ANALYSIS: Fortress Denmark wants to send its asylum seekers outside Europe

Denmark already has one of Europe's harshest stances on immigration, but the wealthy Scandinavian country is set to adopt legislation on Thursday enabling it to open asylum centres outside Europe where applicants would be sent to live.

ANALYSIS: Fortress Denmark wants to send its asylum seekers outside Europe
A group of refugees arrive at Kigali International Airport after a life-saving evacuation flight to Rwanda from Libya. Photo: UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana

The latest move by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democratic anti-immigration government is aimed at deterring migrants from coming to Denmark at all.

In practice, asylum seekers would have to submit an application in person at the Danish border and then be flown to an asylum centre outside Europe while their application is being processed.

If the application is approved and the person is granted refugee status, he or she would be given the right to live in the host country.

The proposal is expected to sail through parliament on Thursday, supported by a majority including the far-right, despite opposition from some left-wing parties.

Denmark normally has a reputation for being one of the happiest countries in the world. But it has repeatedly made headlines in recent years with its anti-immigration policies, including its official “zero refugees” target, its withdrawal of residence permits from Syrians now that it considers parts of the wartorn country safe, and its crackdown on Danish “ghettos” in a bid to reduce the number of “non-Western” residents.

The aim of the new law is to establish a legal foundation for the transfer of people seeking international protection in Denmark to a third country, according to the immigration ministry.

Denmark would foot the bill for the operation, but the processing of asylum requests would be carried out by the host country. If a person’s asylum request is rejected, the migrant would be asked to leave the host country.

But even “those whose asylum claims are successful after being exported will not be allowed to come ‘back’ to Denmark to enjoy refugee status. They will simply get refugee status in the as-yet unnamed host country,” University of Copenhagen migration expert Martin Lemberg-Pedersen told AFP.

In talks with Rwanda

No country has as yet agreed to collaborate with Denmark on the project, but the government says it is in talks with five to 10 countries, without identifying them.

“A system of transferring asylum seekers to a third country must, of course, be established within the framework of international conventions,” Migration Minister Mattias Tesfaye told AFP. “That will be a prerequisite for an agreement. In addition, we need to have a monitoring mechanism in place so that we can continuously ensure that everything is going as planned.”

He had previously said the countries may not necessarily be democracies “in the way we see things.”

Danish media have mentioned Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia as possibilities. Denmark is meanwhile known to be in talks with Rwanda — which also discussed similar plans with Israel in the past.

At the end of April, Denmark and Rwanda signed a memorandum of understanding on asylum and migration cooperation, though the document doesn’t specifically cover external asylum processing.

“Denmark is committed to finding new and sustainable solutions to the present migration and refugee challenges that affect countries of origin, transit and destination,” the document states.

‘Risk of domino effect’

The new legislation marks a complete U-turn on immigration for Denmark’s Social Democrats under Frederiksen’s reign.

For many years, the populist Danish People’s Party had a monopoly on anti-immigration policy. But their stance has become the norm, University of Copenhagen political scientist Kasper Hansen noted.

Five years after the adoption of a law that allowed Denmark to seize asylum seekers’ valuables — legislation that made headlines but was actually rarely applied — authorities continue to practice deterrence.

“This proposal is the continuation of the symbolic policy. It’s a little bit like Donald Trump and his wall,” the secretary-general of ActionAid Denmark, Tim Whyte, told AFP.

In 2019, only 2,716 people sought asylum in Denmark, eight times fewer than during the 2015 migrant crisis. While the initiative will yield political gain at home, international observers have expressed concern.

For the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, the proposal is “contrary to the principles of international refugee cooperation.”

“By initiating such a drastic and restrictive change in Danish refugee legislation, Denmark risks starting a domino effect, where other countries in Europe and in neighbouring regions will also explore the possibility of limiting the protection of refugees on their soil,” UNHCR’s representative in the Nordic and Baltic countries, Henrik Nordentoft, told news agency Ritzau.

Denmark is letting its European partners down, Whyte said. “Refugees will seek asylum in Germany, France, Sweden. It will not deter them to cross the Mediterranean Sea but they won’t get to Denmark, which in a way is abdicating its responsibilities.”

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.