I think it’s scary that the government is so afraid of migrants and refugees that they are willing to risk our democracy and rule of law. It’s very depressing and scary. Some days I get so depressed that I don’t even go outside.”
When Asrin Mesbah does stay home, she has a view overlooking the city from her sixth-floor student apartment. It’s small for three people – her two teenage sons, aged 12 and 14, share one of the two rooms – but it’s all the 38-year-old law student can afford. Because when she’s not trying to finish her law degree, she works full time as the chairman of JuraRådgivningen, a legal aid charity for immigrants and refugees.
Over the past 18 months, she, 16 law student volunteers, and two retired lawyers have helped more than 2,000 people and closed more than 200 cases, mostly family reunification applications. In the process, they have discovered widespread mismanagement of casework by the Immigration Service – illegal rulings, lost documentation, slow-walking of applications.
“It was an awakening when I opened JuraRådgivningen and saw how improperly the cases were being handled. At law school, you learn that the authorities must talk to people in a manner that they can understand, that they can’t take applicants’ original documentation, and that they have to process cases expediently. So I was really in shock. And I realised I can do something. I can use my education and do something. And I was also angry. How can they treat people like this? It’s awful.”
A chance encounter
Born in Iran, Mesbah came to Denmark at age five as a refugee with her mother and two siblings. They joined her father, who had already been in the country for a few years. His unwillingness to seek help for trauma he had experienced in Iran led to the breakup of her parents’ marriage.
The small family lived in the Copenhagen suburb of Greve and integrated easily. Her siblings are now both university-educated while her mother worked for almost two decades in children’s services at Frederiksberg Kommune, before starting a new job at the State Administration.
Mesbah first decided to study law after leaving her boyfriend, the father of her children. His refusal to accept the breakup forced her to move her sons across the city and, when he continued to seek them out, to call the police. In the absence of physical violence or threats, however, the police said they couldn’t help. It was her first encounter with the limitations of the law, and she was impelled to learn more.
Then two years ago, as she was starting her Master’s in law, she encountered a 19-year-old Syrian man crying on the street outside the offices of the Immigration Service on Ryesgade, near her home.
“I asked what his problem was, and he said he had applied for family reunification with his mother. He had been rejected, but couldn’t read the decision because it was in Danish. He spoke to someone at the Immigration Service who said they would come out and talk to him, but they hadn’t. That was nineteen days ago. I invited him over to my house, where I made him some food, translated the decision and wrote a complaint.”
Mesbah was moved by the experience, and thought there must be others who were having trouble finding the help they needed. So she wrote a post in a Facebook group for refugees and refugee activists called Venligboerne (the Friendly Residents), explaining that she was a law student and offering help. She was immediately inundated with phone calls.
“I was like, shit, what do I do now? I called two girlfriends and said, ‘I think I’ve done something and now I’m in big trouble because I have a lot of cases and don’t know what to do. Can you help?’ They said they were going on vacation, but still offered to help. We took on nineteen cases and quickly discovered that there were lots of problems with the applications,” she says.
Some applications were rejected on the grounds of incomplete documentation, even though the Immigration Service hadn’t specified what documentation was needed. Another common problem was that applicants were left in limbo as their cases stalled in the authority’s bureaucracy.
Mesbah found that many immigrants and refugees had been waiting years to be reunited with their families. Asylum applications are supposed to take seven months, but applicants frequently had to wait a year before the process could even begin. Once they were accepted, they faced another ten months’ wait for their family reunification applications to be processed – often longer.
In early 2016, the issue became a hot political topic after Mesbah convinced the far-left Red-Green Alliance to take up the cause. Newspapers reported on the hundreds of asylum seekers who had experienced long delays to their cases and, after considering a complaint, the Ombudsmand asked the Immigration Service to change its procedures to prevent similar delays to future cases.
Overturning bad decisions
After starting JuraRådgivningen two years ago, it didn’t take long for Mesbah to earn some supporters. Six months later, they were given free office space in the meatpacking district Kødbyen, and last summer they received a 100,000 kroner grant from a private benefactor. Since everyone works for free, the money goes to helping refugees.
