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close this bookThe Courier N 121 March-april 1990- Dossier Refugees - Country Reports: Botswana - Zambia (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the documentRefugees in the EEC: the case of Denmark

Refugees in the EEC: the case of Denmark


Though the numbers of refugees in Denmark are small in absolute terms, it is one of the countries of the European Community which has been most open to receiving refugees- indeed something over a fifth of its non-Danish population has refugee status. Though it is typical in many ways in its treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, in other ways its approach is individual.

This article, from the Danish Refugee Council, explains where Denmark’s refugees come from, how they are integrated into Danish society and how hitherto sympathetic public attitudes appear to he gradually changing in the face of rising levels of domestic unemployment.

Of the 5.1 million people living in Denmark, some 145000 are foreigners, corresponding to less than 3 % of the population- a very low figure compared with other European countries. The foreign population can be roughly divided into three groups: 60 000 immigrants; some 55 000 people from the other Nordic countries. the EEC and North America living in Denmark and 30 000 refugees who obtained asylum during the 1980s.

At the risk of being accused of simplification, I would say that when the Danes speak about their aliens, they are thinking of the 90 000 immigrants and refugees, and it is this last category that is of interest here.

All Denmark’s refugees share one fundamental characteristic the fact that they were admitted into Denmark because the authorities considered them to fulfil certain conditions of the Aliens’ Act. But apart from these “technical” details about their right to asylum, the refugees have so little in common that to characterise them as a group is meaningless. Their common features tend to be of a purely negative nature, i.e. they do not speak Danish on their arrival, they have no home of their own, they cannot earn a living straight away, they have no language in common, they cannot communicate with the authorities of their native countries, and so on.

The refugee has a lot to offer, many qualities which can prove useful to Danish society, but first has to go through his individual integration process, which may be long or short, but which is rarely straightforward. The most striking common feature among the refugees is perhaps their dissimilarity. This assertion may be easier to understand if it is considered that 4863 persons were recognised as refugees and consigned to the Danish Refugee Council in 1989, representing 35 different nationalities and stateless persons with earlier residence permits in nine different countries!

Five groups

Five groups among our refugees are clearly the largest and include 25 000 persons, the three largest groups being Iranians (7 650), stateless Palestinians from Lebanon (5 200), and Tamils from Sri Lanka (4 600), all of whom arrived during the 1980s. The arrival of 4 600 Vietnamese and 3,500 Poles date further back.

For the sake of completeness it should be added that the number of Palestinians can be increased by more than 1 000 if stateless persons from other Middle-East countries than Lebanon as well as Lebanese citizens are included.

Looking at the movements of the past few months, it emerges that the number of Polish refugees has stagnated. Only 80 Poles were granted asylum during 1989, which is a consequence of the promising political developments in Eastern Europe in general, including Poland. On the other hand, Denmark gave asylum to 272 refugees from Romania in 1989.

The history of the Polish refugees in Denmark goes back to the summer of 1969 when violent anti-Semitic currents forced thousands of Polish Jews to flee, a flight which was made possible if the Jews renounced their Polish citizenship. Most went to Israel, but Sweden and Denmark also received relatively large numbers, and in the 20 years which have followed many Poles have obtained asylum in Denmark. The suppression of the Solidarity movement, in the early 1980s, led to a new wave of Polish asylum-seekers in Denmark.

South-East Asia

The first Vietnamese refugees came to Denmark in the mid-1970s the earliest being the 214 Vietnamese children and youngsters who arrived with the Danish journalist Henning Becker in April 1975. A couple of months later, the first 103 boat people were brought to Denmark on a Danish ship that had saved them from shipwreck.

However, most of the other Vietnamese refugees have been accepted into Denmark under the so-called quota agreement with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR) which seeks to resettle the refugees who are living in camps in their countries of first arrival e.g. Thailand and Hong Kong.

In 1989 Denmark decided to increase its yearly quota to 500 refugees. The country also participates in two special agreements according to which refugees rescued at sea, and a few handicapped refugees, are granted asylum. As a result, Vietnamese refugees continue coming to Denmark and in 1989, 645 were accepted.

In 1985 the world witnessed the first Tamil refugees fleeing from the civil war devastating the Northern part of Sri Lanka, and 300 were granted asylum in Denmark. Since then there has been a clear decrease in the number of new, spontaneous refugees. On the other hand, the question of the Tamils’ right to be united with their families became a hot political topic by the end of 1988 and a large number of reunification applications accumulated. Therefore, the fact that 583 Tamils were consigned to the Danish Refugee Council during 1989, is above all a result of decisions in favour of members of refugees’ familes.

