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Has the battleaxe issued her last passport?
Following a week of leaks from unexpected sources, the picture of how much the Immigration Ministry knew about the UN conventions on stateless rights – and how long it knowingly ignored them – was a little clearer. But big questions remained as to why the ministry waited and who, ultimately, is to blame.
Like an onion being peeled back layer by layer, the story of how the Immigration Ministry unlawfully rejected citizenship applications from more than two dozen stateless Palestinian youth born in Denmark, and failed to inform as many as 460 stateless Palestinians of their UN-guaranteed rights, was revealed last week through a stream of revelations.
Each new headline was accompanied by yet another picture of the immigration minister, Birthe Rønn Hornbech, looking, if possible, even more woebegone and speechless than the day before.
In the course of the scandal, Hornbech herself has remained relatively silent. She turned her microphone off in parliament last month under questioning from the opposition party, bringing to mind Hornbech’s memorable performance in 2008 in which she stood before a live camera on TV2 and pointedly refused to answer questions posed to her for an entire 47 seconds.
Hornbech has been asked to give the prime minister a written explanation of the case and why she waited so long to inform parliament that her ministry was not following UN conventions. Her written explanation is due early next week.
Hornbech’s report, however, is unlikely to satisfy members of the opposition, who are now calling for an independent commission into the matter.
Thus far, Hornbech has not been the one coming forward with answers. Answers instead came last week from immigration authorities in Sweden, and anonymous sources in Hornbech’s own ministry. Those revelations painted an even more disturbing picture of the case.
Sweden’s integration ministry told Information newspaper that Hornbech asked them in December 2008 for a clarification of how they handled stateless citizenship cases. The Swedish authorities answered in a letter dated 18 December 2008 that they followed the UN convention and made a point to inform stateless people of their rights and help them attain citizenship.
On Monday, two anonymous statements issued by officials from Hornbech’s own ministry said Hornbech was advised by her own officials in August 2008 that the ministry was mishandling stateless people’s cases. The two officials, whose statements were independently corroborated by Information newspaper, went on to say that Hornbech nevertheless directly instructed administrators in January 2009 to continue with the status quo, unlawfully rejecting the stateless citizenship applications. The practice continued until January 2010, when Hornbech finally informed parliament of her misgivings.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) weighed in on Tuesday, questioning why Hornbech never contacted them if she was uncertain how the convention on statelessness should be administered.
Liv Feijen, the chief lawyer and regional senior protection officer for the UNHCR, told Information that her agency had never been contacted by the Danish ministry but that the UNHCR could have provided any necessary clarification.
Feijen has said that the Danish ministry’s unlawful administration of stateless cases is unparalleled in other Nordic and western European countries.
Human rights expert Jesper Lindholm from the University of Aarhus told Politiken newspaper it was telling that Hornbech did not ask the UN how the convention should be interpreted.
“There obviously isn’t anything wrong with asking other Nordic lands how they handle the convention, but one ought to, in any case, also ask the UNHCR, which could have immediately held a meeting with the Danish officials on the interpretation of the convention.”
The UNHCR has begun its own investigation into the case.
Given Hornbech’s penchant for silence, it is possible that her boss, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was not informed that she instructed her staff to continue with the citizenship rejections for more than a year, despite her own suspicions that it was unlawful.
However, at least two spokespeople from the opposition Socialist People’s Party doubt that the prime minister could have been kept in the dark on such an important decision for more than 17 months.
“Most people would discuss such a critical decision with their boss before they acted,” said the Socialist People’s Party’s Hanne Agersnap and Astrid Krag in a joint statement last week.
Rasmussen himself reiterated in his weekly press meeting that the case was “serious”, but that he would give Hornbech until next week to present her written explanation.
Meanwhile, political commentators have suggested that the immigration minister’s days could be numbered and that there could be considerable fallout for the prime minister and the government.
With a growing list of minister scandals, plummeting polls, and an upcoming general election, the case and how it is handled could have big consequences for Rasmussen’s own position.
Peter Goll, director of the communication company Geelmuyden Kiese told Politiken that if Hornbech herself does not resign, the prime minister should fire her.
“The longer [Hornbech] stays … the more it draws the picture of a government that isn’t in control, but is just clinging to power,” said Goll.