Activists work to put more control in asylum seekers’ hands
In a quiet corner in the city district of Nørrebro is a community centre called the Trampoline House. Run by asylum seekers, activists and curious Danes, the house’s users are offered a range of activities and services, from counselling and language lessons to hairdressing and tailoring.
Independently funded, the house operates outside the official asylum system and actively seeks to influence asylum law. Over the past six weeks, The Copenhagen Post has kept track of its latest campaign to encourage the government to live up to its promises.
“Asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work and live outside asylum centres,” the government wrote in their common policy after their election win last September. “Failed asylum seekers are thereby built up as people and are given better skill sets.”
The current system, they argue, can turn some asylum seekers – many of whom have travelled thousands of miles fleeing conflict and persecution – into passive and isolated individuals with little control over their own lives. While this may only apply in extreme cases, the consensus among the asylum seekers, aid agencies, social workers and activists who spoke to The Copenhagen Post was that hundreds of lives would improve if asylum seekers were allowed to live and work outside centres, thus returning to them a degree of the control that they had long been deprived of.
But during the time spent with the activists at the Trampoline House, it became clear that their battle was not simply to improve the rights and living conditions of asylum seekers, but also to change the naïve attitudes directed at foreigners – the fear sensed by the right-wing and the pity felt by the left-wing. The fight then was also for something greater: to demonstrate that the Danish concept of integration should be changed from the current one-sided policy of assimilation to a reciprocal and even-handed meeting of equals.
Most of Denmark’s asylum centres are located in the countryside, far from shops and amenities. This geographical isolation is the first hurdle many have to overcome when getting on with their lives in Denmark as they await the outcome of their cases. In principle, asylum seekers are not forced to stay at the centres and only have to return every fortnight to pick up their mail and pocket money. The costs associated with travelling to and from the centres is a severe limitation however, though the Red Cross, which manages most of the centres, does cover some of the costs associated with travel for educational purposes.
The Trampoline House’s campaign culminates in a May 13 march in Copenhagen entitled ‘Walk Out of the Camps’. The march will start at the Asylum Center Kongelunden in south Amager and head toward the city centre. The use of the word ‘camp’ instead of ‘centre’ is deliberate: a means of highlighting the isolation the facilities impose on their residents.
A series of outreach events were planned at asylum centres in order to spread both the message of the Trampoline House and garner support from asylum seekers for the march. At an outreach event at Sandholm Asylum Centre, residents shared their experiences. Some expressed their frustrations at having to spend years at the centres waiting for a decision on their asylum applications, all the while being excluded from the Danish job market.
Among them was Vincent Ergara, who had left his life as a secondary school teacher in Nigeria to seek asylum in Denmark. He explained what it was like to live at a centre in Brovst in northern Jutland.
“We lived in the forest, with the animals,” he said. “The telephone network is bad and it is far from Copenhagen. We are isolated. It’s no way to keep people.”
Adnan Abadi, 34, a doctor and former asylum seeker from Syria who was granted residency last year, went to Sandholm as a house activist. Last year he fled to Denmark after government forces detained many of his friends. Abadi explained that while he managed to adapt to the rural lifestyle after being placed in an asylum centre in the Jutland countryside for three months, he could understand why so many others have such a hard time.
“It felt like you were arrested, being removed from social contact, but without the bars and the keys,” Abadi said. “It’s hard for people when they become isolated psychologically. I had an okay time because there was a big library and I had plenty of time to read. It’s people who don’t have the languages to connect with each other who experience problems. And if they have no skills, they have nothing to do.”
According to Anne la Cour, the head of asylum at Red Cross Denmark, the negative effects of living at a centre often become clear after about a year.
“People become weaker and depressed and parents lose the strength to look after their children,” she said. “It’s not a dignified way to live life for very long. We recommend a much more flexible system. But even at camps with more normal living conditions, such as in Jelling where families can live together and cook for themselves, living at an asylum centre is not a normal life.”
Given La Cour’s appraisal, allowing asylum seekers to live and work outside centres would clearly be a positive development. But according to Morten Goll, the Trampoline House’s creative director, many will
still probably find themselves shut out of the job market.
“The majority of asylum seekers who arrive in Denmark neither have the correct qualifications for a Danish job nor the correct language skills,” Goll said.
This is where the Trampoline House can help. Goll hopes to professionalise many of the activities already found within the house, such as hairdressing and catering. The house’s 300 Danish volunteers also provide asylum seekers with a social network that will help them find work and accommodation.
Goll wants to roll out a dozen Trampoline Houses across the country in order to improve the opportunities of all asylum seekers in Denmark. It’s a vision that Fareed Ahmed Kabeer, a Trampoline House activist and aslyum seeker, supports.
