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Denmark’s “Zero Asylum” Plan Means Psychological Torture for Refugees

The Social Democrats' 2019 election win fed hopes that Denmark would move away from extreme measures that strip migrants of their valuables and criminalize minority neighborhoods. Yet since then, the Social Democratic government has continued this offensive — with recent calls for a "zero asylum" agenda that will push refugees into endless purgatory.

A migrant sleeps at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. Many who intended to continue to other countries, such as Denmark or Sweden, were denied entry and brought back to Austria. (Johannes Simon / Getty Images)

After Denmark’s Social Democrats returned to office in 2019, backed by the left-wing parties, some hoped for an end to the previous right-wing government’s extreme anti-migrant measures. The outgoing administration had introduced an infamous “jewelry law,” forcing immigrants to give up valuables when applying for asylum, and a “ghetto plan” making it possible to force immigrants out of their homes.

Yet, such hopes of change were quickly foiled. The incoming government enthusiastically maintained and even bolstered migration policies that were once the preserve of the far right. And in recent weeks, the ruling Social Democratic Party has sunk to new lows.

In an interview at the end of January, integration and immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye announced the aim for Denmark to accept “zero” asylum seekers. The following day, prime minister Mette Fredriksen clarified Tesfaye’s statement by confirming this stance: “We cannot make a promise of having zero asylum seekers, but we definitely can put forward such a vision.”

The prime minister made her statement in an annual debate called by Pia Kjersgaard, of the far-right Danish People’s Party. The parliamentary discussion was ostensibly organized with the aim of clarifying each party’s stance on whether immigration is “meaningless or meaningful.” Kjersgaard framed the issue by talking at length about burning cars, firefighters being attacked, and teachers being subjected to violence, saying “We cannot continue accepting this — that is, a sort of everyday jihad. We do not want that in Denmark.”

But Kjersgaard did not see only darkness ahead — for she saw the immigration minister’s remarks on zero asylum seekers as a shift. When prime minister Fredriksen took to the pulpit, she was quick to affirm Kjersgaard’s reading, and even thanked the far-right party for encouraging the debate: “It is absolutely critical for Denmark that there is control over the influx. . . . Too many people of non-Western descent have come here who have no interest in letting themselves become integrated into Danish society. It is good that this was stopped, and for that, we owe the Danish People’s Party a great thanks, for being its primary driver.”

This apparent normalization of Islamophobia, racism, and far-right rhetoric has been gradual. Indeed, the shift referenced by Kjersgaard happened long before the minister’s zero-asylum vision was put into words. Over the years, Danish immigration politics has become increasingly extreme, culminating in a 2019 legislative package known as the “paradigm shift,” passed by the right-wing government with backing from both the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democrats. The country shook off any residual posture in support of integration and inclusion, instead sending a message already obvious for anyone who was watching closely —”undesirables” should leave, and no more will be let in.

The paradigm shift meant shortening the time of refugee protection and using all possible instruments to “motivate” their return at the earliest opportunity. There is a long list of both existing and new measures to make life difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, including the jewelry and ghetto laws mentioned above. But the measures also include changes that have received less attention in international media, such as restrictions on family reunions, the offer of only short-term residence permits, and other symbolic policiessuch as renaming “integration benefits” to “repatriation benefits.” However, under the heaviest pressure are those living in one of the country’s asylum centers — the camps, as they are known by residents.

Asylum Centers “Unacceptable for People”

The people who do get to Denmark and seek asylum are faced with long and demeaning application processes. The first decision on the cases can take up to two years to be made, and those who are rejected and try to appeal might have to wait for another two years or more in one of the country’s asylum centers. If rejected again, the asylum seeker could face a lifetime in the camps. Some of these centers are designed to psychologically coerce its inhabitants to leave, either by breaking them down psychologically or pushing them towards criminalization. In a report by the Freedom of Movements Research Collective, one asylum seeker described his experience of being placed in one of the centers as “mental warfare.”

“The centers that the state puts into practice every day . . . do not motivate people to go home,” he goes on. “Instead, they create mental illness and suicidal noncitizens.”

Today’s centers were first established in 1984. Before that, asylum seekers were accommodated in hotels or shelters in Copenhagen before finding regular housing. As the centers grew in number to reach the fourteenthat are in operation today, their inhabitants were increasingly seen as a threat to Danish society. Most centers are seemingly benign, housing the newly arrived as they anxiously wait for the hostile bureaucratic machine to churn through their documents in processes defined by arbitrariness and unpredictability.