Number of Palestinian refugees increasing

If the present trend continues, Palestinians will soon be the largest refugee group in Denmark, because the civil war in Lebanon continues to be very explosive and because the number of Palestinians already in Denmark will bring about a certain number of family reunifications. The total of the Palestinian group increased by a little more than 1300 in 1989.

The refugee work-structure in Denmark

Compared with some larger countries, the number of refugees in Denmark is not remarkable, but the way of structuring the work with the refugees from the moment of their arrival is probably rather unusual. There is, for example, the Danish tradition of close co-operation between the State and private humanitarian organisations. Asylum-seekers who come to Denmark and obtain permission to stay during the examination of their case are normally lodged in centres administered by the Danish Red Cross, i.e. a private organisation. The work, however, is financed by public funds through the Ministry of Justice.

If asylum is granted, the asylum-seeker, now a recognised refugee, is offered an integration-programme under the auspices of the Danish Refugee Council (also a non-governmental organisation). The work is financed by public funds through the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The public authorities have realised that, with private organisations in charge of the refugee work, their high motivation and flexibility, particularly in terms of staff, offer considerable advantages both in the quality and the cost of the work. The Danish Refugee Council makes available to the refugees an 18-month integration-programme which is accepted by more than 99 % of the refugees. This means that they follow four daily lessons in Danish and in the social and cultural structure of the country. They are helped to find their own place to live, to plan a training programme and, in some cases, to find a job. The language training is not run by the Danish Refugee Council alone, but some 70% of the refugees attend the language schools of the Danish Refugee Council, while the rest are taught through some of the numerous private educational institutions. Ideally, the education should consist of 20 weekly lessons, but because of reduced grants this number is not attained in all cases. The Danish Parliament has decided on a policy of spreading the refugees as evenly as possible throughout the country, in relation to the local population density, so making the best possible use of the resources available in Danish society. The Refugee Council has accepted this policy, but has also pointed to the fact that if the refugees are forced to spread out, their social network will be extremely fragile. There are refugees living in about 250 of Denmark’s 277 municipalities.

The problem of getting a job

It may be difficult to get the refugees a place of their own in which to live, but the difficulty is as nothing compared with the problems in finding them employment. For several years now, the rate of unemployment in Denmark has been 8-9 % of the labour force, and, with more than 250 000 unemployed hoping for a job, it goes without saying that special measures are needed to find the refugees a way into the labour market. For this reason, once the refugee’s knowledge of the Danish language is satisfactory, the Refugee Council concentrates on placing him or her on a useful training course, because- just as the Danes themselves and the immigrants- the refugees are aware that training is the key to their success on the labour market.

Only a small percentage of the refugees can manage to support themselves when the 18 months with the Council have passed. The vast majority needs public support to continue their studies or must live on social assistance from their municipality. However, the refugees do not represent a great burden on their municipalities during the first six years. In view of the fact that the refugee policy is a result of Government decisions, the State reimburses the municipalities for almost all their expenses.

Public attitudes towards refugees

In spite of the fact that the number of refugees in Denmark is not very large, the relationship between Danes and refugees and immigrants was the subject of heated debate amongst the Danish public throughout the 1980s.

In the course of the first years of the Danish Refugee Council’s existence, i.e. from 1956 to 1979, a little fewer than 10 000 refugees were granted asylum. As mentioned earlier, however, their numbers trebled during the 1980s, a heavy increase which was reflected in many ways.

The Aliens’ Act, which defines the asylum-seekers’ opportunities in Denmark, was renewed in 1983 after years of committee work, but was amended twice in 1985 and was severely restricted in October 1986.

Refugees have been the topic of the repeated debate in the press and other media and political parties to the left and right of the political spectrum have tried to adapt to the new currents. The public debate about the relationship between Danes and foreigners displays the same passion as in other European countries. Nevertheless, sociological studies show that, apart from a certain period in the autumn of 1986, only 5-7 % of Danes consider refugee problems to be a major political Issue.

Opinion polls carried out in the spring of 1988 and the summer of 1989 indicated that about 50 % of the population have no clearly defined attitude towards the presence of refugees (and immigrants) in the country. Thirty-three per cent have a fundamentally positive attitude, and the rest a negative attitude. The trend between the two polls shows, however, that the clearly negative group is growing, which indicates that Denmark is likely to have the same problems on the agenda in the 1990s as most other Western European countries regarding the relationship between its own nationals and its immigrants and refugees.

F. S.