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Asylum deal with Rwanda sparks political unrest in Denmark

After the governing Social Democratic party took another step to create a processing center in Rwanda for asylum seekers applying in Denmark, its main ally threated to pull its support ahead of national elections.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — In Denmark, stark political disagreements between the governing Social Democratic party and its main supporter, the Danish Social Liberal Party, have again sparked over plans to cooperate with Rwanda on a reception center for asylum seekers.

The catalysator was a visit to Rwanda earlier this month by the Danish ministers of immigration and development cooperation. At the meeting, the central African country formally confirmed that it was ready to take in asylum seekers from the Scandinavian nation.

The two countries issued a joint statement on Sept. 9 saying that the “current asylum system is dysfunctional and new solutions are needed.”

 “I am very happy that we have agreed on a joint statement with Rwanda, which confirms that it is our ambition to establish a mechanism where asylum seekers can be transferred from Denmark to Rwanda," said Kaare Dybvad Bek, Denmark's minister of immigration and integration. "We must ensure that refugees come to Europe based on humanitarian considerations, such as the UN´s quota refugee system, and not who can pay a people smuggler and take the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.”

The idea of outsourcing the reception of refugees from a European country to Africa was launched by the Danish Social Democrats back in 2018. Still, it was deemed highly unrealistic by most politicians.

However, in 2021, the party successfully added a new paragraph to the existing Aliens Act. It allows for transferring asylum seekers to third countries, for both case processing and subsequent protection.

In practice, the agreement would mean the relocation of any migrant arriving at the Danish border without a clear refugee status to Rwanda. There, they would have their case reviewed and, if accepted, obtain temporary national residency with the same rights as other Rwandan citizens, following the United Nations refugee protocol.

The Social Democrats' main political ally, The Danish Social Liberal Party, has told Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen that it will withdraw its parliamentary support and willingness to collaborate if the Social Democrats implement the asylum agreement with Rwanda.

The political beef comes amid an expectation that national elections are just around the corner. The next elections must be held by June 2023 but are expected this fall. The timing was in part forced by the Social Liberal Party, which put parliamentary pressure on the prime minister and asked her to restore voter confidence after a scandal involving the government's decision to kill all minks on Danish farms at the height of the pandemic.

One of the most significant critiques of the asylum deal is that the Danish government cannot oversee whether Rwanda complies with human rights rules.

Another is that the European Commission has openly criticized the solution of establishing a refugee reception center abroad – mainly because it clashes with the Dublin regulation that structures the distribution of refugees internally in the EU, but also because asylum seekers have a fundamental right to have their application processed upon arrival to a new country, a commission spokesperson told Danish news outlet Altinget.

”Denmark is essentially trying to export responsibility for asylum processing and refugee protection," said Nikolas Feith Tan, senior researcher in refugee law at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, in an interview with Courthouse News. "But, of course, that already happens to some extent in the European Union, where we distribute asylum seekers after country of arrival. But a key difference is that EU countries have relatively uniform standards and laws. That is not the case for Denmark and Rwanda.”

In April, the British government made a similar deal with Rwanda for sending asylum seekers to Africa. However, that agreement is purely political and has yet to be implemented due to legal challenges.

In contrast, according to Tan, Denmark wants to sign an international treaty and create a legally binding long-term deal. 

“A legal agreement creates more obligations and a higher level of guarantees for the transferred asylum seekers. And it needs to pass through Parliament, which ensures important political oversight," he said.

Tan said he has three concerns about the agreement.

“The first is that Rwanda would offer an asylum procedure that falls short of international standards. So far, they´ve only shown a capacity to process applications on a group basis rather than an individual basis," he said. "Secondly, I question whether refugees would achieve the same suitable housing, education and social welfare rights required by international refugee law. And thirdly, the agreement could amount to shifting responsibilities between countries. Rwanda is already hosting 130,000 refugees.“

Alternative agreements could prevent human smugglers from profiting from dangerous journeys over the Mediterranean Sea, Tan said. For example, European nations could cooperate with countries like Rwanda and Egypt on processing asylum seekers locally before they arrive in Europe. 

Despite the risk of losing the support of the Social Liberal Party, the Social Democrats are for now sticking to the plan of creating a reception center in Rwanda. However, the future of the agreement depends on who wins the upcoming Danish elections.

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