Denmark to open Rwanda office as part of offshore asylum plans

The EU country says it will resettle 200 refugees who are in Rwanda but is also looking at ways to send migrants there for processing, similar to the UK's agreement with Kigali

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)
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Denmark will open an office in Rwanda as the European Union country steps up plans to set up an offshore asylum centre there, in keeping with the government's increasingly hard-line stance on refugees.

The office, manned by two diplomats, will be based in the capital Kigali, the Danish foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

Last week, the Nordic country said it would resettle 200 refugees who are currently in Rwanda, even as the EU country remains steadfastly resolved to limit the arrival of “spontaneous asylum seekers”.

Minister for immigration and integration Kaare Dybvad Bek, who each year determines the number and distribution of people for resettlement, said this quota would focus on women and children.

In a statement, the minister called the country’s current asylum system “broken”, and blamed “human smugglers' cynical jungle law” for determining which migrants reach Europe.

“The government believes that we must limit the number of asylum seekers who come here, and that refugees should instead come to Denmark under orderly and legal conditions,” said Mr Dybvad Bek.

He went on to praise Rwanda for the “huge responsibility” it takes for refugees and the “good co-operation” Denmark and the East African nation share on immigration.

Mirroring the UK’s controversial Rwanda deportation and processing policy ushered in by Home Secretary Priti Patel, Denmark's previous immigration minister, now justice minister Mattias Tesfaye, signed a three-year memorandum of understanding in 2021 with Rwanda, leading to speculation that a Danish processing centre would be opened there.

Meanwhile, the UK’s first deportation flight to Kigali was halted at the last minute in June by the European Court of Human Rights, and the overall policy has been paused pending the outcome of a judicial review later this year.

Denmark’s 'zero migrants' policy

The Nordic nation was historically a generous host to asylum seekers, registering an average of more than 7.000 asylum applications a year between 1998 — when records began — and 2018.

Denmark had been a part of the UN resettlement programme for 38 years, taking in 500 refugees a year until it cancelled its participation in 2015, when the country registered more than 20,000 asylum applications during the peak of the “migrant crisis”.

A special quota taking in 200 individuals a year was restarted in 2020.

As in several other European countries, political debate around refugees and migration has become increasingly polarised and led to the adoption of a number of restrictive measures by successive Danish governments.

As part of its 2019 election mandate, Denmark's ruling Social Democratic party said a core policy was to process asylum applications outside the European Union.

In 2021, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that the government was adopting a “zero” refugees policy and started revoking Syrian refugees' residence permits.

Later that year, legislation was passed allowing refugees to be sent to a country outside the EU to be processed.

The policies appear to have had an effect. Denmark has seen a steady decline in asylum applications over the past decade, reaching a historic low of 1,515 in 2020.

Last year, Denmark registered 2,095 asylum applications, including 430 from evacuated Afghans.

The ministry of immigration said 1,000 Afghans had been flown to the Nordic country in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

Rwanda’s refugees

While European countries continue to try to deter refugees from arriving, Rwanda has become the popular place to send them to instead.

The country already hosts more than 127,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority from the Congo and Burundi, who mostly live in camps.

The United Nations has commended Rwanda’s “generosity” in providing a safe haven and has been operating a resettlement programme of existing refugees from the East African country for several years.

While announcing the latest quota of refugees to be resettled, the Danish immigration minister said Rwanda had “repeatedly received international praise”, including from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, for its work with refugees and lauded the “good co-operation” between the two countries.

However, the UN has been highly critical of recent discussions and plans from the UK, Denmark and other western “wealthier nations” to “export asylum obligations” to Rwanda.

UN human rights experts have repeatedly expressed concerns over the arrangement, saying it violates international law and risks causing irreparable harm.

The UK's Ms Patel had claimed that the UNHCR was supportive of the asylum partnership arrangement with Rwanda, but that was later disproved in court when the UN agency intervened on behalf of claimants who were seeking an injunction against the government’s plans.

The African country initially agreed to take up to 1,000 asylum seekers from the UK in a trial deal worth £120 million ($145m), but has since said it only has the capacity to take 200.

The Danish plans involve an initial screening of asylum seekers for vulnerability, before they are transferred to a third country or allowed to settle in Rwanda.

Like the UK deal, the Danish proposal with Rwanda has prompted strong criticism from the EU, other European countries, national and international NGOs and the African Union.

Updated: August 18, 2022, 2:08 PM