Danish MPs back controversial plan to relocate asylum seekers outside Europe


Danish lawmakers voted on Thursday in favour of Denmark establishing a refugee reception centre in a third country that is likely to be in Africa, a move that could be a first step toward moving the country’s asylum screening process outside of Europe.

Legislation approved on a 70-24 vote with no abstentions and 85 lawmakers absent authorises the Danish government to, when a deal is in place, transfer asylum seekers ”to the third country in question

for the purpose of substantive processing of asylum applications and any subsequent protection in compliance with Denmark’s international obligations”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Union and several international organisations have criticised the plan, saying it would undermine international co-operation and lacks details on how human rights would be protected.

Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye has said the Danish government needed a legal framework for a new asylum system before details could be presented. The centre-right opposition has been backing the Social Democratic minority government and voted in favour of the law approved Thursday.


“This is insane, this is absurd,” Michala C. Bendixen, a spokesperson for advocacy and legal aid organisation Refugees Welcome, told journalists. “What it’s all about is that Denmark wants to get rid of refugees. The plan is to scare people away from seeking asylum in Denmark.”

"Not possible under EU rules"

The European Union’s executive commission expressed concern about the vote and its implications, saying that any move to outsource asylum claims is not compatible with the laws of the 27-nation bloc. Denmark is an EU member.

“External processing of asylum claims raises fundamental questions about both the access to asylum procedures and effective access to protection. It is not possible under existing EU rules,” said European Commission spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz.

He said such an approach was not part of the commission’s proposals for reforming the EU’s asylum system, which was overwhelmed by the arrival into Europe of more than 1 million people in 2015, many of them from Syria.

Denmark's Social Democrats have for a few years floated the idea of basing a refugee refugee centre abroad. In January, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reiterated an election campaign vision of having “zero asylum seekers”.

The Social Democrats argue their approach would prevent people from attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe and undermine migrant traffickers who exploit desperate asylum seekers. Since 2014, more than 20,000 migrants and refugees have died while trying to cross the sea.

Bendixen said the government’s argument is “nonsense” because asylum seekers would still have to get to Denmark. Under the government’s plan, they would not be able to apply directly at a reception centre outside the country since that only can be done at a Danish border. Instead, those who reach Denmark would be sent to a third country while their applications are processed.

More radical than the far right

In an interview with France24, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, an associate professor at the Centre of Advanced Migration Studies at Copenhagen University, said that the government was justifying the criticised move by calling it “humanitarian”.

“They are focusing on the terrible conditions for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and they’re saying that their model is going to put an end to that. However, if you look at the other recent experiences with countries like Rwanda, there’s a lot to question that interpretation,” he said, pointing to a similar deal between Israel and Rwanda from 2013 to 2017, and under which 4,000 migrants were sent from Israel to Rwanda.

“Most [of them] actually ended up re-migrating and going back into the human smuggling networks and ended up in European countries. So there’s a lot to say that this kind of territorialisation is, in effect, going to add another level to the human smuggling dynamics that the government is using as an argument for its policy.”

In April, the Danish government said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda. The government has kept a low profile with the memorandum, which is not legally binding and sets the framework for future negotiations and cooperation between the two countries.

Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported that Denmark has also been in dialogue with Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Tesfaye has promised lawmakers that any agreement with another country will be presented to parliament before the government can ”adopt a model or send someone to a reception centre,” legislator Mads Fuglede of the opposition Liberal Party told Jyllands-Posten.

Lemberg-Pedersen said that Denmark currently has no such agreement – not even at a negotiation level – in place with any country, including Rwanda, meaning the Danish legislation “has no real substance, or any of the human right guarantees and protection guarantees that the government is [just] assuming will be possible”.

He also said it would put countries like Rwanda in a dangerously advantageous negotiating position, when and if such talks actually get off the ground. “What is actually creates (…) is some pretty clear incentive [for these countries] to place themselves in a position where they ‘might’ agree to it and then ask in return, from the Danish government in this case, for a rising number of benefits, political legitimacy, economic trade and so on. Let’s not forget that in the case of Rwanda, Paul Kagame’s regime won the last so-called democratic election with 99 percent of the vote, which is certainly a different form of democracy.”

“It’s terrifying […] to note that up until the election campaign, in which the Danish Social Democrats actually first voiced this proposal, there was a requirement that a host country would have to be democratic, but – about a month and a half ago – the government quite vocally went out and dropped that condition, saying the institutions do not have to be democratic.” 

The immigration stance of the Social Democratic government resembles the positions that right-wing nationalists took when mass migration to Europe peaked in 2015. Denmark recently made headlines for declaring parts of Syria “safe” and revoking the residency permits of some Syrian refugees.

In 2016, the Social Democrats supported a law that allowed Danish authorities to seize jewelry and other assets from refugees to help finance their housing and other services. Human rights groups denounced the law, proposed by the centre-right government leading Denmark at the time, though in practice it has been implemented only a handful of times.

The Social Democrats also voted to put rejected asylum seekers and foreigners convicted of crimes on a tiny island that formerly housed facilities for researching contagious animal diseases. That plan was eventually dropped.

Lemberg-Pedersen noted that the last elections had actually focused on climate change, rather than immigration: “So if we judge it by the token that got the Social Democrats the vote, that got them into government, this [legislation] is not something that had wide support.

“This proposal is more radical than any of the proposals the Danish right-wing has proposed in the last decade, so in a way, the Social Democratic government has passed the right-wing with this proposal.”    (France24/AP)

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