According to Mesbah, they receive calls from around the world from people in legal difficulty who have been referred by friends, lawyers, and sometimes even municipalities. After an interview, they assess whether or not they can take the case, which is not always possible. For example, unless a refugee is granted asylum because of political, social, or religious persecution, they must now wait three years before they can apply for family reunification – there’s no way around that.
“Our experience is that it’s not possible to change those judgements, so it’s hopeless,” she says. “In practice, they end up without their families for five or six years.”
But there are still plenty of cases for them to work on. For example, Mesbah’s team has successfully reversed 20 decisions to deny family reunification to unaccompanied minors – asylum seekers under age 18 are considered a vulnerable group and can more easily be reunited with their families.
In other cases, the Immigration Service accepts family reunification with the child’s father, but not their mother. According to Mesbah, these rulings violate article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and are often overturned on appeal.
So why does the Immigration Service get so many cases wrong? Mesbah has no doubt.
“I think it’s on purpose – they hope the asylum seekers will leave. They just don’t want to give these people family reunification, and they do everything they can to avoid it.”
Defending “greedy” refugees
The vast majority of Danes voted for parties across the political spectrum that support tighter immigration regulations. But while the government has a mandate for its restrictions on family reunification and refugee rights, Mesbah is concerned by the government’s apparent willingness to undermine the law to accomplish this.
“I’m not a debater, I’m a lawyer. I don’t want to decide how many immigrants come to Denmark or not. I just want the government to follow the law – the Immigration Ministry, the Immigration Service, the refugees, everybody. I make that very clear,” she says.
She lights her first cigarette of the interview when we broach the subject of Inger Støjberg, the Immigration Minister. A divisive figure, she is both incredibly popular and incredibly abrasive. For example, she suggested that Danes should inform the police if they hear foreign languages being spoken in the back rooms of pizzerias, in case the employees might be illegal immigrants.
Støjberg uses her Facebook page and blog on BT to draw attention to the dangers she perceives as coming from immigration, and expresses anger at refugees she considers insufficiently grateful for Denmark’s hospitality.
A column last February dealt with the case of a Syrian family in Tårnby municipality. The nine-year-old daughter arrived first and was granted refugee status. Because she was a minor, she was granted family reunification. Her family all ended up living in the home of the girl’s uncle – four adults and six children in an apartment that was perhaps suitable for half that number.
It was not an ideal situation, but when they asked the municipality for help finding a new home, they were refused. The municipality has a duty to find housing for the families refugees of once they arrive through family reunification. But the same obligation does not apply if the refugee is a child.
The remaining family members subsequently applied for and were granted asylum, meaning that the municipality was now obligated to find them housing. Outraged, Tårnby mayor Henrik Zimino tipped off Støjberg, who wrote in her column that new rules were needed to prevent “benefits shopping”.
“Of course, not all refugees are as greedy as they are. Many show humility and graciousness, but a family like this ruins things for many, many others,” she wrote, adding in an interview with BT, “It’s another example of how well-informed asylum seekers are about the situation in Denmark.”
But Mesbah knew that wasn’t the whole story, because the family in Tårnby were her clients. She was the one who had recommended the family seek asylum – they are war refugees, after all.
So Mesbah penned a response to Støjberg in Information newspaper – later shared almost 17,000 times – in which she accused the minister of not having actually understood the facts of the case.
She added, “That an integration minister and a Mayor in our community would use such a vulnerable family to justify a political agenda of implementing as many immigration restrictions as possible, I find frankly despicable.”
Educating the minister
Mesbah invited Støjberg to visit JuraRådgivning in order to see their work, and the following month, the minister visited the offices in Kødbyen. At the meeting, they told the minister that they were concerned that the Immigration Service took – and sometimes lost – irreplaceable original documentation, that cases were being processed too slowly, and that Denmark risks being found in violation of human rights laws for its family reunification laws.
Støjberg explained that there was a need for restrictive refugee policies, given the economic and social issues related to immigration. But Mesbah is tired of this generalisation.
