Cooperative asylum seekers to be granted more rights

Sweeping changes to improve the lives of hundreds but many argue the demand on failed asylum seekers to co-operate in their repatriation is unnecessary

Asylum seekers should be allowed to live and work outside of asylum centres after six months, a government committee has officially recommended.

The recommendations were laid out in the committee’s 200-page report that was published yesterday by the Justice Ministry and includes some of the most sweeping changes to asylum law in the past two decades.

The proposals support a government pledge to allow asylum seekers to work after six months. Failed asylum seekers who refuse to co-operate with their repatriation will not enjoy the same privileges, however.

“All asylum seekers will be allowed to work and to move out of centres after six months, if they co-operate in the handling of their case and the planning of their return journey if their application is rejected,” the Justice Ministry stated in a press release.

The justice minister, Morten Bødskov, added in the press release that the government was not changing the conditions for granting asylum but was acknowledging that asylum seekers needed to be better treated while they were in Denmark.

“If they are granted asylum [the changes mean they] will be in a better position to become integrated, and if they are rejected and have to return home, they will have better conditions for starting a new life in their home country,” Bødskov said, adding that a functioning asylum system requires that rejected asylum seekers leave the country.

“It is preferable that this is done voluntarily. The proposal therefore also contains suggestions on how to strengthen the voluntary repatriation of rejected asylum seekers.”

Some 286 million kroner has been set aside to fund the new measures, which also include improved programmes for education, training and healthcare.

Better lives outside centres

Of the 4,300 asylum seekers in Denmark as of January 2012, the Justice Ministry estimates that about 1,850 could benefit from the new rules.

Currently asylum seekers are excluded from working and are only required to check in at asylum centres fortnightly to pick up their cash allowance. But without any significant income, the asylum centres, often located hard to reach areas, are the only viable housing option for most.

Many remain trapped in the centres, often for years, either waiting for the outcome of their asylum application or to be repatriated, which is often impossible due to insecurity in their home country or because Denmark has np agreement with their home country.

Spending such lengths of time in the centres has been documented to be detrimental to both the physical and psychological health of asylum seekers, especially children.

With the changes, asylum seekers will be allowed to take on work on the same footing as Danes after six months, as long as they are paid competitive wages and working conditions. Employers are therefore to be pre-approved based upon whether they have signed up to abide by minimum standards of working conditions based on collective bargaining agreements. The report states this is to prevent asylum seekers being taken advantage of.

Asylum seekers will also be able to live outside of asylum centres after six months either in accommodation that they pay for or through supported living, in which case they will remain close to an asylum centre.

Significant changes

The changes were received with positivity by the Red Cross In Denmark, whose Director General, Anders Ladekarl, told The Copenhagen Post that they were the most significant to have occurred in years.

“We have been making these calls for a long time so we are more than pleased that more asylum seekers will be allowed to leave the centres,” Ladekarl said, but added that not everyone is likely to benefit.

“The proposal will still leave people in asylum centres for more than one year. This is significant because we have evidence that children and vulnerable people are negatively affected by long stays in centres.”

Ladekarl was also pleased by the changes to the treatment of asylum seekers that do not co-operate with their repatriation. Currently, the Immigration Service can place a range of demands on failed asylum seekers who refuse sign repatriation agreements or provide information to the police. These range from reducing their pocket money, forcing them to sleep every night in asylum centres to imprisoning them in the asylum jail Ellebæk in Sandholm asylum centre.

There are about 1,000 failed asylum seekers waiting to be repatriated in Denmark. Yesterday’s report argues that the motivational measures imposed on these failed asylum seekers will become more targeted with greater levels counselling and more comprehensive economic support in their repatriation.

They report recognised that many asylum seekers feel apprehensive about returning to their home country as many sell all their possessions to finance their journey and have nothing to return to.

“I’m pleased that the measures designed to persuade asylum seekers to repatriate will change from having punishment at the core, to an attitude where more positive measures such as counselling and skills building become the focus,” Ladekarl said.

Not all uncooperative asylum seekers will be excluded from the offers of work and outside accommodation. Families will be have special permission to live outside asylum centres, while individuals who refuse to sign co-operation agreements, will be allowed to find work so long as the police have sufficient information about them to be able to begin repatriation proceedings.

Failed asylum seekers that cannot be returned because of instability in their home country, such as Syria, will also be permitted to work and live outside of centres even if they refuse to co-operate. This exemption ends, however, once it is judged safe to return.

Finally, asylum seekers that are awaiting deportation after committing a crime will not benefit from the changes.

Pointless cooperation

Campaign group Out of the Camps! expressed disappointment that not all asylum seekers will benefit from the changes.

“People flee for a reason and simply because the Danish asylum system doesn’t recognise their need for asylum doesn’t change the fact that people fear being repatriated,” spokesperson Zach Khadudu said. “The government is knowingly offering people the choice of co-operating so they can be returned to somewhere they fear, or remaining in Denmark and being broken by an asylum centre. This is not a reasonable choice.”

Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, spokesperson for far-left party Enhedslisten, also argued that the insistence on co-operation with repatriation served little purpose.

“It’s completely reasonable to demand that asylum seekers co-operate with immigration authorities and show up to the relevant meetings, but not that they should sign an agreement to voluntarily leave,” Schmidt-Nielsen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper, referring to the 2009 case of failed Iraqi asylum seekers who were forcibly repatriated after taking shelter in a church in Nørrebro.

“We know from the Iraqis that no matter much we inconvenience them, they won’t leave voluntarily. Even putting them in Ellebæk prison did not get them to leave voluntarily,” Schmidt-Nielsen said. “There are lots of good elements in the government’s proposal but it was actually the rejected Iraqis that were the reason Enhedlisten and (governing parties, ed) SF, Socialdemokraterne and the Radikale joined forces to make the six-month demand.”