All posts by Felix Østergaard

Europe turns their back on the Somali refugees

The Somalis is the biggest group of refugees in need of resettlement. However, most EU countries are reluctant to resettle especially this ethnical group. Many EU countries have labeled Somalis difficult to integrate even though they do well in USA and the UK.

By Casper Eicke and Felix Østergaard

It’s early in the day and the Danish Somali community center in Aarhus is quiet. Two men are watching an animal program on TV while preparing for the next prayer. In the evening the place will be packed with kids and young people watching the decisive Champions League match between the Danish team, FC Copenhagen, and the Spanish giants from Real Madrid.

One of the volunteers in the community, is Abdirahman Iidle who had never engaged in communities before coming to Denmark. Now he is a spokesperson for the Danish Somali community and views their role as a key contributor in the integration of Somalis in Denmark.

Somali refugees have been a top priority for the UNHCR for the past many years. Despite this fact, Denmark has only resettled 8 Somalis a year on average between the years 2008 and 2011.

Abdirahman Iidle says it is “a big shame” that Denmark doesn’t resettle more Somalis. Not just Denmark, but most European countries turn their thumb down to refugees from Somalia, labelling them difficult to integrate. Between 2007 and 2009 EU Members States accepted only 2 percent of all Somali cases submitted by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

After Abdirahman Iidle came to Denmark he has been very engaged in the Danish-Somali communities. Here he is holding a sign saying ” Somali youth and Parent Council”

Left without prospects

691.000 refugees are in such a bad situation that they are considered in need of resettlement by the UNHCR. Out of them, 272.000 are from East & Horn of Africa, which mostly consists of Somalis. That makes them the world’s largest group of refugees in need of resettlement. That is not taking into account the massive amount of Syrian refugees as they are being considered a special case by the UNHCR.

Somali refugees don’t have the characteristics that make people appear to be easily integrated, because many have been stuck in refugee camps for 10-20 years without the possibility of a productive occupation.

The longer they are in the camps, the less are their chances of being resettled in a country with integration potential criteria.  And if they don’t get resettled, more refugees with even less of a chance will come.

“The Somalis are left without prospects and the longer it goes on, the more true it becomes.

Somebody needs to break out of that circle, “ 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.

Integration through education

In the Danish-Somali community center in Aarhus kids come during the daytime to get help from volunteers with their homework. Many of the parents aren’t able to provide that help due to the years or decades spent in refugee camps.

When their homework is done they can go to the gaming room and enjoy a game of foosball, pool or ping-pong. The community center is located in a grey concrete basement but they have facilities to make up for the uninspiring surroundings.

Abdirahman Idle is 46 years old and from Somalia. He works as a bilingual teacher and is a member of the immigration council in the Aarhus municipality. He is also the spokesperson of AarhusSomali – a Danish-Somalian community organizing 13 smaller Danish-Somalian communities within Aarhus.  Watch the video and come inside the Danish-Somali community center where Iidle tells how volunteers help improving the integration of Somalis in Aarhus, Denmark.



DanishSomalis enjoy coming to the community house in Aarhus. Here they for example play pool,  drink coffe or help the kids with their homework
DanishSomalis enjoy coming to the community house in Aarhus. Here they for example play pool, drink coffe or help the kids with their homework

The more Somalis, the better integration

Due to the difficult situation for the Somali refugees, it has also been challenging for some of them integrating into several of the resettlement countries. Among them is Denmark, where Danish statistics show that Somalis hold the unfortunate record of being the ethnic group with the highest unemployment rate.

“It has indeed been noted that Somali populations have in some cases experienced more challenges in integration than other refugee groups,” says Rachel Westerby, City Coordinator at the International Catholic Migration Commission, an organization that serves refugees. Westerby is also the editor of the European guide to resettlement report made in July 2013 in cooperation with the EU.

In some countries, however, the integration of Somalis is successful. This is the case in the US, that resettles by far the biggest number of Somali refugees.

In the UK, which is one of the few European countries to resettle Somalis on a regular basis, it’s the same positive story. Especially in the Manchester area, Somalis are doing well thanks to NGO’s such as Refugee Action.

“Such success stories show that the question of individual credentials, language and skills should not be used as a criterion defining resettlement,” European Council on Refugees in Exile (ECRE) states in a report from 2011.

Bad security is no excuse

An important reason for the many Somali refugees not being resettled is the security situation in the Dadaab Camp in Kenya, where most of the Somali refugees are located. The dangers of going there makes it difficult to carry out the interviews of refugees that are necessary before resettlement.

Many Somalis not having proper identification and fraud in the resettlement process have also played a role in this context. However, these different obstacles should not be used as excuses by the European countries not to resettle more Somalis, according to ECRE.

“Countries should not use the security argument as a way out of their international obligations for refugee protection. With appropriate and efficient security screenings, more Somalis should find their way to Europe, and they already do to the United States,” ECRE writes in a report from 2011.



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