But some of the facilities stand out, for instance the Kærshovedgård and Sjælsmark deportation centers. These locations have been described as “welfare prisons” for “managing the unwanted,” and are run by the Department of Prisons and Probation (Kriminalforsorgen). This is where you end up if the state has deemed you unwelcome after you’ve stumbled over one of the ever-growing judicial trip wires, designed to ensure you fail. An officer of one of these centers explained that “Our role here is not, as in imprisonment, to minimize the negative consequences of imprisonment. On the contrary, the negative consequences are an implicit part of the construction of these centers.”

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has deemed the Danish centers “unacceptable for people” after having visited two such sites. They house migrants who have not committed any crimes but are under arrest anyway. The arrests are made based on the Danish Aliens Act (Udlændingeloven), which, when introduced in 1983, was considered by some the most liberal in Europe. After several amendments over the decades since, the law has instead become one of the strictest in Europe and now provides for what is termed “motivational detention” (motivationsfremmende frihedsberøvelse) of rejected asylum seekers. The Ellebæk center, for example, is used to house rejected asylum seekers who refuse to comply with their deportation — they are sometimes kept there indefinitely, as ordinary legal frameworks that regulate detention or prison do not apply to them.

Another deportation center was planned to open on Lindholm island to house “criminal” asylum seekers from Kærshovedgård whose deportation cannot be executed, as they risk torture or death penalty in their countries of origin. But in 2019 the plans were scrapped, as a result of vigorous opposition from residents of nearby islands. They feared the presence of the asylum seekers on the tiny island, which was originally used to house research on foot-and-mouth disease. Now there are suggestions that it should be repurposed as a wellness (spa and health resort) center or a mini version of Las Vegas.

Today, there are approximately 1,100 rejected asylum seekers in Denmark who have been denied the right to reside in the country. More than 200 have been living in Denmark with pending deportation for more than five years, though many cannot leave, as the countries from which they fled are deemed unsafe by Danish authorities to return to.

Social Democratic Proposal

In response to many rejected asylum seekers staying in the country, Fredriksen’s Social Democratic government put forth a repatriation law (hjemrejselov) last October, supposedly to simplify existing legislation on the expulsion of immigrants. In truth, the purpose of this not-yet-passed package is to make the lives of people whose asylum applications have been rejected more difficult. In this legislative package, the government expresses its intention to tap the phones of rejected asylum seekers, who were seen to be using YouTube and Snapchat to discuss possible routes and destination countries with each other. Such control and surveillance measures are designed to put pressure on asylum seekers and criminalize solidarity. Because the right-wing opposition has voiced its intention of backing these changes, they are likely to pass in Parliament, even though the Red-Green Alliance has voiced its opposition, calling it “insane and inhumane.”

Another of the seven proposals is to bribe asylum seekers to reject their right of appeal, offering them DKK 20,000 (US$3,000) in exchange for dropping their cases to the Refugee Council. Those who reject being deported will, if the new law comes into being, be barred from ever entering continental Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area again. This merging of criminal law with migration law should be understood as an expression of the “crimmigration” paradigm, wherein asylum seekers are criminalized by a system designed to make them deportable. By criminalizing ordinary behavior and expressions of frustration — not unexpected when being arbitrarily and indefinitely held against your will — the system is designed to make all asylum seekers criminals.

Just before Frederiksen’s announcement, in early January 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in its representation for the Nordic and Baltic countries, published its report of recommendations for strengthening refugee protections in Denmark. They highlight how in recent years Denmark instituted harsh measures in reaction to what was seen as exceptional for high numbers of asylum seekers, but which were not rolled back as the situation has “normalized.”

In short, the UNHCR is urging Denmark to get back in line with international and European refugee protection standards, which already offer only minimal protection. In particular, they urge Denmark to ensure long-term stability, security, and fair access to family reunification and to take more responsibility at the international level with a show of solidarity. It also warns that recent restrictions will hinder future integration — though given the lack of interest in integrating migrants, such criticism will fall on deaf ears. The deportation centers in Denmark “should be understood as an expression of state-sanctioned racism implemented by law: they produce the slow death of rejected asylum seekers,” the Research Collective concludes in its report.

The Danish government is now trying to take another step in keeping people out. In negotiations with several other EU countries, they have lobbied for the processing of asylum seekers’ applications outside of the EU — an approach called “externalization.” The policy — favored by many anti-immigrant forces and described as one of the Social Democrats’ top priority foreign policies — would mean that the asylum seeker is kept outside of the EU during the processing of their case. Before this is possible, though, the country would have to change its Aliens Act, as it is not yet legal to transfer people from Denmark to “third” (non-EU) countries. Immigration minister Tesfaye will be putting this to a parliamentary vote in the near future.

