UN urges Denmark not to shift detention of asylum seekers to third country

Draft bill risks 'undermining the foundation' of international protection system for refugees

Ethiopian refugees wait outside a UNHCR tent for food prepared on Coptic Christmas day following the slaughtering of sheep for the occasion at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on January 7, 2021. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

The Danish government's plan to crack down on immigration by transferring asylum seekers to a third country while their claims are processed is an unsustainable solution and irresponsible, the UN's refugee agency has said.

On Wednesday, the UNHCR urged the Danish parliament not to pass the bill that would initiate what the agency described as a drastic, restrictive change to the country’s refugee legislation.

The UNHCR's representative for Nordic and Baltic countries, Henrik Nordentoft, said Denmark gave no assurances that the scheme could be introduced in accordance with its international obligations.

Mr Nordentoft said the move risked triggering a domino effect, in which other countries in Europe would also explore the possibility of limiting their protection of refugees.

“This can lead to a frightening ‘race to the bottom’, where the lives and welfare of refugees will be endangered and their protection significantly impaired,” he said.

“The UNHCR, therefore, looks with great concern at the current Danish bill, which risks undermining the foundation of the international protection system for the world’s refugees.”

The bill to amend the Aliens Act is under parliamentary consideration after a recent agreement between Denmark and Rwanda on asylum and migration issues.

The deal set out plans to move asylum procedures outside the EU and has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations.

Many have expressed concerns that Denmark would effectively be outsourcing its obligations under international law in exchange for aid.

Amnesty International said the memorandum was a "new low" and set a dangerous precedent of shifting EU responsibility for refugee protection.

“Any attempt to transfer asylum seekers arriving in Denmark to Rwanda for their asylum claims to be processed would be not only unconscionable, but potentially unlawful,” said Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s regional director for Europe.

Asylum seekers evacuated from Libya are seen standing in a group at the Gashora Emergency Transit Center   during a visit by permanent representatives of the African Union (AU) in Bugesera district, about 58 kilometres southeast of Rwanda's capital, Kigali, on October 23, 2019. - Different permanent representatives to the African Union paid a visit to the facility on October 23,2019, as part of their activities including the Continental Consultative meeting on Humanitarian assistance in Africa currently taking place in Rwanda. (Photo by CYRIL NDEGEYA / AFP)

Signed by Denmark's Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye, the memorandum says the country is committed to finding "new and sustainable solutions" to challenges faced by countries that refugees travel from, through and to.

“The current asylum system is unfair and unethical by incentivising children, women and men to embark on dangerous journeys along the migratory routes, while human traffickers earn fortunes,” it says.

The agreement has fuelled speculation that Copenhagen plans to open an offshore asylum centre in Rwanda.

In 2019, Rwanda built a centre for refugees trapped in custody in Libya as part of emergency efforts to relocate people from the conflict in the North African country at the time.

Denmark's government publicly stated its desire to establish a reception centre for refugees in a third country.

The nation's ruling Social Democrat party maintains a strong anti-immigration agenda after taking power two years ago.

In 2020, Denmark received 1,515 asylum applications, the lowest number in two decades, according to Amnesty International. Of those, 601 people were given a permit to stay.