The Modern Making of Refugee Politics

In the center of Copenhagen, capital of the Scandinavian state revered for its welfare policies, wait thirty Iraqi refugees in Brorsons Church for the asylum fate most feared. Supported entirely by local donations and young Danish volunteers, they and two hundred more face forced repatriation following a decade of rejected asylum applications and a futile exhaustion of legal appeal. They have been living in the basement of the church for almost three months now, a room barren, canned food circumscribing a long wooden table with hospital beds and curtains mocking the synthetic privacy of those who suffered Iraq's darkest era. As Denmark honors scoring highest in the world index of satisfaction with life, they are now orchestrating repeated psychological traumas of refugees who only want a chance of a decent living. In reality, these families are asking for a chance at life if at all. If repatriated, these individuals face persecution, lack of financial security, bombings, terror, and ethnic and sectarian transformations, which must brand Denmark's decision a humanitarian emergency. A hundred and seventy five civilians died on the streets of Iraq only in the last two weeks, with many predictions of the start of a civil war. The aftermath of the 2003 invasion holds Denmark responsible as a participant, but it must also respect the welfare values it models on its veneer.

The nineteen Iraqis arrested last Wednesday, who fit the UN definition of a refugee, are outside the country of nationality and are unable or, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.

Putting the word unwilling aside, the Danish government's decision to repatriate these Iraqis is life threatening. One man awaiting in the church is 72 years old and suffers a severe degree of dementia, an other woman is sick and needs medical attention of USD 1000 a week. A family of four faces repatriation of the mother and younger son, a family torn apart. Abu Maher -not his real name-, a charismatic father serving as the spokesperson of the group said last June, "If I return to Baghdad I will have to live on the streets, in a tent or a cardboard box." A month later he was arrested with his two sons, the eldest a newly admitted student at the University of Copenhagen.

The deeper one delves into the issue, the more Iraqis face injustice and the more peculiar the case of the Danish government appears. Denmark was the first signatory state on the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have stated that the situation is still unstable, especially in Mosul, Baghdad and Kirkuk, where majority of refugees come from. The Prime Minister of Iraq denies a deal to forcefully repatriate Iraqis and insisted that Iraq would only accept those who return by their own will.

There should be no doubt that these people's lives are threatened, and the Danish administration seems to know this very well. The Foreign Ministry states that "All travel to Iraq, with the exception of travel to the three Kurdish provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulemaniya is discouraged and Danes are urged to leave the country." Furthermore the Board of Refugees delegation, those very people who persistently rejected the asylum application of the 282 refugees, hasn't entered Iraq for security assessment, due to security reasons, since 2004. The Refugee Board's website states that a country's poor conditions, including civil war, does not justify protection status. If that is not a reason to grant asylum, as the Convention mentioned earlier stipulates, what is? In Sweden, 8 out of 10 asylum seekers from Iraq are granted asylum on the basis that they would be in danger if sent back. In Denmark, only one out of ten is granted asylum, even though Denmark is bound by the same conventions as Sweden. The typical reaction of Danish officials these days is that Denmark has still accepted asylum of 300 Iraqis last year. A deeper examination reveals that the majority are merely former interpreters to the Danish forces, and is the group most commonly willingly returning to Iraq only a few years after resettlement.

Copenhagen is losing its glow these days: only visible are the lit candles of a few thousand demonstrators and the clashing flashlights of policemen hushing the crowd, sometimes with pepper spray and truncheon beatings. The young voice of a volunteering Danish psychologist echoes through the church's walls and up to the Alter. She helps the refugees deal with the inevitable fear, anxiety and depression. She maneuvers between the devastated refugees, trying to relieve a cry her discipline cannot contain. She looks at her city and shares a sentiment many have recently come to admit; they are ashamed of their government.

Yasmin Zaher and Saned Raouf are students at Yale University who investigated the psychosocial needs of Iraqi refugees during summer 2009.