The disappearing goal line: Immigrants complain of “injustice” of ever stricter permanent residency rules

Immigrants who were on track to get permanent residency have had the rug pulled from under them twice in two years, leaving some asking whether Denmark is the right country in which to invest their energy

Scrolling through the selfies on Naqeeb Khan’s Facebook profile, it’s obvious that he loves to travel. He’s pictured beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris, exploring Sodermalm in Stockholm, and admiring the spectacular views in Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Originally from Pakistan, Khan moved to Glasgow in 2008 to complete his studies and quickly realised he wanted to stay in Europe.

“I didn’t want to go back to Pakistan – I had become used to living in the UK and its lifestyle and culture,” he says.

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So when the British government changed its visa rules, bringing his stay in the UK to an abrupt end, he carefully considered his options. He eventually came across Denmark’s Green Card Programme, which gave non-EU nationals with a particular set of academic and language skills the opportunity to find work in Denmark.

His application was successful, and he moved to Copenhagen in 2013, but he soon realised that he and thousands of other green card holders faced huge challenges in joining the Danish labour market – they also weren’t entitled to support from Jobcentres when looking for work – despite the implicit promise that their skills were in demand.

In 2014, Khan was elected an executive member of the Danish Green Card Association to draw attention to the programme’s flaws. When the government decided to discontinue the programme last year, he successfully lobbied for an amendment that allowed current green card holders to continue renewing their residence permits.

“We understood that if there weren’t many jobs for green card holders, then they should just abolish the programme. But the original bill meant that I would lose my visa and have to leave the country. I have invested years of my life here. If I had gone to Canada, I would already be a Canadian citizen – I can’t just start at the bottom again.”

Constant changes
Khan has been less successful in preventing swift and sweeping changes to permanent residency rules, however.

Among the central conditions are the length of stay in Denmark, Danish language proficiency, and employment. Until 2016, immigrants qualified for permanent residency after five years in Denmark as long as they were in full or part-time work or education for three out of those five years.

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The refugee crisis prompted a raft of new immigration laws, and with bill L87, the government increased the residency requirement to six years and demanded that applicants had to be in full-time work for 2.5 of the previous 3 years – part-time work and education no longer counted.

In May, the rules were tightened once again with bill L154. Applicants now have to be Danish residents for eight years and be in full-time work for 3.5 of the past 4 years. Applicants must also have passed Danish level 2, rather than only Danish level 1.

Trying to keep up
Speaking to Parliament while presenting L154, immigration minister Inger Støjberg argued the laws created more of an incentive for immigrants to integrate.

“In the opinion of the government, the possibility of gaining permanent residency is a privilege, and the parties agree that we need to set stricter demands on refugees and immigrants to assess their desire and ability to integrate,” Støjberg said.

A number of organisations submitted their opinions on L154 during the consultation period, and the vast majority expressed concern. Many pointed out that the rules had been changed ten times in ten years, making it difficult for immigrants to keep up with changing requirements.

READ MORE: Atoning for the past – The Social Democrats affirm a tougher stance on immigration

But Støjberg argued that a fast-track channel that had been introduced the previous year meant that immigrants who were seriously committed to living in Denmark could be rewarded for their efforts.

The fast-track channel allows permanent residency after only four years if the applicant satisfies four supplementary conditions, but these make serious demands on an applicant’s time: full-time work for four years, a pre-tax average salary of least 275,400 kroner in the previous two years, volunteering in the local community, and passing Danish level 3, which requires near-fluency.

While new arrivals might decide to invest their time to satisfy these requirements, many immigrants who had structured their lives according to old rules were disappointed that their efforts no longer counted.

Take the case of John Kibuuka from Uganda, who met his Danish wife Signe in 2010 at an e-Learning conference, and who settled in Denmark because of the higher quality of life. They now have two young daughters together.

When they relocated to Denmark through family reunification, John decided to continue his education, as his qualifications from Uganda weren’t recognised in Denmark. It was the sensible decision, as it improved his chances of getting a better-paid job, and being in full-time education would also count towards earning his permanent residency.

But when L87 was introduced without warning, his time spent in education suddenly no longer counted toward earning permanent residency – and they were back to square one.

Signe Kibuuka Hermann with her husband John Kibuuka and their two children.

“When we arrived in 2011, he was set to get permanent residency after five years. Now it will be at least ten. And there’s no knowing how many more times they’re going to change the rules before we get to the point where we fulfil all the requirements,” Signe explains.