Mainstreaming the Far Right

The situation faced by immigrants and asylum seekers in Denmark has worsened over recent decades, as right-wing populism has taken on a central role in the country’s politics. This trend — and sentiment — is formalized in the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, whose influence is apparent in the debate on migration, almost entirely framed by its logic.

Denmark has become the anti-immigrant hard-liner among the Nordic countries, as was made abundantly clear during the crisis of 2015, when 1.3 million people sought refuge in the EU. Only 21,000 of these applied for asylum in Denmark, while the number in Sweden (with just under double the population of Denmark) was 163,000. Nevertheless, these were record numbers, and as support for the Danish People’s Party almost doubled from 12 to 21 percent in the 2015 election, other major parties scrambled to catch up with their rhetoric.

The right-wing government that took power after that contest appointed hard-liner Inger Støjberg to push through infamous policies such as the jewelry law and the ghetto plan. Yet, she seemed to have gone too far even for Denmark. She now faces the country’s first impeachment process in almost three decades — standing accused of having illegally separated young migrant couples in detention centers following the events of 2015. On its own terms, the general approach was successful — the numbers of asylum seekers started falling. In 2020, admittedly a year when migration was halted by the pandemic, only 1,547 people applied for asylum in Denmark — the lowest numbers since records began in 1998. But it’s not all about the pandemic, as the trend over the last years was already pointing downward.

The mainstreaming of far-right nationalism seems to have been detrimental to the Danish People’s Party — its support collapsed from 21 to only 8.7 percent in the 2019 elections. In its place, the Social Democrats that had adopted the rhetoric of the nationalists took power, with the support of three left-wing parties. In return for getting these parties’ support, the Social Democrats had to agree to softening some of their harsh policies on immigration. In practice, however, they have been doubling down on the anti-immigrant platform on which they won the general election two years ago.

The arrangement was bound to be broken. The Social Democrats did not hide their hardened line on immigration in the last election campaign, interpreted by some as a necessary compromise to buy themselves political space to move left on economics. More startling, though, is that the left-wing kingmakers have yet to use their power to force the Social Democrats leftward on these issues.

Tesfaye himself is an interesting case in point in this story. Having started his political career in Denmark’s (Marxist-Leninist) Communist Party two decades ago, he was then a member of the Red-Green Alliance and later the Socialist People’s Party before finally joining the Social Democrats. He has consistently moved rightward, particularly when it comes to stances on migration — from the internationalist solidarity of the Red-Green Alliance, via the more nationally focused Socialist People’s Party, to the nowadays right-wing populism of the Social Democrats. He represents the rightward shift of a broad soft left that has abandoned even the pretense of international solidarity.

There is no end in sight for this hardening anti-immigrant stance. Prime minister Fredriksen admitted as much in this January’s debate, saying “The need to have a tough line on immigration is as important today as it was when the government took power [2019]. Back then, there were worries among some people whether or not this government would maintain and continue the tough line on immigration. That was fortunately wrong then and it is, fortunately, wrong today.” The left-wing parties supporting her administration have, however, remained uncomfortably quiet on issues of immigration throughout the last year and a half, focusing instead on traditional welfare issues. All of the parties have yet to comment on the recent statements, instead focusing on the impeachment of Støjberg for separating migrant couples in 2015.

Precarious

The collapse of the far-right Danish People’s Party and the growth of the Left in the last election did not spell the end of an era dominated by far-right populism. Instead, such a reactionary agenda is vigorously promoted by the ostensibly left-wing Social Democrats. Their election campaign focused on traditional welfare issues such as strengthening the healthcare system, lowering the pension age, and rhetorically reclaiming their position as the party for and by the working class. But equally high on the list of priorities was a continued hard line on immigration.

Given that people are being openly and violently oppressed by the Social Democratic–run state, the party’s claims to stand for the weakest in society have become hollow gestures. The party founded as the parliamentary wing of the workers’ movement is now creating a “precarious class of submissive, continuously exploited, and cheap labor” — a proletariat of noncitizens.

When Rosa Lund of the Red-Green Alliance questioned the premise of the debate in Parliament this January by asking, “Shouldn’t we remove some of these trip wires that have been laid, so it’s possible to get properly integrated in Denmark?” she showed that there were diverging ideas in the room. But rhetorical points are easy to make.

As kingmakers, the parties to the left of the Social Democrats wield the power to bring down the government— or at least stop this government from claiming to be of the Left. They should harness this power and make clear what a left-wing immigration politics is and isn’t. They should stand with migrants and show the increasingly multiethnic working class of Denmark what true class solidarity is. If not, they risk only further alienating those who feel that no political party is taking their side. A Left that means to win in the long term needs to take risks and oppose oppression and exploitation wherever it may come from — including its supposed political allies.