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Humanitarian Asylum Policy: Does Denmark Believe in It?



Denmark’s asylum politics and interactions with Dublin 2, exemplify its need for proactive humanitarian politics.

Denmark – are you proud of the way you treat your people?

Why shouldn’t we be proud of our world-renowned social welfare state built on the idea that society is best when the strong help the weak? Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in Rotterdam has spent his life collecting happiness data. Both his “World Database of Happiness” and the “World Map of Happiness” developed at the University of Leicester consistently rank Denmark as one of happiest nations on earth. With cradle to grave care given to every citizen, Denmark truly seems to embody the UN Declaration of Human Rights tenet that “all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The broken European asylum system is not a “Greek problem” or “Italian problem” – it is a European problem.

Denmark may be “happy” and can boast of a robust social welfare net but human rights are on the chopping block here. The broken European asylum system is not a “Greek problem” or “Italian problem” – it is a European problem. Though we may forget it sometimes Denmark IS a part of Europe and we need look no further than our own borders to see evidence of the human suffering that has resulted from this broken system.

The Dublin Regulation and Denmark

Denmark’s handling of asylum seekers is just one example of the tough on foreigners, tough on immigration politics that have swept our country in the past decade. The primary document that shapes asylum policy in Europe is called Dublin 2.

It is necessary to talk about Dublin 2 and Denmark together because Denmark has used holes in Dublin 2 to justify human rights violations – and could do so again.

We believe that the answer to the mess that we find ourselves in is bold, humanitarian politics. Politics that don’t simply react to the extreme right but take a proactive stand on citizenship, immigration and asylum issues. Though there is plenty to discuss in Danish citizenship and immigration politics, this article focuses on the consequences of European asylum policy in Denmark.

Arezoo’s story

Arezoo’s story exemplifies the seemingly endless and futile struggle asylum seekers face when they reach Europe. Though her name has been changed, her story is real and was conveyed to the authors by Erik Hansen of Bedsteforældre for Asyl.

In Greece her family was fingerprinted, jailed and denied medical access when her four-year-old daughter broke three teeth in an accident.

Arezoo came to Avnstrup – an asylum seeker center in the Roskilde area – via Iran, Turkey, Greece, Turkey, Greece once more, and finally a cross-continental gamble. Once in Denmark she dared to believe that she, her husband, and little daughter would have a chance to live and work freely. Then one evening she received word that she and her family would be deported the next morning at 6am. She was discovered shortly after in her second-story room at the center, threatening to jump to her death out the window.  No one, not even her husband knew that the reason she had so vehemently insisted the family leave Iran was that her co-worker (she was a school teacher) had repeatedly made moves on her, even attempting rape. She was ashamed and afraid for her safety but was also sure that she would be labelled a whore if anyone knew the truth. So she told no one but convinced her husband that they must flee to Europe – Greece. In Greece her family was fingerprinted, jailed and denied medical access when her four-year-old daughter broke three teeth in an accident. Cycled back to Turkey and again to Greece, Arezoo decided that this time her family would leave Greece through unofficial channels to avoid the obscene conditions they had been subjected to there. Arezoo was taken to a hospital to treat her mental health and buy time before her family would be deported. They found out, however, that the authorities were planning to pick her up at 4am at the hospital so she and her family left Denmark for Norway through unofficial channels. Unlike Denmark at the time, Norway had a national policy against sending asylum seekers back to Greece because it was clear to their government that sending people to the Greek asylum system is equivalent to sending them to inhumane conditions.

Dublin nuts and bolts

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union holds that “the right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of July 28, 1951 and the Protocol of January 31, 1967 relating to the status of refugees.” In our age of increasing global interconnectedness and movement, the need for cohesive and consistent border and immigration policies across the EU has never been stronger.

On February 18, 2003, the European Union ostensibly replaced the outdated Dublin Convention with the Dublin Regulation (referred to in this article as Dublin 2). Dublin 2 aims to ensure that applications for asylum into the EU are handled by one and only one EU member state.  The goal is to limit bureaucratic overlap and protect asylum seekers from being shuffled between countries.  Denmark ascended to the Regulation in a parallel treaty on April 1, 2006.

Dublin 2 is relatively user friendly in writing. However, according to Elspeth Guild of the Centre for European Policy Studies, enforcement and interpretation of Dublin 2 has been hostile towards refugees and asylum seekers.

One example of this harsh enforcement is the “Eurodac” system. To facilitate Dublin 2, police register and identify all spontaneous asylum seekers by taking fingerprints and photos. This information is kept in a database accessible throughout Europe and used to identify asylum seekers if they enter European states.  Dublin 2 states that asylum seekers should be processed in the country where they have spent the most time once their application comes up. In practice, EU member states use the Eurodac system to return asylum seekers back to the first European country they entered. This is a way for countries like Denmark to return asylum seekers to Greece and other Southern countries rather than process their applications. Such was the case for Arezoo when Danish authorities notified her that she and her family would be returned to Greece the next morning.

