Former minister denies responsibility in stateless scandal

Minister and civil servants blame each other for illegally denying citizenship to stateless Palestinians

The former immigration minister, Birthe Rønn Hornbech (Venstre), took the stand today to explain why stateless Palestinians entitled to Danish citizenship under a UN treaty were denied their rights on her watch.

Hornbech was fired in March 2011 after intense media scrutiny that exposed how Palestinians continued to be denied citizenship for two years after the ministry realised in 2008 that the practice was illegal.

Hearings carried out by the so-called 'Stateless Commission' are attempting to discover who was responsible for letting the practice continue, when exactly the Immigration Ministry was made aware of the illegal practice, and how the ministry officials responded when they found out.

According to Hornbech, she instructed the ministry to change the practice after she was made aware in August 2008 that the stateless Palestinians were wrongfully being denied citizenship.

“I was shocked to discover that we had broken a convention and I could immediately see the accusation that would be levelled against me by the left-wing for not having followed it,” Hornbech told the commission today. “So I felt terrible about it.”

The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which Denmark signed, reduces the requirements for being granted citizenship. But in February 2008, the Immigration Ministry discovered they were regularly denying citizenship to Palestinians who qualified as a result of the convention.

Hornbech was informed the following August and, in a meeting shortly after with civil servants, ordered the citizenship department to change their practice.

Civil servants have already testified before the commission that Hornbech wanted to wait for the completion of a study into how Nordic countries were applying the convention before changing Denmark's practice – an accusation that Hornbech denied.

“I want to see written evidence that I said we should continue as we had been,” she told the commission. “I did not agree to continue a violation.”

The Nordic study was completed in January 2009 and, according to the civil servants who have been in front of the commission, she again postponed changing the practice. According to their testimony, Hornbech said she wanted to first discuss the issue at a meeting of Nordic ministers during the summer – a meeting she ultimately did not attend because of illness.

She told the commission today that she assumed the civil servants had changed their practice after the meetings in 2008 and thus lost interest in the case.

When she then discovered in early 2010 that the practice hadn’t been changed, she claims to have intervened and instructed the Citizenship Commission to apply the stateless convention.

The cause of the two-year delay between Hornbech’s discovery of the error and its rectification is the subject of speculation, but is thought to be linked to an unwillingness by the former right-wing government, led by Venstre and Konservative and supported by Dansk Folkeparti, to grant citizenship to applicants who otherwise would not have satisfied the strict criteria.

Around 40 stateless Palestinians were granted citizenship in 2011 who would have ordinarily been denied because of serious criminal offences they had committed. The domestic intelligence agency PET also recommended that one be denied citizenship as the individual posed a threat to Denmark’s security.

The commission's investigation will continue through the summer.

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