UNHCR asks Denmark to reject proposal to move asylum seekers offshore

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR on Wednesday issued a statement in which it asked the Danish parliament not to pass a bill, tabled by the government, which would enable the country to house and process asylum seekers in third countries.

UNHCR asks Denmark to reject proposal to move asylum seekers offshore
Refugees at a temporary UNHCR camp on Greek island Lesbos. File photo: Yara Nardi/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Danish ministers recently visited central African country Rwanda to agree a deal which has been rumoured to pave the way for such an arrangement.

According to the text of an agreement signed by the two countries during the visit, the vision of the Danish Government is that the processing of asylum applications should take place “outside of the EU in order to break the negative incentive structure of the present asylum system”, citing human trafficking as an unwanted outcome of it.

The memorandum stopped short, however, of explicitly referencing plans for Rwanda to host a reception centre.


In the statement, the UNHCR’s representative for the Nordic and Baltic countries Henrik M. Nordentoft wrote that “transfer of the asylum process and protection of refugees in a country outside of Europe is not a responsible or sustainable solution – and would also be in breach if the principles on which international refugee partnerships stand”.

“By initiating such a drastic and restrictive change to Danish refugee laws, Denmark risks starting a domino effect… this could lead to a frightening race to the bottom, where the lives and welfare of refugees will be put in danger and their protection significantly worsened,” Nordentoft added.

“The UNHCR therefore views the current Danish bill with great concern (because it) risks undermining the foundations of the international protection system for the world’s refugees.

“In the long term, this could lead to refugees finding it much harder to find the necessary protection they need and have the right to, while we will also see an increased and more uncontrolled movement of refugees away from neighbouring regions (to their home countries,” Nordentoft also wrote.

The agency previously noted that comparable plans in the past have failed to be implemented without breaking international obligations set by both refugee and human rights conventions.

Instead, the UNHCR urged Denmark to “build on its active participation in the global refugee cooperation and participate in finding mutual solutions in the European setting.”

Based on the reasons listed in the statement, the UNHCR “asks the members of the Danish parliament not to support the tabled bill,” Nordentoft concluded.

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Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

Denmark now aims to work with other EU countries to transfer asylum seekers to centres outside Europe and has suspended talks with Rwanda as it no longer plans to go it alone, its migration minister said on Wednesday.

Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

The Scandinavian country’s plans, first announced by the previous Social Democratic government, called for people seeking asylum in Denmark to be transferred to reception centres outside the European Union while their requests were processed.

A law adopted in June 2021 did not specify which country would host the centre, but said asylum seekers should stay there even after they were granted refugee status.

Discussions were launched with Rwanda and other countries, but they have now been suspended since the installation of a new Danish left-right government in December headed by the Social Democrats.

“We are not holding any negotiations at the moment about the establishment of a Danish reception centre in Rwanda”, Migration and Integration Minister Kaare Dybvad told daily Altinget.

“This is a new government. We still have the same ambition, but we have a different process”, he added. “The new government’s programme calls for the establishment of a reception centre outside Europe “in cooperation with the EU or a number of other countries”.

The change is an about-face for the Social Democrats, which had until now rejected any European collaboration, judging it slow and thorny.

“While the wider approach also makes sense to us, [Denmark’s change of heart] is precisely because there has been movement on the issue among many European countries”, Dybvad said. “There are many now pushing for a stricter asylum policy in Europe”, he said.


Inger Støjberg, leader of the Denmark Democrats said on Facebook that she was “honestly disgusted” by the government’s decision to delay plans for a reception centre in Rwanda, pointing out that Kaare Dybvad had said during the election campaign that a deal would be done with Rwanda within a year. 

“Call us old-fashioned, but we say the same thing both before and after an election. We stand firm on a strict immigration policy. The Social Democrats, Liberals and Moderates clearly do not,” she said. 

Lars Boje Mathiesen from the New Right Party accused the government of perpetrating a “deadly fraud” on the Danish people. 

“It is said in Christiansborg that it is paused. But we all know what that means,” he wrote on Facebook, accusing Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen of “empty words” in the run-up to the election. 

In the face of this reaction, Dybvad told the Ritzau newswire that although talks with Rwanda were not happening at present, the government had not given up on a deal with the African nation. He also said that he was confident that asylum reception centres outside of the EU would be a reality within five years.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Stockholm this week to discuss asylum reform. Those talks are expected to focus on how to speed up the process of returning undocumented migrants to their country of origin in cases where their asylum bid fails.

Denmark’s immigration policy has been influenced by the far-right for more than 20 years. Even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the head of the Social Democrats, has pursued a “zero refugee” policy since coming to power in 2019.

Copenhagen has over the years implemented a slew of initiatives to discourage migrants and made Danish citizenship harder to obtain. In 2020, it became the only country in Europe to withdraw residency permits from Syrians from Damascus, judging that the situation there was now safe enough for them to return.