If Europe’s “refugee crisis” has shown us anything, it’s that when people flee their homes and make it all the way to Europe, they intend to stay – partly because they have nothing to go back to. In Denmark, and across the continent, it is time to stop seeing refugees as temporary, and to address the contradictions of the integration agenda.
The sculpture “the refugee ship”, made by the Danish artist Jens Galschiot, was exhibited in the very centre of Copenhagen, in Nyhavn, May 2011.
A little over two years ago, the refugee crisis broke out in Europe. Panic gripped European leaders as thousands of people arrived at their borders, fleeing war and persecution. It was the highest number of forcibly displaced persons the world had encountered since the aftermath of World War 2.
As the EU scrambled to find a concerted response to the “refugee problem”, states started to take individual action. Borders went up around Austria and Hungary, whereas Germany opened its doors to newcomers. The UK set up immigration checkpoints in Calais and Dunkirk, as the insufficient reception facilities in France made many refugees want to cross the Channel to apply for asylum in the UK. And Sweden reintroduced passport control on the Øresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark, as the latter’s unequivocal anti-immigration stance meant that most people arriving in Denmark sought to carry on their journey to Sweden, which offered more favourable asylum conditions.
The case of Denmark is an interesting one. When the global refugee protection regime was created after World War 2 and formalized by the 1951 Refugee Convention, Denmark had a very different position on immigration and asylum than it has today. It was the first country in the world to ratify the convention, and for the following three decades, Denmark’s immigration policy and refugee reception were regarded as among the world’s most humane. Denmark took in, and provided for, a decent number of refugees relative to its population size, and encouraged labour immigration through the so-called Guest-Worker Programs of the 1970s.
However, hit by an economic downturn and a staggering rise in unemployment in the mid-80s, the kingdom became steadily more nationalistic, anti-immigration, and by extension, anti-refugee. Indeed, political and public debate bundled economic migrants, immigrants and refugees together under terms such as de fremmede (“the foreigners”). The popular image of the “refugee of convenience” became widespread – that is, a person who left a problematic situation in their home country who came to Denmark lured by the promise of generous public benefits such as free health care and education. The heated debate about how “these people” would jeopardize the welfare state, and the very foundations of “Danishness”, resonated all through the 1990s and the 2001 election that changed the Danish political landscape(*), and still does today.
Current Minister of Immigration and Integration Inger Støjberg – who accessed the post just around the outbreak of the refugee crisis – has not wasted time. To date, she has enforced 64 restrictions on policies pertaining immigration, integration, and asylum, and has made international news for some of her more controversial decisions. To mention some examples, she had ads printed in Lebanese newspapers discouraging refugees to come to Denmark, increasing the waiting time to apply for family reunification from one to three years; and she allowed authorities to seize refugees’ valuables up to about €1.300 to help pay for the cost of their asylum. However, one restriction that has flown under the radar – the reduction in the length of temporary residence permits – raises many issues. In fact, it may highlight an inherent fallacy in the way we think about refugees; one that dates back to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Before the restriction, refugees could get residence permits of between two and five years, depending on their refugee status. These permits could be renewed until the holder was eligible for permanent residence, that is, after having resided in Denmark for six years. Now, however, most refugees only receive one- or two-year permits, which they must renew each year (or every two years, respectively). Whether they can be granted an extension depends on whether they are still eligible for protection, that is, whether Danish immigration services assess that their home country is safe enough for them to return to. At the same time, refugees must undergo a comprehensive Integration Program, compelling them to live in a fixed municipality for three years, learn Danish, participate in internship or work placements, and participate in Danish public life. Most refugees agree with and endorse these goals, and are eager to become economically independent and to find a place in Danish society.
However, any aspiration to start a new, “integrated” life in Denmark clashes with the ever-present uncertainty of having their residence permit renewed or revoked by the Danish authorities. Thus, many refugees go about their daily lives feeling that they should not completely unpack their suitcases (when they had any to bring from home, that is), because they are constantly uncertain of how long they can stay. Integration is important, yes – but one cannot be oblivious to the contradiction between asylum policy and integration policy: how are refugees supposed to reach a vaguely defined state of “integratedness” in a year, and how much can they be expected to invest into a life they may not be allowed to keep, and a future they may never reach?
This brings us back to the 1951 Convention, the foundation of the global refugee protection regime. The context that the international community was in is extremely important to bear in mind when considering the consequences that this Convention has for present-day asylum policies. A World War had just ended, Europe lay in ruins, millions of refugees were scattered all over the continent: there was an urgency to act. Fortunately, the Marshall Plan enabled countries destroyed by the war to recover at unprecedented speed. What did this mean for refugees? While it may not have been a clear intention of the Plan, rebuilding economies and infrastructures meant that many refugees in fact had something to return to quickly after the war ended.
Today, however, the situation is different. The conflicts, that send millions of people on the run, are, for the overwhelming majority, ongoing: the war in Syria is on its sixth year, with no end in sight; the war in Afghanistan, officially started in 2001, is responsible for 2.7 million refugees, and Afghans make up 12% of refugees arriving in Europe this year; the civil war in Somalia erupted in 1991, and the total number of registered Somali refugees is still 1 million. In other words, unlike World War 2, wars no longer just end, and countries aren’t swiftly rebuilt after. Refugees nowadays find themselves in situations of protracted displacement. Many (if not most) of those who reach Europe do not intend to “go home” – because they have no home to return to, and for some, have never known their home in a time of peace. If they made it this far, they want to stay.
It is time for Denmark – and Europe (and the whole international community for that matter) – to reconsider the way they – we – understand and frame refugee policy. They are not a temporary phenomenon; they are not just “passing through” until things at home cool down. Unless we are ready and able to ensure that they can have safe and stable lives in their home countries (there does not seem to be a modern-day Marshall Plan in place thus far), we need to legally, economically, and socially enable them to properly “unpack their suitcases”, so that they can build a future for themselves in our countries, on an equal footing as other citizens.
(*) The 2001 election resulted in the formation of a right-conservative government, supported by the Danish far-right party, Dansk Folkeparti. Furthermore, the Social Democrats got the fewest votes they had had since 1973, and for the first time in 77 years, lost their place as Denmark’s biggest party in the National Assembly.