Denmark Passes Law Allowing Asylum Seekers to Be Processed Outside Europe

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LONDON — The Parliament of Denmark passed a law on Thursday that allows the nation to relocate asylum seekers outside of Europe to have their refugee claims assessed, despite criticism from rights groups and the United Nations.

The law is the latest in a series of hard-line immigration measures that have been introduced in the Nordic nation in recent years — particularly after the 2015 migration crisis in Europe — to discourage asylum seekers. Those moves have been widely criticized by rights groups, and some have warned that the new measure could threaten the internationally established rights of refugees to protection.

The law would allow Denmark to move people out of the country to asylum centers in an undetermined partner country for case reviews, and they could possibly remain there as refugees. Denmark has not yet reached an agreement with any country to accept its asylum seekers, but a potential deal could include successful asylum seekers receiving protections in the partner country.

The bill, an amendment to Denmark’s Aliens Act, passed with wide support from lawmakers, tightens policies already seen as the most stringent in Europe. The law aims to allow in only the number of refugees Denmark has committed to resettle under a United Nations quota system and no more.

“If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” Rasmus Stoklund, a government spokesman, told the Danish broadcaster DR on Thursday ahead of the bill’s passage, according to Reuters.

Rights groups and international governing bodies have been quick to denounce the new measure, noting that it is likely incompatible with international protections for asylum seekers and refugees.

“This represents a fundamental shift in how the international protection system works,” said Nikolas Feith Tan, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, adding that it was still unclear how the country planned to implement the law or what third country would be involved. “Its difficult to assess the legality of something that is so imprecise and unclear.”

Dr. Tan said it was key to understand that the law is not just about asylum processing, but also a plan for moving refugee protections elsewhere.

“The Danish government will need to ensure that asylum seekers not only have access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure, but that those found to be refugees can access protection in the third country,” he said.

Last month, the United Nation’s refugee agency, U.N.H.C.R., urged lawmakers not to pass the measure, with Henrik Nordentoft, the agency’s representative for the Nordic and Baltic countries saying it “risks undermining the foundation of the international protection system for the world’s refugees.”

Shortly after the decision, the agency said in a statement that it is “opposed to national initiatives that forcibly transfer asylum seekers to other countries and undermine the principles of international refugee protection.”

“U.N.H.C.R. is very disappointed that Denmark is continuing to pursue this vision, despite the serious human rights concerns U.N.H.C.R. has raised,” the statement said.

The organization did note that the new measures will not go into effect in Denmark until a formal agreement has been reached with a third country, and the new law requires any arrangement for asylum seekers to fully comply with Denmark’s international obligations under international refugee and human rights law.

Thursday’s move is in line with a goal of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who said earlier this year that she aimed to see Denmark have “zero asylum seekers.”

The growth in support for the country’s right-wing Danish People’s Party has driven Ms. Frederiksen’s center-left Social Democrats further to the right to try to win back some voters, and her focus on tamping down immigration in recent elections is proving successful.

In 2019, Demark declared Syria — a country still in the midst of a yearslong civil war — to be “safe” and began withdrawing residence permits from some Syrian refugees. That action also has been widely condemned by rights groups and the United Nations refugee agency.

An earlier proposal would have held foreigners who had been convicted of criminal offenses and were facing deportation on a small Danish island, but those plans were eventually scrapped because they were too expensive.

The European Union’s executive branch criticized the law and said on Thursday that it had concerns that the law was incompatible with existing rules within the bloc.

“External processing of asylum claims raises fundamental questions about both the access to asylum procedures and effective access to protection,” said Adalbert Jahnz, ‎a European Commission’s spokesman, during a Thursday news briefing.

“It is not possible under existing E.U. rules or proposals under the new pact for migration and asylum,” he added.

The right to asylum is a fundamental right guaranteed in the European Union, and Mr. Jahnz said the commission would be analyzing the laws to determine possible next steps.

Charlotte Slente, the secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, warned that the measures sent an “extremely problematic signal against solidarity with our neighboring countries in the E.U.”

“It is also still very unclear how a possible reception center in a third country would be administered, in light of including Denmark’s legal responsibility for safeguarding the rights of asylum seekers and refugees and ensuring their protection,” she said in a statement, noting that was one of the group’s main concerns about the passage of the bill.

The vote also paves the way for “a potential asylum processing model that does not yet exist and which they therefore do not know what it actually entails.” She said that as a result, lawmakers have “effectively voted in the blind.”

Similar hard-line policies that relocate asylum seekers, including in Australia have been criticized by rights groups in the past as unlawful and have been denounced for the lack of protections for asylum seekers. However Mr. Feith Tan, with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, said it would be much harder for Denmark to implement a similar system because of rights protections laid out under E.U. law.

While the Danish government has not yet said which countries may be open to hosting asylum seekers, Rwanda has been identified as one potential partner. Last month, Denmark announced plans for closer cooperation with the East African nation after a visit from government ministers.

Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting from Copenhagen.

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