In 2010, Greece registered 30,000 applications for asylum. Of these 30,000 a mere 11 were granted asylum.

To understand the European asylum system we must first examine the failing Greek system. Greece is the first entry point to Europe for the majority of asylum seekers and one of Europe’s under discussed unfolding humanitarian crises.

The broken Greek System

According to Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Asia, Greece’s asylum system is – broken. On January 21, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it is a violation of human rights to return asylum seekers to Greece because the conditions there have become so horrific.

In 2010, Greece registered 30,000 applications for asylum. Of these 30,000 a mere 11 were granted asylum. That’s .00036 % of all applicants. European asylum policy holds that individuals have “the right to seek asylum”.  Given that .00036% of people were successful in 2010, the Greek system is failing to secure that right.

In Perspective: Khatira’s Story

Khatira was sent back to Greece from another EU country alone with her four children – all under the age of 10. She was placed in a hotel for the first three weeks. According to Erik Hansen of Bedsteforældre for Asyl this was a deliberate attempt to avoid attention from the public and the European asylum system. After three weeks Khatira and her children were left in the streets with no form of assistance.

Greek asylum seeker detention centers are, according to Benjamin Ward, “degrading and inhumane.”  Unaccompanied children in many cases end up on the streets of Athens because the overstretched Greek asylum system fails to maintain a record of their existence. This can be partly attributed to the growing prevalence of illegal returns, mostly to Turkey. Greek Coast Guards have been discovered towing away asylum seekers who are protected under the Geneva Convention and European law before they even reach Greece.  In other cases asylum seekers are simply carted out of the country by land. Such was the fate of Arezoo, the young Iranian wife and mother who was shuttled between Greece and Turkey with her family before eventually arriving in Denmark.

Europe fancies itself the proud grandfather of Human Rights… but many individuals living on European soil today are NOT privy to basic Human Rights.

Europe at a Crossroads

Yes, the Euro is struggling, austerity has swept the continent, and the word “bail out” hardly raises an eyebrow anymore.  But the fault lines weakening Europe run deeper than financial turmoil. Whether or not we admit it, our asylum and immigration policies –Dublin 2 – are rewriting what Europe stands for and where we are headed. Dublin 2 alters the image and identity of Europe and threatens European Union solidarity.

Europe fancies itself the proud grandfather of Human Rights. We are the bastion of multilateral diplomacy and adherence to internationally determined treaties. We brought the Red Cross into the world for goodness sakes! A noble history, yes, but many individuals living on European soil today are NOT privy to basic Human Rights. Greece has been given no reason to reform its dismal system. In fact, according to Mr. Ward, if Greece were to completely rework its asylum system it would quickly once again be over stretched by the overwhelming number of people coming to Greece each day.

A reformed Dublin 2 must include not just minimum standards for asylum centers but also the funds to enact those standards.

Southern Europe – the same ‘Club Med’ that is lambasted by European media and politicians for holding the EU back economically – bears the vast brunt of responsibility concerning asylum seekers to Europe. Greece is the entry point for roughly ¾ of asylum seekers according to both Human Rights Watch and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen of the Danish Institute of International Studies. Southern European states are thus forced to take responsibility for the vast majority of asylum cases due to Dublin 2 and the Eurodac system. As academic activist and law professor at Copenhagen University Eva Smith puts is, “it is SO obvious that there is something called geography happening here!”

At present Denmark chooses not to take on extra burdens unless bound by an agreement of some sort. Though we finally joined our neighbors in ceasing to send rejected asylum seekers back to Greece, we only did so after the ECHR ruling.

When Denmark tied our trade, currency, and borders to the EU we didn’t just commit to sharing the economic benefits of an expanded market. We also committed to taking responsibility for the challenges of expanded borders. We northern European countries are necessarily less exposed to the migration paths of individuals coming from Africa and the Middle East. Still, Denmark processes far fewer asylum applications than its northern neighbors.

Dublin 2 leaves room for countries like Denmark to choose to take on asylum cases.  A lovely sentiment, but at present Denmark chooses not to take on extra burdens unless bound by an agreement of some sort. Though we finally joined our neighbors (Germany, Sweden, and Norway) in ceasing to send rejected asylum seekers back to Greece, we only did so after the ECHR ruling.

A reformed Dublin 2 must include explicit burden sharing mechanisms. Northern European countries must be legally committed not just to sending funds down south but also to welcoming asylum seekers into their national systems.

