Proposed amendments would have “devastating impact” and risk violating international human rights laws, Amnesty says.
A train from Germany will soon arrive, so Rooni Abdel Razak and his colleague Rim Walid leave the safe zone, a temporary room set up inside Copenhagen Central Station, and start walking towards platform 6.
Ever since Denmark started patrolling its borders in early January, fewer refugees have been able to enter the country, but the volunteers at the Central Station in Copenhagen still wait every time a train from either Germany or Sweden arrives, just in case there is a refugee in need of their help on board.
“After five months you learn how to spot the refugees. Most look confused and frightened. Some do not trust us, because they have been betrayed by people during their entire journey,” says 22-year-old Abdel Razak as he approaches the tracks.
As the train arrives, Abdel Razak and Walid focus on the faces behind the glass. The doors open and people disembark onto the platform. The two split up so that they can walk from door to door and scan the crowd.
“Better luck next time,” says Abdel Razak as they return to the middle of the platform without spotting anyone in need.
He has been working as a volunteer almost every day for the past five months – listening to people’s stories, assisting them wherever possible and providing answers to their questions about how the forthcoming new Danish asylum rules may affect them.
For the past few weeks, Denmark has faced international scrutiny after the government proposed stricter immigration laws – with some drawing comparisons between the proposals and Nazi practices during World War II.
Of particular interest has been a bill that would allow Danish authorities to seize asylum seekers’ cash exceeding 10,000 kroner ($1,450), as well as any single item valued at more than 10,000 kroner.
The government has clarified that valuables with a sentimental value – such as wedding and engagement rings, as well as watches and mobile phones – will not be taken.
But, while many have focused on this, critics suggest that it is another part of the proposal – which is expected to pass a vote in the Danish Parliament on January 26 – that is most alarming.
The new law will mean that refugees will have to wait three years after being granted asylum before they can apply to be reunited with their family. The current law permits them to do this after one year.
“The right of refugees to be reunited with their family is protected by numerous international conventions ratified by Denmark. We believe the government is overstepping international law by implementing this bill,” says Jonas Christoffersen, the director of the the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which says it will help refugees and institutions who wish to file a case against the state because of this law.
Despite criticism of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the bill is expected to be passed with a large majority. Even the opposition Social Democrats have said they will vote in favour.
“We want less people to seek asylum in Denmark. We do not find all the changes in the law perfect, but we believe it is what the country needs,” says Mattias Tesfaye, the Social Democrats’ spokesperson on naturalisation.
However, the Social Democrats’ support for the bill will not be unanimous. Three members have made it clear that they plan to vote against it.
“I cannot vote in favour of a law that will destroy the close relations between parents and their children for three years,” said Daniel Toft Jakobsen, a Social Democrat who intends to vote no.
“I am afraid this will have fatal consequences for those affected. To lay awake in the night worrying about your loved ones who might be in an unsafe place will obviously impact the integration process negatively.”
‘Do not apply here’
Najib Allah, 24, stands in front of the safe zone with a blanket over his shoulders. He has just arrived at Copenhagen’s Central Station after a long and dangerous journey from Afghanistan, via Iran and Turkey, Eastern Europe and Germany.
The safe zone has been decorated with sofas, carpets and paintings that depict classical Danish landscapes. The overall effect is cosy and welcoming, although there are sometimes more volunteers than refugees inside. The volunteers, most of whom are bilingual, greet each other warmly.
Najib came alone. His phone and most of his money was stolen in Bulgaria. He threw the rest of his belongings away because they were too heavy to carry. Now he only has the clothes he stands in.
Najib’s journey has been difficult.
“To the smugglers we are pure business,” he says. “They promise and promise to help us, but those who actually need help are not getting it.”
He is unsure whether he wants to stay in Denmark or try to take a train to Sweden, but he is happy for now.
It is not unusual for refugees to arrive without any or with only a few belongings. It is for this reason that Gunnar Homann, a Danish lawyer who specialises in Danish immigration law, finds it unlikely that the new law concerning the seizure of valuables will be effective.
“It is often a coincidence where they end up, and even if a refugee brings valuables that could be confiscated, he could easily divide these with another refugee,” Homann explains.
“It is a symbolic rule, meant to say: ‘do not apply here’,” he continues.
Over the past few months, Denmark has cut benefits for refugees in an effort to deter them from coming.
“It is like a competition between countries to make it harder and harder to come to their country. Now that Sweden has closed its borders, Denmark had to take a step further,” says Christoffersen of the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
A ‘burden rather than a resource’
The country’s unwillingness to take in refugees can be traced back to the mid-19th century, says Ulf Hedetoft, a professor of International Studies at the University of Copenhagen.
“A number of lost wars and German occupation during World War II induced a sentiment of ‘what we lost on the outside, we will win on the inside’,” says Hedetoft.
He believes Denmark has become economically, socially and politically homogenous, with self-sufficiency promoted while the outside world is viewed with suspicion and even anxiety. Within this model, refugees are considered a potential threat to civic society and cultural solidarity, he says.
“In the past, immigrants have mainly been seen as a burden rather than a resource,” he explains.
It is a sentiment that has re-emerged with Denmark’s right-wing government. “Now, immigrants are once again seen to represent a major threat to Denmark’s cultural cohesion and economic prosperity, and clamours to close our borders and make refugees choose other destinations are growing day by day,” Hedetoft says.
The current Danish border controls have given Abdel Razak and the other volunteers less work at the station as fewer refugees arrive. He walks outside to smoke a cigarette before the next train is due. In his phone he has pictures of people he has met over the past five months.
“People sometimes come back to the safe zone to thank us for the help they have received,” he says.
The safe zone will most likely remain open until the end of January. No matter what, Abdel Razak and the other volunteers are committed to continuing to help those who disembark there.