“The Trampoline House is limited to Copenhagen, but other cities in Denmark need one too. It has let me communicate with people from all over the world – people that I now care about,” he said, adding that the house had given him more control over his life.
Kabeer, 27, sought asylum in Denmark after working as a military interpreter in Afghanistan for four years. He said he appreciated being able to talk to people in English, the house’s common language. Before he found out about the house, he spent most of his time at the asylum centre in Avnstrup where his language skills started to deteriorate.
“I try to be as active as I can in the house, not only to help other asylum seekers but also for my own sake. The right to work will also apply to me,” Kabeer explained.
A critical voice, not an arm of the state
Sif Bruun, 22, gave up studying to be an international social worker to focus her attention on being one of the house’s activists. She argues that the way the house’s users interact challenges the prevailing political attitude towards integration in Denmark
“The house has a radical practice because we work as equals,” Bruun said in the house’s kitchen. “I feel like I’m integrating together with the others. But in Denmark, integration has become assimilation. The attitude is that someone else needs to be integrated and it’s their responsibility. But I feel that integration means that we learn from each other and not only that, they learn from us.”
With Goll’s ambitions to scale up, Bruun worries that people may think the Trampoline House could take over the role of the state in the act of ‘integrating’ foreigners. Fellow activist Thomas Elsted, 29, chimed in that doing so would undermine the credibility of the house.
“The house is not only a cultural meeting place, but also a place that is run by activists and people who are trying to change the system,” Elsted said. “You can’t then take the house model and have it take over functions of the state, because then it will stop being able to be critical.”
This message is significant. While the Trampoline House activists support the government’s proposal, they fear the legislation will not apply to rejected asylum seekers who the police judge are not co-operating in their own repatriation. These asylum seekers can already face sanctions – so-called ‘motivational measures’ – such as having their pocket money withdrawn, having to attend regular police interviews, and even imprisonment.
It could be argued that asylum conditions in Denmark are not that terrible. Asylum seekers are provided for, live in picturesque environments, and are offered a range of educational and training opportunities from the Red Cross. If they have the correct qualifications, and if the Red Cross agrees to foot the bill, asylum seekers can also enrol in university courses.
But in many ways, the exclusion of asylum seekers from the job market is hard to justify and may even be counter-productive, according to the report ‘Asylum Camp Limbo’, by the Danish organisation Refugees Welcome.
“Analysis from other countries points out that people who have been activated through employment or education during their stay are much more likely to return voluntarily when the situation in their country of origin so permits,” Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen from the Danish Institute for International Studies wrote in the report.
With the police even admitting in a recent report that motivational methods had little effect on whether asylum seekers co-operated or not, La Cour from the Red Cross reinforced the message that including asylum seekers as full members of society at an earlier stage is more likely to encourage them to return should they get a rejection.
“When asylum seekers arrive, their competencies should be supported and developed,” she said. “The more activities you can offer them, the more they feel able to make the decision to return if they are rejected. Making them live under awful living conditions will just have the opposite effect.”
Eva Singer, head of the asylum department at the Danish Refugee Council, argued that spending more time understanding the challenges faced by asylum seekers would probably achieve better results if they are told to return home, rather than reducing their quality of life.
“Motivational methods are a stick rather than a carrot,” Singer said. “We have to understand their circumstances. Many are not expecting to go home and many leave without having anything to return to.”
Opening up Denmark
Goll argues that a naïve fear of foreigners has driven immigration policy to exclude asylum seekers from the job market and restrict their freedoms when they refuse to voluntarily return to countries they left under duress.
“The solution to this problem is to consider asylum seekers as equal citizens,” Goll said. “Not that everyone should be given citizenship, but we should stop fearing and pitying them, and start treating them like human beings. They come here with a dream, and they should be included because we can learn something from them.”
Goll’s colleague at the Trampoline House, the community outreach officer Søren Rafn, also argued that simply giving asylum seekers the right to work is not enough. Danes also need to recognise them as legitimate members of society.
“It’s a matter of treating people as members of a community instead of as people who are applying to become members of a community. As soon as people step through the door of Trampoline House they share and create experiences,” Rafn said.
Adnan Abadi’s enthusiasm for the project is clear.
“The Trampoline House is an amazing project. It breaks down barriers and gathers people from all ethnic groups and languages and traditions. We are all human beings who can contribute to society, so we should concentrate our efforts on building this country together.”
For more information about the ‘Walk Out of the Camps’ demonstration on Sunday, head to www.outofthecamps.dk
* Adnan Abadi is a fictional name as the individual interviewed did not wish their real name to be revealed. The CPH Post knows the individual’s real name.