And why should Denmark care? Why should you, a Danish citizen care that Greece’s asylum system is broken? Simply put, this humanitarian crisis is not a “Greek problem”. It is a European problem and, like it or not, Denmark IS a part of Europe and the European Union. These asylum seekers should be seen not as aliens but rather as individuals who are on European soil. Furthermore, Arezoo is not an isolated story but rather exemplifies the way that European asylum policies circulate individuals throughout Europe – including Denmark.

The Red Cross runs our 16 national asylum centers, but is about to close down 6 of them as a result of the decreased number of applicants.

Problems with the Danish Asylum System

To explain the Danish asylum context we must clarify the difference between asylum seekers and other immigrants in Denmark. Most asylum seekers are refugees escaping from brutal conflicts in their home countries. Many have been subject to persecution for one reason or the other, suppression, abuse (like Arezoo), or even torture. Therefore it is important to keep in mind that an asylum seeker is a vulnerable person in need of a more stable life. But at the same time, as Eva Smith points out, it is important to understand that it takes a strong person to leave one’s home country. Asylum seekers are people in pursuit of better living conditions for themselves and their families. They are not people who come to Denmark to do nothing other than drain our welfare state. As Eva Smith put it: “How many people would rather do nothing than make a difference for their families? In general, people want to work.”

According to Thorbjørn Olander, lawyer working for the Red Cross at Center Sandholm, Denmark currently has approximately 3000 asylum seekers.  In recent years we have had four times as many. The Red Cross runs our 16 national asylum centers, but is about to close down 6 of them as a result of the decreased number of applicants. Application numbers are down in spite of the fact that overall asylum applications to Europe have remained relatively stable since 2004. These numbers are, however, expected to rise in the wake of the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

Approximately 50 % of asylum seekers to Denmark are rejected.

There are two ways of achieving asylum in Denmark. One is in accordance with the United Nations Refugee Convention, ratified by Denmark in 1952. In this case, asylum can be granted, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Alternatively, the Danish authorities can find person-specific reasons why the individual requires protection. According to Thorbjørn Olander these reasons include risk of death penalty, torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, or punishment if they return to their home country. Approximately 50 % of asylum seekers to Denmark are rejected.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and adults are not allowed to be taught Danish while they are here. Children are educated and learn Danish, but in schools situated in the refugee centers which are worse than common elementary Danish schools. As a consequence, asylum children do not end up with the same qualifications as children in the Danish school system.

These rules have severe consequences. Taking hope away from a person is perhaps the worst thing you can do. Nevertheless this is exactly what we do when we don’t allow our asylum seekers to participate in our society. Currently, we ensure that these people are living in passiveness without hope. They are not allowed to work and have no idea how long they will be stuck in this undefined state.

Again the question arises; is this how we would like to welcome vulnerable people from abroad – Denmark, are you proud?

Another consequence of the rules is an extremely unhealthy environment for bringing up children. Living with parents who are devoid of hope will have a long term negative psychological impact on children’s self-worth. These indisputably innocent children witness conflict in asylum camps and screaming rejected asylum seekers who are taken away by police in the early morning. As professor Eva Smith explains, “it is no secret that children are traumatized in our asylum-seeking system.”

Again the question arises; is this how we would like to welcome vulnerable people from abroad – Denmark, are you proud?

The police’s role in the Danish asylum system is questionable.  Asylum seekers are not criminals yet are handled by police officers trained to manage breaches of the law.  It is inappropriate to charge a police man who is trained to investigate criminals with counseling persecuted and traumatized individuals.

Reform of the Danish system

From a humanitarian perspective what is happening in our refugee camps is unacceptable and changes are indeed needed. The “logic” behind keeping asylum seekers isolated in the centers goes against the claim that we want immigrants to integrate. Keeping asylum seekers separate from Danish citizens prevents the creation of sympathy and connection and thus makes it easier to eventually remove them from Danish soil. But it is simply inhuman to prohibit innocent people from participating in society. This applies both to adults and children.

If we allowed adults to work and educate themselves, Danish society would benefit from their labor and asylum seekers would be able to either bring skills and competencies back home (that is inherent Danish development aid), or establish themselves here. At present we are doing the opposite – making sure that people become disillusioned and their skills and competencies outdated. Regarding the children, studies show that when families are allowed to live in society and children attend common Danish schools, their everyday lives improve dramatically. Eva Smith argues it is vital that the children interact with Danish children if they are to live and work in Denmark in the future. But it is even more vital that the parents are able to protect their children from the unhealthy environments in the camps. According Eva Smith, Denmark is clearly violating children’s rights as described in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Due to these arguments, children and families should be allowed to live and engage in the Danish society.

The tough on immigrants line of thinking is ruling in current Danish opposition politics.

