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Should asylum be granted for life?

Lessons for Priti Patel on how Denmark reduced its appeal to asylum seekers

Outlining the New Plan for Immigration, the Home Office’s consultation on reforming asylum policy, Priti Patel assured the House of Commons on Wednesday that it sought to remove the existing perverse incentives whereby migrants who claimed asylum status after arriving in Britain illegally were treated the same as if they had applied through legal routes.

Whilst the UK has settled more asylum seekers than any EU country since 2015, Patel decried those who sought asylum having already passed through other safe, rule of law democracies like France. Such claimants were “not seeking refuge from persecution – as is the intended purpose of the asylum system” but rather “choosing the UK as your preferred destination.” The result was “unfair” and endangering Britain’s asylum system “collapsing under the pressure of parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminal smugglers.”

Of the more than 32,000 attempts to enter the UK illegally in 2019, Patel stated that “87% were men, 74% were aged between 18-39. We should ask ourselves, where are the vulnerable women and children that this system should exist to protect?” Nor are new arrivals the only source of pressure on the system. Over 100,000 claimants are already in the queue, almost three-quarters of them now waiting over a year. A further 42,000 failed asylum seekers remained in the UK even although they had no right to do so.

Talking to Sky News, Patel indicated that the Home Office’s consultation will explore different options for working with third countries whilst continuing “to explore bilaterally options in terms of returning and removing people that have come to the United Kingdom illegally.” One country singled out for close study by Patel is Denmark.

Denmark provides an example of a European country that has found ways of radically cutting the number of asylum seekers applying and remaining in the kingdom. It has done so by switching from a presumption that successful applicants should enjoy a secure and likely permanent future in the country to offering them only a temporary shelter before the situation in their home country has normalised to a level where Denmark deems it safe for them to return. This approach recasts asylum policy as one of shelter from immediate danger, not a route-map to a new citizenship.

The goal of integration has given way to an expectation of repatriation

Until six years ago, successful asylum seekers received temporary residency permits allowing them to remain in Denmark for between five and seven years, at which point it was relatively easy for them to upgrade to settle with permanent residency. But in 2015, with the exodus from Syria contributing to spiraling numbers of applicants, the Danish government reduced the temporary permit period to two years, and sometimes less.

The goal of integration has given way to an expectation of repatriation. In most cases, only if those claiming refuge have successfully had their temporary permits renewed for eight years because of the dangers to them that repatriation would involve can they apply for permanent settlement in Denmark. There is no presumption that children below the age of eight have developed a Danish identity sufficient to negate the adjudication that it is safe for them and their family to return to their homeland.

Among other measures designed to send a clear message, those convicted of criminal acts who cannot be deported because of the situation in their native land are being rehoused on Lindholm, a small island in the bay of Stege.

If the aim is to reduce the numbers making the country their home then this toughness has been a success. By 2018, only 193 asylum seekers were granted permanent settlement in Denmark.

Denmark has been so successful in reducing the numbers’ claiming asylum that in January it received a letter of scarcely concealed reproach from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees for the Nordic and Baltic counties. In doing so, the UNHCR made sixteen recommendations, which the European Commission tartly summed-up as requiring “Denmark to show more solidarity at the European level and take on greater responsibility in the world.”

In its recommendations, the UNHCR criticised the introduction of regular mandatory reviews aimed to assess the ability of the asylum seeker to return to their home. This risked making short-term decisions whereas the evaluation should be on changes that “are fundamental and durable.” Denmark’s strict interpretation of what constituted family reunion also found disfavour.

In particular, the “UNHCR does not support the efforts by some countries, including Denmark, to externalise their asylum processes to third, typically poor countries, or countries that are already protecting thousands of refugees”. Furthermore, the Commission insists that “it must be possible to access European territory to have one’s asylum application assessed – as it is demanded of countries globally in order to ensure compliance with the principle of non-refoulement” (the repatriation of refugees to their own country). Processing asylum applications offshore (as Australia does with Papua New Guinea) is deplored.

Priti Patel may not be seeking to fully copy policies. But there are two lessons she can hardly fail to spot. The first is that even replicating parts of the Danish approach is likely to see the British government receiving similar rebukes from the UNHCR. Second, so long as there is sufficient political will, a European country outside the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) like Denmark or the UK, can proceed regardless.

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