Q&A : Michala Bendixen

Michala Bendixen won the 2014 Danish Institute for Human Rights' Honorary Prize for her work at the organisation Refugees Welcome

The head of the volunteer organisation Refugees Welcome, Michala Bendixen, received massive media attention in early August when she published an opinion piece in UK newspaper The Guardian urging refugees to come to Denmark. A trained graphic designer, she has recently decided to give up her trade to volunteer full time with refugees. Her tireless work ethic and passionate attitude won her the 2014 Danish Institute for Human Rights’ Honorary Prize.

We had a chat with her about politics, passion and making a difference.

What is Refugees Welcome?
Our main work is free legal counselling for asylum seekers and refugees. We offer this in person once a week, and at any time by email and phone. This is done voluntarily by a group of great people who all have some kind of relevant background, but they also take courses that cover all the complex parts of asylum law and practice. My role is to educate the volunteers and manage the many tasks as the leader of the organisation. I also spend a lot of time doing advocacy work for refugees in public.

What made you decide to do volunteer work with refugees?
I have always been interested in foreigners and other cultures, but I gradually realised that refugees are in a very vulnerable position and need someone who can understand and explain the complicated asylum system for them. Also, many Danish citizens do not realise what these people have gone through and why they cannot just go back to where they came from. For me, being a refugee must be the most terrible thing anyone could experience – to lose your whole base and everything you know, and suddenly be at the mercy of strangers.

Why is it important that we focus on this issue as a society?
Refugees have a right to protection. The UN Refugee Convention is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that the world could actually be more peaceful, respectful and just, if we choose to make it that way. The Danish society has a special obligation as one of the richest and most stable countries in the world. We have built a system based on the idea of distributing wealth and making sure that everybody has their basic needs fulfilled. This kind of thinking cannot stop at the border. And right now, there are so many refugees coming to Europe that we need to lead the way and show that we can take care of many more – if we do our best.

What are some of your most important experiences working in this field?
I have had many frustrating moments and sleepless nights, trying to find a way to keep somebody safe in Denmark.

However, I have also had many, many happy moments of celebration. I get so many invitations to dinner, dancing, coffee, weddings, birthdays that I have to say no sometimes. Some of the refugees become my close friends; they are always inspiring to be around. This summer, my family invited five Eritrean guys to our summer house for four days. We had a great time and laughed so much!

What makes you want to get up in the morning and try to make a difference?
I can’t help it, and I don’t remember how it was before I started. Sometimes I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do this – maybe not the legal work, but the social work. It gives me so much and it is so meaningful. I just wish I had more hours in the day to do more.

How do you stay optimistic?
I make sure to have a lot of fun too. We have fantastic Friday nights with dancing at the Trampoline House, and I have endless political discussions with some of the more intellectual refugees. Even those who have met the cruellest fates can be quite rewarding to be around. Also, I have become more ‘professional’ over time. I don’t cry easily anymore when people tell me their stories. And I have to admit that a few of them are not quite honest – exaggerating or simply lying.

How do you balance working as a volunteer with making a living?
I don’t! I made a choice recently that I have to find funding for my refugee work and stop the graphic design work gradually. The refugee work has taken over far too much now, and I still have to pay my rent. I hope my new website,, will be able to raise enough money to pay me a basic salary, and for the past year Refugees Welcome has paid me a small salary for all the tasks I do.

What was it like winning the Danish Institute for Human Rights’ Honorary Prize in 2014?
I was very surprised and honoured! It’s special because it is awarded by some of the people and organisations I respect the most. I always feel like an amateur in the company of experts, so this was a very strong bit of recognition for me. I also found it brave of them to give it to me because I have strong political opinions.

What made you write the piece in The Guardian urging refugees to flee to Denmark?
Two things: integration minister Inger Støjberg should not be allowed to get away with painting this image of Denmark as xenophobic and closed. Secondly, more refugees deserve to come here and get a good life. Besides, the more we can distribute them among the stronger European countries, the better it is for everyone.

What difference has the media spotlight on the Guardian article made to your life and work?
The Danish media went wild the day after it was published. I was live nonstop everywhere all day! So that was a tough day, but also great, as it was exactly what I had hoped for. And I think I managed to choose media outlets where I got time to talk in more detail, and not just do 40 seconds of quick answers. After that, a lot of people contacted me to show their support, and the opposite too. I had some real threats, but they didn’t really make me scared. After that it was back to normal.

Is the government not correct when it says that people are coming to Denmark because of the obvious benefits of the Danish welfare state?
In terms of the general society, yes. Of course some will consider where the options of education, good jobs and some kind of support from society are better. But I have never met a refugee who knew about the different types of cash benefits available before arriving in Denmark. They all say, “I want to work, right away!” but then realise it’s not that easy to find a job here, in spite of the low unemployment rates. But it was never the plan for them to live off the state’s money.

You say that Denmark has more than enough funds to house a large amount of refugees. But the government says that we do not have enough money for all of the refugees applying for asylum in Denmark. Can you explain this?
It’s a question of priority. Lebanon is much smaller and much poorer than Denmark, and they have taken in 1.3 million refugees. We spend much more money on things like the military and motorways than refugees. Only 1.9% of the Danish population has a refugee background, so we can handle many more. We also spend the money in a stupid way. Asylum seekers cost more than 200,000 kroner per year, because we place them in centres with all of the administration that goes into that. Councils also spend fortunes putting refugees in hotels instead of asking local people to rent out their guest rooms, which the refugees would clearly prefer, and build some more houses for the future.

Do we need a change of attitude towards refugees in general in Denmark?
There is a growing understanding and willingness to do something among Danes – I hope this will slowly erase the growing cynicism and lack of empathy. I also hope the new refugees from Syria and Eritrea will be easier to integrate. In that way, they will be their own best advocates. Soon, we will also need young people to take care of our aging population, and maybe that will change attitudes, too.

In your opinion, what should be done about the enormous influx of refugees on a European level?
Unfortunately, I think we have to face the fact that it will continue getting worse for a long time.  The neighbouring countries [in the Middle East, ed.] are filled up now, and there is a risk of new conflicts evolving. We have to find a fair way to distribute them in Europe, and we have to cancel the Dublin system, which is obviously not working.

To get rid of the smugglers and the high number of drowning accidents, we have to establish legal ways to get to Europe via embassies or the UNHCR. Think about what fantastic work we did after World War II, rebuilding Europe in no time. We can handle this situation if we accept it and work together on solutions. M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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