In Perspective: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of November 20, 1989

The first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social

54 articles and two Optional Protocols

Basic human rights of all children: to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life

The Convention sets standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services

By ratifying the Convention (as Denmark has done), national governments commit to protecting and ensuring children’s rights and hold themselves accountable before the international community

The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights regards the physical conditions in the Danish Refugee camps as some of the best in Europe. Nevertheless, numbers from the Danish Institute of International Studies show that we receive a very low amount of asylum applications in relation to other EU countries. In other words; we are not pulling our weight. For this reason alone, instead of closing down six centers we should take initiative to receive more asylum seekers to Denmark in order to meet the challenge of burden-sharing on a EU level.

Political Shift to the Right

During the last decade we have witnessed the Danish opposition moving slowly but steadily to the right in the field of asylum and immigration policy – emblematic of a general shift in Danish politics. The two major opposition parties, the Social Democrats (S) and the Socialist People’s Party (SF), have reacted to the government’s policies rather than developing their own alternative line. These reactive politics have allowed the government – and especially Dansk Folkeparti – to set the agenda. We saw the latest example of this last week when S and SF voted for a law making it easier to expel criminal foreigners, even though it forces the courts to go to the absolute limit of what international conventions allow. Moreover, a large range of humanitarian organizations expressly warned against it. The tough on immigrants line of thinking is ruling in current Danish opposition politics.

Another illustration of how the opposition is more or less following the government’s agenda is found in a recent speech delivered by the social democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The overarching theme of her speech was the government’s actions – not her own party’s politics and vision. According to Politiken, Thorning-Schmidt criticizes the government thoroughly, but she does not explain what she wants. This very fact is the opposition’s major problem: its vision for a different Denmark is unclear.

Denmark can and must take part in reforming Europe’s asylum situation – on both the European and national levels.

Denmark, riddle me this: are you proud of the political landscape in our country? The only proactive, visionary politics in the past decade have come from the Dansk Folkeparti, which speaks and acts on the basis of a consistent vision for Denmark. No matter your political leanings you must admit – DF has managed to secure itself a decisive voice in Parliament though it gathers only roughly 14 % of the national vote.

A New and Proactive Vision

The arguments in this article can be boiled down to the following points:

  1. Respect the Convention on the Rights of the Child: children should not reside in asylum camps for any longer than 6 months
    We are ignoring our international obligation AND doing so psychologically damages children – a human rights violation
  2. Asylum seekers should be granted the right to work in Danish society
    Denmark will soon need experienced workers – and at present we’re doing nothing but taking away hope from already vulnerable persons
  3. Reform and limit criteria of the citizenship point system
    It only serves to make integration more difficult: this helps no one
  4. Promote proactive, visionary politicians Because humanitarian politics belong in Danish politics
  5. Reform of Dublin 2
    To live up to our obligations as a EU member state we must promote burden sharing in the European asylum system: both with funds and more balanced distribution of asylum seekers

A Proud Denmark

With the Greek case we have seen the grave consequences of Europe abandoning national asylum systems. A broken Greek system is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Denmark can and must take part in reforming Europe’s asylum situation – on both the European and national levels.

We need European solidarity. We need an international system that addresses the current discrepancies between the standards of national asylum systems and numbers of asylum seekers they receive. Northern countries like Denmark that receive the least asylum seekers should take a certain quota of southern Europe’s burden as a matter of humanitarian obligation and for the preservation of the European Union. Moreover, this article has shown several concrete aspects of the Danish asylum system that need to be changed in order for us to achieve a humane asylum framework.

Denmark, we want to be proud.


Personal Interviews

Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen. Project researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies. Interviewed June 23 2011.

Erik Hansen. Grandparents for Asylum. Interviewed June 24 2011.

Thorbjørn Olander. Lawyer, Red Cross Denmark. Interviewed June 16 2011.

Eva Smith. Professor of law at the University of Copenhagen. Interviewed June 25 2011.

Benjamin Ward. Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Asia. Interviewed June 23 2011.


Pirjola Jari (2009). “European Asylum Policy – Inclusion and Exclusions under the Surface of Universal Human Rights Language”. European Journal of Migration and Law 11.

Web pages

World Database of Happiness, accessed June 26 2011.

Home, January 23 2011:“Asylansøgere bliver ikke sendt tilbage til Grækenland, men får behandlet deres sager i Danmark”

Politiken, June 16 2011: “Aggresiv Thorning spolerer ø-freden”

Politiken, June 24 2011: ”SF’er frustreret over partilinjen: Vi har sagt ja til lorteaftaler”

Conventions and Legislation

Convention on the Rights of the Child:

The Dublin II Regulation:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The Eurodac system:

Opinion Polls

Epinion, June 24 2011: “Meningsmålinger fra Epinion”