World News

Denmark still seen as no asylum haven after election

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Denmark’s tightening of immigration rules is unlikely to ease after Tuesday’s election despite a record number of immigrants running for parliament.

Some immigrants are upset at the changes of the past few years that have made it harder to move to Denmark and many see the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (DPP) as the culprit.

“Not 100 percent, but 70 percent of Danish people are very good (about immigrants),” said Ifran Ghori, a 35-year-old travel agent originally from Pakistan who has been in Denmark for eight years.

In a sign immigrants are becoming more integrated, about 30 candidates with immigrant backgrounds are running for the 179-seat parliament this year. There are currently only three foreign-born MPs.

One, Naser Khader, the Syrian-born leader of the New Alliance party, appears to have garnered enough support to play kingmaker to the next governing majority.

“There’s a door that has been opened by Khader,” said Reza Tileh, 46, an Iranian grocer who came to Denmark in 1984.

“From year to year, maybe there will come many Naser Khaders because the only way we can get recognised here is to do something and get educated.”

The number of foreigners granted asylum in Denmark fell nearly 80 percent to 1,095 in 2006 from 5,156 in 2000, according to the national statistics bureau, as Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen fulfilled a 2001 election pledge to slash immigration.

“Before we took over in 2001, it was nearly impossible to find jobs and housing for all the immigrants coming to Denmark,” the Liberal leader told a news conference on Monday.

“This is why the Danish people decided to change government. Opinion polls show the broad majority supports the current immigration policy.”

Gone are the days when asylum centres like Sandholm, a former military barracks north of Copenhagen now housing 500 immigrants, received as many as 300 refugees a day in the 1980s and housed them in tents on the soccer field.


While the opposition Social Democrats also back rules that let only people aged 24 and over bring foreign spouses into Denmark and require swift repatriation for those denied asylum, immigration has taken a back seat to welfare as the main topic.

The issue is still in the shadows, though, as evidenced by a DPP election poster that referred to last year’s controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper. The poster depicted a hand-drawn picture of the Prophet captioned: “Freedom of speech is Danish, censorship is not.”

“Immigration is still one of the main issues, but has not been as negative as I was afraid it would become,” said Yildiz Akdogan, 34, a Turkish immigrant running for the Social Democrats. “I was afraid the DPP poster would dominate the agenda, but luckily no other party jumped on that.”

The differences between Liberals and Social Democrats lie in the details, such as whether asylum-seekers should be allowed to work or move out of asylum centres while waiting to hear if they can stay in Denmark.

These centres, run by the Red Cross, are often seen by Danes as little more than prisons, even though immigrants housed there are free to come and go as they please. They live in spartan but clean rooms, receive three meals a day and a small stipend and have access to recreational facilities.

Children are educated in both Danish and their native languages, and can choose to attend schools outside the centres.

“We do what we can, but we can’t give them what they really want: a positive answer (on their asylum request),” said Jorgen Chemnitz, who runs Sandholm. “For those denied asylum, this is like a waiting room for hell.”

Although an asylum request is usually processed in about six months, rejected asylum-seekers who refuse to go back home sometimes live in Sandholm for five or six years.

Adel Kermanshah, a 27-year-old Kurd from Iran who reached Denmark three weeks ago hidden in a truck container, hopes he won’t be among those.

“I love Denmark. Denmark is a good country,” he told Reuters in faltering English as he took a stroll near the centre with two fellow asylum-seekers from Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Sarah Edmonds and John Acher; editing by Stephen Weeks