Denmark’s parliament has passed a law enabling the Nordic country to deport asylum seekers to countries outside Europe, defying calls to abandon the legislation from NGOs and the United Nations.
The move was headed by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democratic anti-immigration government; 70 legislators voted for the proposal and 24 against on Thursday.
The law allows Denmark, which has gained notoriety for its hardline immigration policies over the last decade, to move refugees arriving on Danish soil to asylum centres in a partner country.
There, asylum seekers would have their cases reviewed and possibly obtain protection in that country.
In practice, people would have to apply for asylum at the Danish border and then be flown to a centre outside Europe while being processed.
Denmark would foot the bill for the operation, but processing asylum requests would be carried out by the host country.
“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,” government spokesman Rasmus Stoklund told broadcaster DR.
The wealthy Scandinavian nation has a declared goal of receiving zero asylum seekers and instead aims to only accept refugees under the UN’s quota system.
Denmark has yet to reach an agreement with a partner nation, but Stoklund said it was negotiating with several candidate countries.
Critics worry the plan will undermine the welfare of refugees while allowing Denmark to duck its obligations within the EU.
The bloc’s executive arm said it had “fundamental concerns” about the new law.
“It is not possible under existing EU rules or proposals under the new pact for migration and asylum,” said European Commission spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz, adding that the right to claim asylum was fundamental in the EU.
Charlotte Slente, head of the Danish Refugee Council, said: “If a rich country such as Denmark is not willing to take responsibility, there is a significant risk that countries hosting far larger number of refugees will also opt out and give up on global efforts to find joint and sustainable solutions.”
Similar moves in Australia and on some Greek islands had led to “serious incidents of detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to healthcare and lack of access to legal assistance”, she said, adding the law sends a problematic signal “especially to the often poorer countries in the world, which take by far the greatest responsibility for the world’s refugees”.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) last month called on Denmark to not pass the bill, which it said could catalyse a “race to the bottom” if other European countries begin mimicking Denmark’s policy.
“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to externalisation initiatives that forcibly transfer asylum seekers to other countries,” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Gillian Triggs said in May.
Last year, 1,547 people sought asylum in Denmark, down from 2,716 the year before, according to the country’s Ministry of Immigration and Integration.
Yearly applications in the last decade peaked in 2015 when 21,316 people applied for asylum during the height of the European refugee crisis.