for alternative locations.

“You have to say that the situation has changed. We are now in a situation in which parliament wants influence (over the issue),” he told DR.

“If you take control over an issue, you also take responsibility,” he added.

Since winning the election in 2019, the Social Democratic government has generally worked with right-wing parties to pass laws related to immigration, rather than its established allies on the left, the so-called ‘red bloc’.