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Denmark: Hard times for asylum seekers and refugees

Xenophobia was one of the main issues used by right wing parties to win the national elections on 20 November last year. The new Anders Fogh Rasmussen-government (a coalition of the liberal "Venstre" party and the conservatives) is ruling with the support of the "real" winner in the elections, the Danish Peoples Party (DDP) - an extreme right populist party under the leadership of Ms Pia Kjaersgaard. Together they have an absolute majority. One of the coalition's first initiatives was to appoint a minister for the integration of foreigners, Bertel Haarder (a former minister of education who was, until the elections, the member of the European Parliament for Venstre).

Haarder has begun to fulfil promises, made during the election campaign, to curb the number of asylum seekers coming to Denmark and dramatically reduce the number of immigrants entering the country under family reunification regulations. In mid-January he outlined a number of broad changes to the Aliens Act to meet the DDP's extreme demands. He will present a number of amendments before 1 March.

No easy way to get asylum

The Governement plans to abolish the de facto category (in some countries this is refered to as B-status) which covers asylum seekers who are not protected by the Geneva Convention and therefore should have B-status.

Over the years the majority of asylum seekers have had de facto status and by eliminating it the government hopes that the number of refugees will fall dramatically. Asylum law experts have however pointed out that this is unlikely to happen since Denmark is obliged to grant protection from persecution under international agreements such as the European Human Rights Convention and UN obligations to prevent torture. The government will also increase the number of so-called safe third countries where asylum seekers can be sent back. It is not known by which guidelines and criteria these countries will be evaluated. Additionally, it will no longer be possible for asylum seekers who have left their homes for a neighboring country to apply for protection at a Danish embassy or consulate.

Under the slogan "refugees must not become immigrants" Haarder intents to extend the period a person must stay legally in Denmark before they can have permanent leave to stay. It will be extented from three to seven years. During this time there will be a permanent evaluation of the situation in their home country regarding the possibility of deportation,

A number of changes in asylum procedure will also be introduced. In future it will be impossible to have a case reopened if the rejected asylum seeker has gone underground. Final rejection of an application should be followed by immediate expulsion. This will be backed-up by a wider use of the procedure to deal with manifestly unfounded cases and the introduction of a one-day procedure for asylum seekers coming as a group from a specific country - most likely to to be used in cases from East European and SNG-countries. Changes in the composition of the Appeal Board will see the removal of the voluntary Danish Refugee Council's representative leaving only a judge, ministry delegate and a member of the Lawyers' Council.

Rejected asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their home countries will receive a special status - a right to stay without rights - and will be refused ordinary benefits otherwise given to asylum seekers, but must report to the police or risk being imprisoned if they fail to do so.

Limited family reunification rights

A number of changes are also being planned for immigrants. They must be able to support themselves. In cases where that is not possible, and where there is no permanent leave to remain, they will be returned to their home country. In family reunification cases the same rules will apply. If a husband wants his wife to join him in Denmark he can pay a 50,000 Dkr. "deposit" and he must furthermore not have received social benefit for a certain period. To curb the number of marriages between a person living in Denmark (Danish or a migrant) and a person from a third country an age limit of 24 years will be set. Those under the age of 24 will have no right to join their partners, even if they can provide economic guarantees and are not in debt.

For refugees with a right to stay in Denmark, family reunification with a spouse will only be allowed if the marriage predates the persons flight from their home country. The right for parents aged over 60 years to come and live with them will also be removed. If a person (Danish or foreigner) wants to marry a third-country national an evaluation of their connection with Denmark or to the spouses home country must be made to establish in which country the connection is closest and advise the couple to stay in that country. If a couple want to separate before seven years of marriage then the "unified" person (often the woman) will be forced to return home. Womens' crisis centers have warned that these rules will force women to stay in a bad or violent marriage.

Asylum seekers will also be prohibited from marrying while awaiting the decision of their application.

50% reduction in public benefit

The government's rhetoric calls for more integration. It will introduce "incentives" to bring immigrants out of passive public financial support and into the labour marked. To do this they will introduce a scheme whereby all persons (Danish or immigrant) who have not resided in Denmark for seven out of the last eight years will not be entitled to half of the full social benefit. "To further encourage people to find work -including part time work - persons who have resided in the country for less than the seven year period will be allowed to keep a larger part of their income before having their benefit reduced", says the government paper. Haarder continues:

"Despite their reduced finances, families with children can in many situations still receive a relatively large amount of money, after their everyday expenses have been paid. This is due to other services, such as housing benefit, child support and reduced day care payment. The Government will therefore review these rules carefully in respect of our overall employment policy."

The immigrant will also be summoned to the local council and be presented with a contract in which it is stipulated what he must do to get a job or learn the Danish language. If they fail to fulfil this contract they will have their benefit reduced.

A final proposal in the government paper raises the requirements to be granted citizenship. The present requirements of "no criminal record and a certain knowledge of the Danish language" will be tightened to include a more ideological point: knowledge of Danish values. This criterion is not defined. Furthermore, the possibility to derogate from these demands for people over 65 will be eliminated and the period one has to stay legally in the country to gain citizenship will be extended from seven to nine years. Refugees, stateless people and persons married to a Dane only have to wait eight years.

Source: Danish government, "En ny udlaendingepolitik" 17.1.02.

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