Not without my family

In June, Syrian refugee Omar Martini went on a hunger strike for nine days outside the Immigration Service in Copenhagen to draw attention to the prolonged processing of his family reunification case. Convinced that the delay was intentional, he is now setting up a committee to help other desperate Syrian refugees bring their families to Denmark

Omar Martini arrived in Denmark in March 2014, fleeing war and potential death in his native Syria. After spending nearly six months at an asylum centre in Sandholm, he received his residence permit and now lives in Ringe on Funen. But after seven months of waiting for his application for family reunification with his wife and two children to be processed, he decided to declare a hunger strike. Nine days in, and after extensive media attention, the case was suddenly complete, and his family were permitted to join him from ISIS-controlled Idlib in Syria.

Omar Martini’s case is not uncommon. Since his case made headlines, many others have come forward to complain that their applications have taken far longer than the three to five months the Danish Immigration Service promises on its website. So-called ‘complicated’ cases should take no more than five months, making the eleven-month wait some refugees have reported seem out of proportion.

Omar Martini is convinced the many delays are no coincidence.

“The delays are definitely on purpose. The immigration system is just playing along with whatever the government tells them to do. It is becoming a terrible bureaucracy, and I can hardly believe it. They are doing just what the government said: they are making Denmark less attractive – and succeeding.”

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Omar Martini was joined during his hunger strike by a handful of other Syrians, inspired by his example. After receiving news that his case had gone through, Omar sat with the other hunger strikers to let the Immigration Service know that his case was not a one-off. The strikers received massive support from many other

Syrian refugees, who were either seeking family reunification themselves, or had experienced the tiresome bureaucracy of the Immigration Service in Copenhagen.

So many people offered to join the hunger strike that Omar Martini, worried he would not be able to control the crowd, decided to end it.

“In the end there were almost 25 of us striking, and people were writing on Facebook and telling me they had dozens of people willing to join. I was worried about us becoming too many, as I thought we might not be able to control the crowd. It was important for me not to disturb the friendly neighbours and keep the area clean while we were on the strike. I thought to myself: we need to be organised and efficient.”

Omar offered to end the strike on the condition that the Danish Immigration Service processed the roughly 30 cases that were, in his eyes, the most pressing. He also promised that the Syrians would form a committee, telling the authorities that if conditions did not improve, he and his fellow strikers would return.

“I thought that talking to the Immigration Service on behalf of a committee, which represents a lot of people, would be more efficient. It is just a more diplomatic way to put pressure on the people processing the family reunification cases. I also told the Immigration Service that if they don’t make an effort to process the cases that the committee views as the most desperate, we could declare a hunger strike again. And this time we will come back in big numbers – and we will be organised,” he says.

Omar is now in the process of setting up the committee, which he has called the Syrian Refugee Help Committee. He estimates that it will have over 2000 members.


Case delays
Omar Martini is not the only one who believes the cases are being delayed on purpose. The new Liberal Party (Venstre) government has publicly stated that it wants to make Denmark less attractive to refugees, and integration minister Inger Støjberg wants to put adverts in foreign papers to persuade refugees to seek asylum in countries other than Denmark.

Law student Asrin Mesbah, who is a part of the refugee network Venligboerne (Friendly Residents) and has done pro-bono work for many Syrians seeking family reunification, is in no doubt as to whether the Danish Immigration Service is making the application process overly complicated on purpose.

“I have seen so many examples of applicants not being helped properly by the Immigration Service. The communication is almost non-existent, so when you decide to provide the applicants with hardly any information at all, it is no wonder that the applications are often lacking in some way. I have 50 cases pending at the moment. They have all been delayed by small details like this. It just does not seem proportional,” she says.

She goes on to explain that if an application is lacking a signature or a copy of a marriage certificate, for example, the Immigration Service is entitled to file the case away in the so called ‘screening period’ until the application is complete. When applicants are able to provide the missing elements, the whole process starts over – thereby delaying the case significantly.

Mesbah is worried that Støjberg has directly requested that the Immigration Service delay as many cases as possible.

“I am afraid that the Immigration Service is being dictated to by the Ministry of Integration to reject and delay as many cases as possible until the government tightens up the rules,” she declares.


Back to normal procedure
Kirsa Reinholt, head of the Immigration Service, denies all accusations that her office is deliberately slow-walking cases, stating that the delays experienced over the summer period had to do with the enormous rise in applications as well as the setting up of a new, second office to deal with the cases.

“Even with the extraordinarily large number of applications in the year 2015, the vast majority of cases, around 80 percent, are being completed in the targeted five months. Missing information in the applications, which has kept us from starting the processing of cases, has caused certain applicants to become understandably frustrated. Therefore, our goal has been to shorten the screening time so that even cases lacking information will be completed in 3-5 months,” she says.

She adds that the Immigration Service has increased their staff significantly, taking the number of employees in the office from 46 to 90 people. This, she says, is to tackle the problem of the so-called ‘screening period’, which she says has been shortened by about a third over the summer.

She concludes by explaining that the office is now fully functional again, and has resumed normal procedures, calling the current processing times “very satisfying”.

Making Denmark unattractive for refugees
While declining to comment on individual cases, Venstre integration spokesperson Marcus Knuth openly stated that one of the central goals of the new government is to make Denmark a less attractive destination for refugees.

“It is absolutely the case that we want to make Denmark less attractive for refugees – that is written in black and white in our policy on this matter. At the moment, Denmark is receiving an incredibly large number of asylum seekers compared to other European countries, and we want to bring that number down,” he says.

He adds that “to his knowledge,” the deliberate delay of family reunification cases is not a strategy being used to achieve this goal.

“If I were to say anything on the individual cases, I think a possible reason for their delay could be the new government setting up the brand-new Ministry of Integration.”

He added that while the government is preparing a series of new laws that will tighten and restrict services for asylum seekers, as well as affect the possibility of earning family reunification, these laws will only be implemented once they have passed in Parliament.

“It would be rather strange if we were implementing future laws in this area that have not yet been passed in Parliament. That is not customary for us – as far as I know.” M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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