The global refugee crisis has placed a strain on many European nations, with governments like Denmark’s taking increasingly harsh steps to stop asylum seekers from entering their countries. In June 2021, Danish politicians voted 70-24 in favor of a new law that allows the nation to relocate asylum seekers to countries outside the European Union (EU). Rwanda has been named as a potential destination for these asylum seekers despite its own difficulties with human rights abuses in the past and the present. Reportedly, it has also been suggested that centers outside the borders of the EU will be constructed to house those awaiting a final decision on their migration status. The passing of this law was possible due to the minority government of the Social Democratic Party adopting right-wing tactics.

Denmark’s recent decision to outsource the processing of asylum claims has attracted controversy within the international community and received considerable backlash from the EU, as well as from the United Nations (UN) and its High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It has also brought into question the nature of Denmark’s entire immigration system and the direction in which its political agenda will head in the future compared to other EU countries. 

These populist immigration policies have become more common since 2001 when the right-wing Danish People’s Party started pushing for the most restrictionist policies possible. These policies are a threat to the protection of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. These rights are detailed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the UN Refugee Convention, which Denmark was the first to sign in 1951 but has been attempting to reform since 2015.

History of Denmark’s Immigration System

To assess the nature and the impact of Denmark’s new law, it is crucial to understand the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee. Amnesty International defines an asylum seeker as a person “who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who has not yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim.” Refugees are individuals that have already been recognized to be in dire need of international protection including receiving asylum from other countries. This difference makes asylum seekers more susceptible to discriminatory policies as their cases have not yet been processed, meaning they have to prove their need to flee their country of origin.  

Denmark’s preference towards Nordic and European immigrants can be seen since before the 1980s. This was a time where most of the immigrants living in Denmark were guest workers, defined as foreign nationals who were permitted to reside in a foreign country for a certain period of time to supply labor. These guest workers were mostly coming from Nordic countries and the EU with small numbers of them being from Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Pakistan.

A shift started occurring in 1973 during the oil crisis when the entry of non-European or Nordic immigrants into Danish territory was halted, although migrant workers already in the country were allowed to stay. The individuals who immigrated to Denmark after this halt came under the premise of family reunification (with those previous guest workers) and in the search for asylum. Family reunification is defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as the process of reuniting “family members, particularly children, spouses, and elderly dependents” in foreign countries. What this means is those guest workers, that by definition are only placed in another country for a certain amount of time, would be allowed to bring in their family members to live in that country. Needless to say, countries that are trying to limit immigration, such as Denmark, don’t actually support family reunification despite their legal obligation to allow it. 

2015 as a Turning Point

At the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, between October and December, Denmark received 11,539 asylum applications (processed both in state and out of state). However, there was a steep decline; it went down to 389 in the fourth quarter of 2020. This number shows the stagnation of the refugee crisis but also illustrates the changes in Denmark’s immigration policies. The word refugee is used widely to describe the crisis for simplification in the media, however, asylum seekers were also crucially involved during this time. The Social Democrats of Denmark started with making entry and permanent residency in the country more difficult to achieve, limiting the rights of refugees, and anticipating deportation as much as possible. This is important to notice as refugees do already have legal protection and, even then, there were successful political and legal attempts to undermine their rights.

This success shows why it was so easy to pass the new law that will make the processing of asylum-seeking cases take place outside of Denmark and even of the EU itself. This goal is in line with Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s aim of having “zero asylum seekers” in the country. The Prime Minister, and other politicians, regardless of party and personal identity, excuse this statement by making the claim that asylum seekers were not able to assimilate to Danish cultural and societal values. 


There are multiple ways in which Denmark has been attempting to lower the willingness of individuals to immigrate there. Since family reunification became the easiest way through which to sidestep the harsh immigration laws, Denmark added additional restrictions during the 2015 refugee crisis. The 4,000 individuals who achieved refugee status in the country in 2015 would not be able to apply for family reunification for three years. Additionally, in 2016, the jewelry law/bill was implemented, which would allow Denmark to confiscate valuables from the asylum seekers priced up to 10,000 kroner (USD 1174.19). The value of these confiscated objects was claimed to serve as payment for their treatment and stay in Denmark. Denmark has also recently been deporting Syrian refugees to Damascus and back into danger, claiming security has improved there and these refugees, therefore, no longer have the need for protection. These harsh laws and regulations are creating obstacles that serve to make immigration or seeking asylum in Denmark less attractive.

Apart from the clear disregard for the UNHCR’s policy of non-refoulment, described as “the fundamental right of all refugees and asylum-seekers, [not to] be deported or sent back to a country in which [their] life or freedom may be in danger,” this law could also lead into a domino effect where other EU nations would feel it is acceptable to do the same thing. Denmark is leading the race to the bottom. Because of this, the Danish government could face legal action from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Multiple factors explain the causes and perpetuation of migration including economic, historical, and social elements. Placing barriers to achieving the human right of protection and asylum is unethical and ineffective in preventing immigration. These barriers would only serve to redirect asylum seekers and refugees to other nations which have less restrictive policies. Nevertheless, as previously detailed, there are international laws that serve to uphold the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Attempting to dodge these obligations is a disservice to the international order and to those whose lives are endangered in their country of origin.

Luiza Teixeira

Luiza is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is a third-year International Relations major with a Law & Society minor student at the University of British Columbia. Her main interests include...