“We hadn’t anticipated all the trouble the government would give us. If we had, we might have chosen another country altogether.”

John’s lack of permanent residency has a major impact on the family. While John likes the idea of starting his own business after graduating, it’s too much of a risk given that he needs an annual salary of 275,400 kroner in the two years before he submits his application, and work full time for at least 3.5 years out of the previous four years to qualify.

There is also pressure on Signe to remain the primary breadwinner. John’s temporary residence permit can be withdrawn if she accepts the unemployment benefit kontanthjælp (unemployment insurance dagpenge is allowed).

John loses his right to permanent residence in he accepts any unemployment benefits in the four years before handing in his permanent residence application. If either accepts kontanthjælp before John has permanent residency, it may give cause to deny extension of  their family reunification application.

READ MORE: Collateral damage of a flawed immigration system

“The social security that Denmark is so famous for doesn’t apply to us, even though we pay the same taxes as everybody else,” she says.

“It is an immense limitation of our freedom of choice, and I am getting more and more tired of being unable to make decisions about what’s important in my own life. We’re not planning much – planning, daring and trying will have to wait until a time when we can run the risk of failing without having to leave the country.”

Like John Kibuuka, Khan decided to invest his time in establishing a solid foundation for a long life in Denmark. Khan knew that learning the language and building a network were essential, so in the first year he decided to work only two days a week and spend the rest of the time attending language school and looking for work in his field, human resource management.

But changes to the green card programme and permanent residency rules have meant that Khan has had to focus more on work than integration, however.

“My plans kept failing as they changed the rules,” he says, adding that the new permanent residency rules should not have applied to immigrants already in the country.

Legally problematic
L87 was introduced to parliament without warning on December 10, 2015 and applied to all permanent residency applications handed in from that day on, even though the law was not formally passed until January 26, 2016.

According to immigration lawyer Eddie Khawaja, it was highly unusual – but not unconstitutional – that the government chose not to release L87 for a public hearing before it took effect.

“Traditionally, you would only take this approach in an urgent situation. But the situation, the refugee crisis, did not seem to justify not giving foreign citizens the option to prepare themselves for the rule change,” says Khawaja.

L 154 was released for public consultation two months before it was submitted to parliament, giving immigrants a chance to submit an application before the rules changed. Still, Khawaja argues that the constant and sudden changes to immigration law threatens to undermine trust in the legal and political system.

READ MORE: Putting a face to the immigration debate

“The majority of foreign citizens wouldn’t be able to navigate this without legal help, and from a rule of law perspective, that’s problematic – they should be able to navigate the rules that are in place and how to change their conditions accordingly, with clarity.”

Even those trying to stay updated with the new rules face communication roadblocks. From Khawaja’s experience in immigration law, he knows that many immigrants prefer to get their information in English, rather than Danish, if it is available.

But while the Danish section of the Immigration Service’s website,, supplied a small warning that unspecified changes were coming to permanent residency rules while L 154 was going through parliament, the English-language section was only updated after the new rules took effect on May 15. On neither the Danish nor the English page was there a warning that the rules would retroactively apply to applications from March 15.

Khan and Kibuuka were  handed a sliver of hope before the third reading of L154, when four opposition parties submitted an amendment that would restrict the changes to immigrants who had arrived in the country after December 31, 2015. The amendment failed, however, when the opposition-leading Social Democrats joined the government in voting it down.

For someone like Khan, permanent residency provides peace of mind. It means the government cannot revoke his right to live in the country, and that he will be able to live a life that is not centred on trying to live up to a checklist of requirements. For a family father like Kibuuka, it would also mean getting more time with his children, as living up to the supplementary requirements uses up a lot of spare time.

Khan concedes that Denmark needs measures to ensure that those who are given the permanent right to live in Denmark aren’t going to be a burden on the welfare state. But he argues that the recent changes – and the way they have been implemented – have needlessly disrupted the lives of thousands of immigrants, limited their ability to effectively integrate, and undermined Denmark’s ability to attract and retain foreign talent.

“We understand that Denmark is a small country and it has to limit who can be here. We are not fighting to let everyone in – of course we love this country and we would also want to see it prosper, just like any Dane does. But is it fair to invite me based on one set of rules about how long I must work to receive permanent residence, only to increase that number along the way? People make life-changing decisions based on a certain set of rules. But even though they are on their way to fully satisfying every requirement, the rules are changed and they are made to wait longer. That is injustice.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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