Denmark catalyzed controversial European development in refugee selection

More and more European countries are handpicking the strongest refugees for resettlement. The UN High Commission for Refugees and international organisations are worried about the development. Experts believe Denmark provoked it.

By Casper Eicke Frederiksen & Felix Østergaard

An increasing number of European countries prioritize work force over vulnerability when selecting refugees to resettle. 8 European countries have been criticized by UNHCR, EU and a number of international organisations working with refugees.

The countries focus too much on which refugees can be integrated the best and possess jobs. Instead they should help the refugees who are the most in need, say the critics. UNHCR is concerned that the resettlement countries might be missing the humanitarian aspect.

“We should not only select people who are the most likely to work the best. Otherwise we would go to the refugee camps and we would say, “Who are the doctors? We only take doctors.” But what happens then with the most vulnerable?,” says Markku Aikomus, Senior Regional External Relations Officer in the Baltic and Nordic Countries for the UNHCR.

Europe goes Danish

Abukar Muhamud came to Denmark is a UN refugee. Now he lives in Aarhus
Abukar Muhamud came to Denmark is a UN refugee. Now he lives in Aarhus

The Danish Government blazed a trail when they were the first to adopt the integration potential criteria in their legislation in 2005. Since then, Denmark has focused on choosing refugees with good language skills, work experience, high education and a motivation to be integrated. Refugees that are illiterate, mentally ill or too old should not be accepted, according to the legislation.

Now seven other European countries have introduced similar criteria to assess integration potential. Among them are countries like Germany and the Netherlands. While the Dutch Government says the Danish use of integration potential has had no effect on their decision to use this criterion, the German Government was clearly influenced.

“It was known in advance that Denmark and later on the Netherlands had defined integration in terms of selection criteria. This was not the main reason for Germany to introduce the policy. However, this aspect did play a role in the decision for the criterion,” says Hendrik Lörges, Press Officer in the German Ministry of Interior.

Breaking the taboo

Experts believe that Denmark’s introduction of the integration potential was a game changer in European resettlement policy. One government had to break through the humanitarian emphasis on the resettlement programme and say they would start looking at the integration criteria as well.

“Once that taboo was broken it became much easier for other governments to follow suit,” says Kathleen Newland, co-founder and head of refugee resettlement program at Migration Policy Institute, an international think tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide.

This view is backed up by Rachel Westerby, City Coordinator at the International Catholic Migration Commission. She was the editor of a 328-page report made in cooperation with the EU, called  European Guide to Resettlement in July 2013.

“It has been negative for efforts to advocate that protection must be the most important factor when selecting a refugee for resettlement,” she adds.

Aiming for less criticisUN facts real

The Danish Government says that a new draft proposal for legislation will come in February 2014. The integration potential might then be replaced with other criteria. For example it would be a plus if a refugee already has family in Denmark.

“We take the criticism from UNHCR very seriously and we aim to not be criticized as much, but we also won’t let others dictate completely how we do things here,” says Ole Hækkerup, spokesperson on integration from the Social Democrats, one of the Danish governmental parties.

Hækkerup also points out that both Denmark and other countries should try to adapt to the recommendations from the UNHCR, and take into consideration the criticism of the European development.

However, these new criteria, said by Hækkerup to be part of the upcoming draft proposal, are also frowned upon by the UNHCR. They believe that countries shouldn’t implement any further criteria.

Storm in a teacup

The exact number of refused refugees in Denmark is confidential, but the Danish Immigration Service, who is in charge of the selection of refugees, says it’s very few people. They think the debate about the “integration potential” is a storm in a teacup.

“When we refuse refugees it is usually because we deem those people not to be in need of resettlement or because they don’t want to come here. We also don’t refuse people who are part of a family as long as the family as a whole meet our criteria,” says Jakob Dam Glynstrup, Head of Division in Danish Immigration Service.

UNHCR preselects refugees for each country in order to meet that country’s criteria. This is one reason why only a very limited number of refugees is being refused by Denmark. NGO’s such as Amnesty International and Danish Refugee Council are happy that few people are refused due to lack of integration potential. They consider it to be a problem of principle, however.

“We can’t blame UNHCR for looking at the individual countries’ criteria. The consequence of not preselecting is fewer refugees being resettled. It makes UNHCR’s job a lot more difficult though,” says Mette Blauenfeldt, Section Manager in the Danish Refugee Council’s immigration unit.

From truck driver to refugee

Abukar Osman Muhamud from Somalia lives in Aarhus in Denmark and is one of the many UN refugees who got a better life after he was resettled. Watch the video below where he tells how he fled from war, lived in a refugee camp for seven years and ended up in Denmark.

After implementing the integration potential Denmark hasn’t prioritized refugees from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan even though UNHCR in 2012 stated that those were the groups most in need of resettlement. Denmark now only accepts emergency cases and twenty-or-more cases from those countries. Abukar might have been accepted as a twenty-or-more case.

No documentation for better integration

After integration potential was implemented in Denmark, no studies have been initiated to clarify if the refugees being resettled after 2005 have integrated better.

On the contrary, experience shows that high skills do not make integration easier. Sometimes it is easier for people with a low skill or manual labour profile to integrate, according to the The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance of 81 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons.

ECRE’s experience is that physicians, for example, might have expectations to work as a medical doctor after a couple of years but that’s rarely what happens. On the other hand, people with no or limited education are much more open to take any job they can get.

The UNHCR can’t lift sanctions for what they believe to be a worrying development among the European countries. Instead, they can only point the finger of scorn, hoping for the countries to reconsider their selection criteria.

“’It is crucial to remember that resettlement is not a labour migration initiative, but rather a refugee protection and humanitarian programme,” says Rachel Westerby from I