Danish citizen Alwin GÃ¶ttsche and his Thai girlfriend Urai Chanthipa are fighting for the simple right to live together in Denmark.
Q: Why can’t you live in Denmark, your own country, with your girlfriend?
GÃ¶ttsche: This is also what I ask myself. Why not? I was born Danish and have lived here all my life. I own a house. We haven’t done anything wrong. But still the government says, ‘No’.
GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa met in Phuket in December 2008. It was not GÃ¶ttscheÂ’s first time in Thailand; he and his late wife, Laila, had long shared an interest in Thai culture and travelled there many times in their 44 years of marriage. When Laila died in January 2006, GÃ¶ttsche continued their tradition of holidays in Thailand.
On a visit in December 2008, he met Urai Chanthipa, a Thai woman who was working at the hotel where he was staying. Short conversations blossomed into a friendship, and when GÃ¶ttsche returned to Denmark two weeks later they started writing emails to each other. A couple of months later, GÃ¶ttsche returned to Thailand to see Chanthipa and their friendship developed into a romance.
GÃ¶ttsche said he admires ChanthipaÂ’s intelligence, kindness, and industriousness. She began working as a poor, teenage tailorÂ’s assistant in Bangkok, but later started her own retail clothing business. She saved up and bought her parents the small rubber plantation that is now their livelihood. Since meeting GÃ¶ttsche, Chanthipa has been learning Danish and English, while working on a book about her life. GÃ¶ttsche himself is retired now after a 30-year career with book publisher Gyldendal.
In January 2010, a year after they first met, they got an apartment together in Phuket. GÃ¶ttsche returned to Denmark a few times to look after his house in Fredensborg and to see his son and two grandchildren. But in May 2010, Chanthipa came with him to Denmark for the first time and ever since then, they have travelled together between their respective countries, always leaving Denmark just before ChanthipaÂ’s 90-day tourist visas expire.
By June 2011, they figured they qualified for family reunification in Denmark. They submitted their application on June 9 and two months later received a confirmation from the Immigration Service that their application and documentation was complete.
Just three weeks later, however, their case was rejected on the grounds that they had failed to document a Â“regular cohabitation of prolonged durationÂ”.
Danish law has forced the couple to live together in two different countries (Photo: Jennifer Buley)
Family reunification rules stipulate that couples must live together in steady or Â“regularÂ” cohabitation for a minimum of 18 months to qualify for family reunification in Denmark. Yet while acknowledging that GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa had lived together for as long as 20 months, the Immigration Service decided that theirs did not count as Â“regular cohabitationÂ”.
Â“You have lived with one another on holidays [emphasis added] in Denmark and Thailand, since 12 January 2010, as Alwin Agger GÃ¶ttsche has not had residency in Thailand, and [Urai Chanthipa] does not have valid residency in Denmark,Â” the rejection letter stated.
The explanation points to an apparent Catch-22: GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa had to prove Â“regular cohabitationÂ” to qualify Chanthipa for long-term residency in Denmark. But the Immigration Service said that the couple’s 20 month history of living together only counted as Â“holidayÂ” cohabitation Â– not Â“regular cohabitationÂ” Â– because neither one had long-term residency in the otherÂ’s country.
Â“ItÂ’s incongruous that our commuting was characterised as holiday time when, by law, Urai had to leave Denmark two times. By the same token, as her partner, I had to maintain a suitably large residence [in Denmark] simply to qualify for family reunification,Â” GÃ¶ttsche said, explaining his occasional returns to Denmark. Another requirement for family reunification is that the Danish partner must have a sufficiently large residence, and not one in a so-called Â‘ghettoÂ’ or Â‘vulnerable areaÂ’.
Â“I maintain that we do live together, but in two countries, just as we have been forced to do under Danish law. ItÂ’s unreasonable to say that you canÂ’t travel and live together at the same time,Â” GÃ¶ttsche added.
Ã…ge Kramp, an immigration lawyer who has counselled GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa, agreed that the rejection letter suggested a double-bind.
Â“They went to great lengths to organise their lives to fulfil the Immigration ServiceÂ’s requirement of establishing Â‘regular cohabitationÂ’ by travelling constantly between Thailand and Denmark. But then the Immigration Service said it didnÂ’t count, because they werenÂ’t in one place,Â” Kramp said.
Another thing GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa cannot understand is why the Immigration Service sent them a letter in mid-August confirming that it had all the documents necessary to judge their case, only to reject their application three weeks later on the basis of insufficient documentation.
KrampÂ’s experience has shown that more and more international couples and families have experienced the same paradox in recent years.
Â“My impression is that since 2010, many more applications have been rejected without the Immigration Service asking for extra documentation,Â” he said.
By contrast, Kramp said, when processing work permit applications, the Immigration Service was Â“quite generous about asking applicants for more information if they thought there was a reasonable chance they might have itÂ”.
GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa are appealing the rejection. As long as their appeal is pending, Chanthipa can stay in Denmark. But if they receive another rejection, she will be forced to leave the country on seven daysÂ’ notice.
Couples like GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa are looking to the new Socialdemokraterne-Radikale-Socialistisk Folkeparti (SRSF) government, hoping that the existing family reunification rules will be significantly eased, or interpreted differently.
SRSF has already made one major change: it has disbanded the Immigration Ministry, transferring most of its responsibilities to the Justice Ministry, while at the same time reducing the authority of its administrative arm, the Immigration Service. It has also promised that moving forward family reunification cases will be handled with fairness and transparency. But one month into the new government, many of the previous governmentÂ’s toughest rules still stand.
Kramp, however, is optimistic. SRSF has promised to review the rules regarding reunification for children, and has proposed creating an independent appeals committee for family reunification complaints. He believes that such an independent, expert appeals panel would deliver some different family reunification judgments based on a broader understanding of both EU law and human rights conventions.
For the time being, however, there is nothing for couples like GÃ¶ttsche and Chanthipa to do but to wait and hope for a better outcome.
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