Denmark's 'zero asylum' policy reversed for Ukraine

Kærshovedgård departure centre Ikast-Brande, Denmark. March 2023

Kærshovedgård departure centre Ikast-Brande, Denmark. March 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill

What’s the context?

Denmark seeks to send home Syrians, while welcoming thousands of Ukrainians in an apparent asylum crackdown u-turn

This story is part of a special series on the EU's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the two-tier system it created: Europe's asylum paradox 

  • Syrians see residence revoked as Ukrainians welcomed
  • Special law led to two-tier system, says rights expert
  • UNHCR: Level of protection should be more not less secure

COPENHAGEN - Nestled in a patchwork of fields in remote rural Denmark and hidden from view behind a row of trees lies Kærshovedgård, a former prison now housing hundreds of asylum seekers who have had their residence permits revoked.

Danish authorities call the Jutland facility, still run by the prison service, a departure centre, but once refugees enter, they do not know when they will leave. Some are there while they appeal asylum rejections, others because Denmark has no diplomatic ties with their countries and cannot send them home.

The average length of stay is around five years, the Danish Immigration Service said, but this is skewed by 37 residents who have been there for more than 12 years.

"They look like zombies," Izzedin, 29, a new arrival at the centre from Syria told Context, describing the long-term residents. "If I stay here two, three years, I will look like a zombie too."

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Denmark, a wealthy Nordic nation, has taken a hard line on immigration over the last decade, revoking refugees' residence permits, confiscating asylum seekers' valuables and looking to locate asylum centres in countries like Rwanda and Serbia.

"They read the human rights declaration like the devil reads the Bible," said Morten Goll, co-founder of refugee community centre Trampoline House.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Danish government quickly overturned its 'zero asylum' policy and passed a special law giving more than 30,000 Ukrainians refuge.

Denmark was one of the first EU countries to tell Syrian refugees it was safe to return home and sent them letters telling them to go, despite rights groups accusing the Syrian government of persistent abuses.

In December 2019, the immigration service called Almohamad's family in for an interview. Having reached conscription age in Syria, Almohamad was allowed to stay in Denmark, but his elderly parents were given 30 days to leave.

They were sent to Sjælsmark departure centre near Copenhagen, a seven-hour train ride from their home. Almohamad went to the media, wrote an open letter to the prime minister and filed an appeal with the Refugees Appeal Board. He credits the media attention and NGO help as key to winning the case.

Almohamad is now working at a supermarket while studying at university to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

There were 205 people housed in the Kærshovedgård departure centre in April, and 202 in two other centres outside Copenhagen.

Residents can leave, but Kærshovedgård is 13km (eight miles) from the nearest town, with no public transport, and they must periodically register their presence at the centre.

"They do everything they can to make it appear like a prison, but actually it is worse. When you're in a Danish prison the focus is on rehabilitation, but not in the camp for rejected people," said Goll.

In 2021, Jahangir Eliasi, a Kurdish Iranian who applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, went on a partial hunger strike to protest conditions in Kærshovedgård.

"I feel I am not human," he said. "Before I was sent here, I was very happy, I love Denmark, I love the people, but the system for refugees is very difficult."

The aim of the policy is to dissuade others from coming to Denmark, said Danish lawyer Niels-Erik Hansen.

Right to reside

Denmark has an opt-out from European Union asylum policy and had no obligation to follow Brussels' lead in offering Ukrainians temporary protection. But the Danish law passed in March 2022 almost mirrors EU measures granting Ukrainians access to housing, healthcare, education and employment.

"The special law for Ukrainians has created essentially two classes of refugees," Dr Nikolas Tan, an expert at the independent, state-funded Danish Human Rights Institute, explained in February.

Denmark, he said, has given Ukrainians more rights than it had to, but stripped rights for other refugees to a minimum.

Vlasta Shevchenko, from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, recalled how smooth the application process was, and now lives in a converted care home with other Ukrainian refugees.

After an online appointment, the local authority registers Ukrainians and provides them with a residence permit that allows them the same benefits as Danish citizens.

Mahmoud Almohamad was 14 when he arrived in Denmark with his family, fleeing the war in Syria in 2015. He was moved between asylum centres for six months, unable to attend school, before the family could settle in Brønderslev in far northern Denmark.

"I wish I could have been treated like the Ukrainians who came to Denmark and get their rights from day one. You know, they had a chance to go to school. They had access to live in an apartment like this from day one," he said, gesturing to the neatly furnished living room of his parents' modest apartment.

"I tell my clients, now you have been taken hostage by the Danish authorities in order to try to deter newcomers. So don't take this personally. This has nothing to do with you," he said.

However, refugees who appeal immigration verdicts most often win, Hansen said.

Ripsime Avoian from Ukraine who found work via ISS facility service provider company in Denmark, pictured in the companies headquarters near Søborg, Denmark. March 2023

Ripsime Avoian from Ukraine who found work via ISS facility service provider company in Denmark, pictured in the companies headquarters near Søborg, Denmark. March 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill

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A temporary welcome

Asylum seekers in Denmark are not allowed to find a job until their claim is approved, but they can apply for permission to work if their application has been pending for six months.

In contrast, Ukrainians can begin applying for jobs almost immediately, but language is a barrier for both groups.

Ripsime Avoian, 19, from the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, arrived in March 2022 and was hired to work in catering by Danish facilities company ISS.

"They hired me without knowing the language," she said in translated comments. "Before ISS I applied to many places, but no one would give me a job."

Shevchenko, a fluent English-speaker, found her previous translation work had dried up and it was hard to find a new job.

Although grateful for Denmark's support - "they have been amazing," she said - she wants to pay her way.

The special law for Ukrainians is to expire by 2025. With one-third of Ukrainians hoping to stay, Denmark has to decide whether to extend the welcome. If not, Ukrainians will have to apply through the normal asylum process, rights experts say.

The United Nations refugee agency is calling for another form of international protection to ensure people are not forced to return prematurely, said Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund, UNHCR spokesperson in Denmark.

"The level of protection provided under any new legal status should be more, and not less, secure."

This article was reported with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

(Reporting by Joanna Gill; Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

Families fleeing the Russian attack on Ukraine arrive at a temporary refugee shelter in Hanau, Germany, March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Part of:

Europe's asylum paradox

This story is a special series, supported by Journalismfund Europe, looking into the unprecedented use of the European Union's Temporary Protection Directive

Updated: May 22, 2023


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