“I was just so disappointed,” he says after a long pause. “I was disappointed in Denmark for pushing me out because of who I loved, and because I knew that I was leaving over 30 years of my life behind.”
Lasse Larving describes the crushing decision to leave Denmark with his Canadian spouse Michelle Lucas after the immigration authorities ruled that she would never be eligible for permanent residence.
“I felt like I never had the opportunity to truly enjoy Denmark,” says Lucas. “I loved parts of it, but in the end I felt like I was being treated like a second-class citizen. You work so hard to be in a place that doesn’t seem to even want you, and you start to think, ‘what’s the point?'”
Given Denmark’s wealth, security and generosity, joining its community is rightfully an earned privilege. But strict immigration rules designed to protect this wealth has inflicted collateral damage – couples like Lucas and Larving, who are excluded through the state’s attempt to filter out those deemed unfit for integration.
Moving to the promised land
It was a summer vacation fling that grew into marriage. Lucas and Larving met while on holiday in Thailand in 2009. So strong was their bond that Lucas soon moved to Denmark on a working holiday visa.
“I went to school, took Danish classes, and by the end of the year we had to decide what we needed to do – getting married or breaking up were basically our only two options,” Lucas explains.
The couple were married shortly after in June 2011 in Copenhagen City Hall, the bride in a classic cream cocktail dress with a matching white bow and fascinator, and the groom in a sleek black suit and sneakers. The couple were excited about starting a life together in Copenhagen, and had every intention of enjoying the easy-going Danish lifestyle for many years to come.
For a Danish national to marry a non-EU citizen, they must both be at least 24 years of age, reside in a Danish apartment of a specific size, and deposit approximately 50,000 kroner in a locked account for five years as collateral. In addition, Danish language requirements must be fulfilled within six months of marriage. It was this strict technicality that eventually lost the couple their right to permanent residency in Denmark – he can stay, she can’t.
“We got married on a weekday so we could submit the paperwork the next day,” explained Lucas.
After that it was a waiting game, a time Lucas describes as “a miserable hell”, which was far more difficult and emotionally taxing than she had anticipated.
“I was just in absolute limbo. I wasn’t allowed to leave, I wasn’t allowed to work – which was fair enough, but I wasn’t even allowed to volunteer,” she said.
Six months dragged on with Larving supporting them both, the looming answer constantly weighing heavily on their minds and putting a strain on their relationship.
“When you go through the process, you’re torn apart, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you look like shit, and you feel like shit.” Larving explained. “You can have a normal day, but as soon as you come home and try to fall asleep, you just think ‘what if’ and it kills you inside.”
After six months, the application was finally approved – they could stay together. Little did they know this right could just as easily be lost.
A costly technicality
Lucas began working night shifts as a pastry chef, sometimes working six days a week and rarely having time off on the weekends. Her new job made it difficult for her to complete Danish classes within the prescribed period of time. This is a strict stipulation required for spouses seeking permanent residence. While she had begun Danish classes on her holiday visa, the classes were not completed consecutively and, as a result, she was told she could never apply for permanent residency.
Without this right, Larving and Lucas would have to apply for a new visa approximately every 18 months under the scheme of ‘family reunification’ – a visa designed for spouses and accompanying family members. The couple would have to relive the same struggle every time they submitted a new application – an application with no guarantee of approval.
After a difficult deliberation, the couple decided to relocate to Lucas’ hometown, Oakville, in the Canadian province of Ontario. They sold their apartment and began preparing for their departure, feeling the misery of countless goodbyes and supressing the anxiety of starting a whole new chapter.
“I felt disowned,” said Larving. “Growing up in Denmark, you feel like you’re a part of something, you’ve contributed to make this what it is – and now we’ve been forced out.”
The ‘family reunification’ scheme has experienced a significant tightening over the past decades, but was eased in 2012 with the arrival of the current centre-right government. The changes were not retroactive, however, and Lucas and Larving were still subject to the old, tougher, rules.
According to Silvia Adamo, an expert in UN and immigration law from The University of Copenhagen, the tight immigration rules are the result of a variety of societal pressures.
“In 2002, they passed some laws addressing integration ‘problems’. But they basically just tightened rules for marriage and family reunification in order to decrease the number of immigrants coming to Denmark,” she says.
“Denmark is quite a homogenous country, so the idea that there were people living here who were of another religion or didn’t speak Danish very well clashed with this idea of community.”
Adamo argues that there is also a clear effort to reduce the number of humanitarian migrants and asylum seekers, and this strategy has been spilling over into cases of family reunification.
“There is a great deal of debate as to whether Danish immigration policies breach human rights, especially considering the right to family life,” she explained. “Some of the immigration policies go to the absolute brink of being brought to international courts.”
Like Adamo, the couple believes the problem lies not only with the immigration policies, but also with the general attitude towards foreigners in Denmark. Larving feels that aside from Copenhagen, the vast majority of Danes are not open to cultural diversity.
“They have the attitude that everyone is coming to take advantage of the welfare system,” Larving claims.
Lucas admits that while their immigration process was stressful, they have heard far worse stories.
“It’s a vicious circle. People show up and they’re not welcome, they become angry and start disliking the Danish culture, and then of course Danes are going to become equally wary. I feel there is so much wrong with the immigration system. Not just that it prevents people from coming in, but also in the way that it treats people.”
Professor Sune Lægaard, an expert in migration and integration at Roskilde University, says politically and socially there is a strong protectionism toward maintaining Denmark’s identity. He argues, however, that people aren’t against the idea of multiculturalism, but are simply concerned with the misuse of the welfare state.
“Many immigrants are a net cost for the welfare state and this is a very real economic problem,” he said. “Some who come to Denmark, often for very good reasons, probably won’t be extremely productive for at least a few years, as they may not have the necessary education or qualifications. It’s not that we don’t like immigrants, we just want to preserve the welfare state.”
Larving found work in his field as a logistics professional, while Lucas is now in a dream job as assistant food editor at the Canadian magazine Chatelaine. They fell through the cracks in Denmark and found their place somewhere else. While Canada reaps the reward of their labour, Denmark is saved the burden of a couple whose complicated relationship was deemed too much of a threat to the country’s famous social cohesion. M
Editor’s note 18:26 – 5/12/2014
There has been some discussion that the article is misleading, given that the rules for family reunification were changed in 2012. These changes rules were not retroactive, however, and did not apply to the couple in question. The article has now been changed to clarify that the family reunification laws were eased in 2012.
While that may be, the article is still pertinent. Changing immigration rules are of no consolation to those who were caught out. And while they have been eased now, the political wind is not blowing in favour easing them – quite the contrary. It is of our opinion that we need to draw attention to cases like these to remember the potential collateral damage of excessively strict regulations and bureaucracy.