“It’s not OK that some immigrants don’t work, don’t have any education and don’t do anything. But why do we allow the wives who came here on family reunification not to work and to live instead off money from the state? And why mix things up – refugees are one thing and immigrants are another,” says Mesbah.
“But there is also a large number who are not like that. Almost all of us at JuraRådgivningen are immigrants. When Støjberg left, one of the volunteers said, ‘Fuck that, she doesn’t even have a university education’. And it’s true – we were almost all immigrants, and we were more highly educated than her. It was very strange.”
Threat to rule of law
Mesbah’s concerns about Støjberg extend beyond the minister’s generalised and persistent negativity toward immigrants and refugees – she believes the minister is willing to lie and break the law to get her way.
The clearest example is Støjberg’s order last year to separate married refugee couples if one was under age 18, out of concern that they had entered into a forced union. 34 couples were separated following the order in February 2016 – the majority were female asylum seekers aged 16 or 17, with partners aged 17 to 23.
The policy was overturned the following July, however, after it was ruled that the blanket order was illegal. Danish law requires that a case worker make an individual assessment before deciding whether to separate a refugee couple according to the order, or whether extenuating circumstances allow the couple to remain together.
While Støjberg has insisted that the couples were separated on a case-by-case basis, there is no documentation to support her claim. There is also reason to believe that Støjberg was warned that her order was illegal before she implemented it, and that she decided to follow through with it anyway.
This lack of respect for the legal process is worrisome, argues Mesbah.
“The fact is that they did not follow the law. The law says that all relevant parties need to be consulted before an authority makes a decision – it’s essential law. You learn this in the first year of law school – everyone needs to be heard. You cannot take people’s children without first talking to them. You cannot separate a couple without first talking to them. She didn’t hear these people. She broke Danish law,” she says.
“We are losing our own democracy in the process and she doesn’t get it. The rule of law is essential in a democracy, and if you don’t respect it, then what do you have? We end up being no better than countries that don’t respect democracy and the rule of law. It’s pathetic and it just makes me so angry.”
To be a Dane
Mesbah’s work at JuraRådgivningen dominates her life. In fact, the reason she hasn’t completed her Master’s thesis is because of a 14-year-old Syrian orphan. The municipality rejected his family reunification application with his siblings, and placed him in a home among adults. Mesbah didn’t think that was a constructive or safe environment for him, but her attempts to improve his living situation fell on deaf ears in the municipality, despite countless meetings. Until, that is, she was advised to seek custody herself.
“We had to complain a lot before we prevailed. And the boy is just a mess now, even though we won the case and they apologised. He said that everything he experienced in Syria was nothing compared to what he’s experienced since coming to Denmark.”
As the boy’s guardian, Mesbah can decide which school he goes to and where he lives, which is currently with his uncle.
“I hang out with him two or three days a week. He comes and hangs out and eats food and can just be a child. He thinks it’s so quiet here. So he doesn’t say much, he just lies there and watches Netflix and I make him pancakes.”
Her sons face their own challenges in Denmark. In February, the government submitted a statement to Parliament expressing concern that ethnic Danes are no longer in the majority in certain parts of the country. The statement – which carries no legal consequences – was passed by a majority in Parliament, and seemed to suggest that the 170,000 Danes descended from immigrants were no longer considered Danish.
“My twelve-year-old son reads the newspaper every day, and one day he came home and said, ‘Mommy, Mommy did you hear? We are not Danish anymore! Didn’t you read the newspaper? We are not fucking Danish anymore!’ He was in shock. But his big brother said, ‘Fuck that, what’s the problem? Why would you want to be Danish?’ So we talked and I told them not to worry, that we are world citizens, and that it’s not a problem. But he was very upset. He couldn’t understand why Parliament would say this about third-generation immigrants – my children. They only speak Danish. They haven’t seen anything else, they have Danish passports.”
As for herself?
“I am a world citizen,” she says. “I’ve always had an identity crisis. I don’t feel one hundred percent Iranian, and over the past few years, with the change in mentality and politicians, it’s like I don’t want to be Danish either.” M