The last stand of refugee rights

Last month, parliament passed a controversial law allowing police to confiscate valuables from refugees and delay family reunification to curb the refugee influx. With pressure mounting to pull out entirely from the UN refugee convention, detractors insist the crisis needs more, not less, international cooperation

Half a century ago, Denmark was the first country to sign the UN Refugee Convention. Its purpose is to ensure that no nation refuses sanctuary to groups escaping danger, as happened to millions of displaced people during the World War II.

But the convention is under threat. Europe’s inability to manage the enormous number of refugees and migrants that have arrived this year has pushed the continent to its limits. The solution, according to political party Liberal Alliance (LA) is to scrap the convention and start again.

“We need to accept that we exist in a new reality. We have both a duty to help the victims of the war in Syria, but we also have a duty to take care of our own society,” LA’s group chairman Simon Emil Ammitzbøll told Berlingske newspaper in January.

His party wants Denmark to withdraw from the convention for two years and lead a group of nations in revising the agreement. In the meantime, Denmark will increase the number of UN quota refugees from 500 per year to 4,000, which is still far fewer than Denmark expects to receive at the current rate. The money saved, around six billion kroner, will go to humanitarian aid in Syria and nearby areas.

Refugee threat
Rather than helping those in need, Ammitzbøll argues that the convention is placing undue pressure on countries such as Denmark. The convention requires that when a refugee arrives in a country – a so-called ‘spontaneous arrival’ – it is that country’s responsibility to care and provide them with certain rights.

The expenses associated with refugees are high. In the 63 of 98 councils that replied to a TV2 survey, the costs of refugees increased from 300 million kroner in 2010 to 1.5 billion kroner in 2015. The Immigration Ministry expects spending on caring for refugees and their families to reach around 4.4 billion kroner next year. To prevent these costs from spiralling out of control, the Danish government has introduced a series of laws to make Denmark a less attractive place to seek refuge.

But Denmark is far from the only country to tighten its immigration laws in the face of rising numbers of refugees. Sweden recently implemented border checks after receiving over 160,000 refugee applications last year, prompting Denmark to do the same across its German border.

Germany is also revisiting its refugee policy after a mob – reportedly of immigrant men – carried out mass assaults against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Amid talk of a clash of civilisations and growing domestic tensions over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to refugees, the German leader conceded Europe’s need to readdress an escalating situation.

“We are suddenly facing the challenge posed by refugees arriving in Europe and we are vulnerable because we do not yet have the order, the control, that we would like to have,” German newspaper Die Welt reported Merkel saying in January.

While she called for the preservation of the Schengen zone, she advocated increased security of the EU’s external borders. But her pledge to reduce refugee numbers in the wake of the assaults, combined with the tightening of borders across Europe, means Denmark might not be the only bloc member to call for a revision of international refugee commitments in the future.

Ammitzbøll echoed Merkel’s fears.

“I fear that the international system with conventions will break down if we don’t do something drastic now. We need to accept that European societies face real problems in protecting themselves and surviving as liberal humanistic democracies.”

Race to the bottom
Immigration spokesperson for the governing Liberal Party (Venstre) Marcus Knuth rejected LA’s proposal, but in December the Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen expressed a desire to scale back the convention in an interview with TV2.

“If you escape war and live in Turkey for two or three years, should you then be able to travel to Europe and file an asylum application? The current rules say you can, but that’s something we want to discuss,” Rasmussen said.

UN officials have taken note of growing hostility towards the convention, and in an interview with The Guardian, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, rose to its defence.

“The refugee convention has saved millions of lives and is one of the greatest human rights instruments that has ever been put into effect. It is a milestone of humanity developed in the wake of massive population movements that exceeded even the magnitude of what we see today. At its core the convention embodies fundamental humanitarian values.”

Andreas Kamm, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, does not support tinkering with the convention, and argues the refugee crisis demonstrates that the entire bloc is failing to pull its weight.

“We are unfortunately witnessing a sort of ‘race to the bottom’ in Europe, where countries are trying to push refugees to seek shelter anywhere else but here,” he explains.

European solution
The Social Liberal Party (Radikale) are opposed to all talk of revising the conventions. Leader Morten Østergaard argues that commitment to international conventions and human rights is particularly important in times when those conventions may be inconvenient.

“The conventions were written for this exact situation, and I am distressed by the fact that this motivates the right wing to demand the conventions be changed. Bear in mind this is one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the world. One could also be concerned by the slippery slope nature of the PM’s comments. Where does it end? What about human rights, the convention on the rights of children, rules of war, and so on.”

He adds that the solution to the refugee situation is through international cooperation and accuses the government of avoiding any European commitments.

“We believe, along with the European Commission, that we need to strengthen the external borders. At the same time we must recognise that a sustainable solution requires a permanent mechanism to fairly distribute refugees among EU’s Member States. Furthermore, we need to significantly increase the funding of humanitarian aid. The UN recently announced that it needs around 15 billion dollars in humanitarian aid, which is why the Danish government’s cutbacks on funding is very poorly timed.”

The Danish Government’s reluctance to participate in a joint European asylum policy might very well have increased the amount of people seeking asylum in Denmark, he argues, which might ultimately result in the closure internal borders and increases the possibility of a Schengen collapse.

“A combined European Policy would reduce the amount of refugees in Denmark, help distinguish between migrants and refugees, and get the influx of refugees under control. Since the Danish Government has shown no interest in solving the refugee situation along with the other EU member states, it has become clear that the government is more interested in performing symbolic policies than actually working towards a solution.”

The politics of ‘crisis’
While EU states panic over the volume of new arrivals, its intake pales in comparison to the slack being picked up by the developing world. According to 2014 UNHCR figures, 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The social infrastructure of some nations is being pushed to the brink by the Syrian crisis. 1.3 million Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, whose only population is 4.5 million.

When Rasmussen suggested sending some asylum seekers back to Turkey, he didn’t  mention that the Mediterranean country is housing around 1.6 million refugees – more than the entire EU took in last year.

Migration researcher Johannes Dragsbæk Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at Aalborg University, agrees with the PM that the convention is outdated, but thinks amendments should be geared in the opposite direction – to address the inequality between receiving countries.

“Lebanon has received very limited assistance from the international community, for instance. What is needed is a more fair, humane and legally binding convention which relieves the burden in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where more 86 percent of the world’s 50 million refugees live.”

In light of this, is the trending phrase ‘European migrant crisis’ even appropriate at all? Schmidt says the situation has been labelled a crisis in Denmark for political expediency.

“The main question is how you define ‘crisis’. The Danish government, in a neo-classical fashion, has cast the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in pure economic terms as a threat to the welfare state. It uses asylum seekers as a justification to not only cut into social entitlements, but also to justify the recent cuts to development aid, an area where Denmark was always traditionally at the forefront.”

He also cites the growing influence of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DF), who are the second-largest party in parliament after they emerged from last June’s election with a historic 21.1 percent of the vote.

“Among other reasons, the Prime Minister’s proposal is a populist attempt to please DF and indirectly create growing anxiety among the population – especially the elderly – and implicitly build on the image of refugees as an economic threat.”

Ultimately, Schmidt worries that the new laws are a huge blow to Denmark’s reputation as a country committed to human rights.

“Our international image as a safe, green and hospitable country is rapidly declining,” says Schmidt, adding that the new laws may also inspire other EU countries to water down refugee protections.

“With the latest proposal, Denmark may become a role-model for countries like Poland and Hungary who have already taken very tough measures against refugees and who may wish to follow in its footprints and demand radical changes in the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.” M

Features, News

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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