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Hoping For Zero: Danish Externalization Plans to Rwanda and a Politics of Deterrence



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Guest post by Zachary Whyte, Associate Professor at the Center for Advanced Migration Studies (AMIS), University of Copenhagen. This post draws on a recent article in Forced Migration Review, Denmark’s new externalisation law: motives and consequences, co-written by the author with Martin Lemberg-Pedersen and Ahlam Chemlali.

Like the UK, Denmark has been trying to establish forms of asylum externalization for the past three decades or more. In 2018, the Social Democrats – a centre-left party which has grown increasingly restrictive in its asylum and refugee policy – made it the central pillar of their migration policy. In 2020, they appointed a “migration ambassador” to pursue this aim. They have been trying to make a deal with Rwanda specifically for the past few years but have so far only officially agreed a rather vague, non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with no specific action points.

The Social Democratic Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, has gone on record to say that the aim should be to receive no asylum seekers at all, and she has directly linked the Danish plans to establish camps in Rwanda with this policy goal. Deterrence is currently central to refugee policy from Danish political parties from the centre-left to the extreme right. The most recent plans come in the context of a range of restrictive measures, including: the “jewelry law”, which mandated the seizure of valuables carried by people seeking asylum on their arrival to Denmark; plans for a departure centre on Lindholm, a remote island used for animal disease research; and the revoking of refugee status of Syrians from the Damascus area, to name but three.

Like the UK deal, the Danish proposal with Rwanda has met very strong criticism from the EU and other European countries, national and international NGOs, the Danish Church, the African Union, and indeed from refugees themselves. The government’s insistence that the plans express a deep solidarity are thus hard to comprehend, given the vehement opposition from the people they claim to be in solidarity with and indeed from the wide range of other actors involved. Indeed, some criticism has argued that these policies rather end up bringing Denmark closer to authoritarian leaders, offering Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame diplomatic political capital in much the same way the revocation of status for Syrians was seen as a political boon for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The political aims and diplomatic work of the Danish externalization policy have not been particularly public, in part no doubt because of the controversy associated with the proposal. Media reports have, therefore, tended to be pieced together from occasional sightings and statements. Given this, I think one should be careful not to impute a policy coherence here: There is no reason to presume that an arrangement with Rwanda is the fruition of long-term master plans. At least part of the drama and controversy surrounding the proposal appears to be doing a lot of the political work of deterrence, as colleagues and I have argued in regard to the short-lived Danish tent camps for asylum seekers.

The shape and scope of the plans with Rwanda have shifted over the years. This also goes for the camps that were envisaged to hold asylum seekers in third countries. As Lemberg-Pedersen and Oliver Joel Halpern sketch out in the AdMiGov project: “In 2016, the extra-territorial facilities were labelled ‘enormous refugee cities’ (enorme flygtningebyer), then later ‘asylum camps’ (asyl-lejre), after which point references to “reception centres” (modtagecentre) emerged, before interviews surrounding the 2021 reform proposal talked about a test case with a ‘mini-centre.’” The proposed actors involved have similarly dwindled. A range of North and East African countries have been proposed by politicians in Danish media only for their governments to deny any interest. The UNHCR and the EU have similarly been mooted as partners, but they have also refused to participate. As things stand, Rwanda is basically one of the few countries not to refuse cooperation outright. With the recent agreement with the UK in mind, Danish authorities are now hopeful that they can also add a diplomatic deal to the legal framework already in place.

However, the UK deal is not necessarily a boon for Danish externalization plans. The Danish newspaper, Berlingske, reported in the beginning of May, for example, that there are concerns among Danish civil servants that news coverage of issues and cases arising from the speed of the British plans could end up scuttling Danish ambitions. None of this is on the record, however, and in any case, the Danish government is officially not expecting to finalize any deal with Rwanda before the summer vacation.

Unlike the UK, the Danish parliament started out establishing a legal framework (Law L 226) before any diplomatic agreement had been made with a potential host country. Unusually, the bill was passed with votes from the Social Democrats and the entire opposition, but not from any of the current parliamentary support for the Social Democratic government.

Given the lack of a specific international partner, the bill remains vague about the precise nature of the cooperation including the limits and extent of Danish jurisdiction and responsibility for any asylum seekers moved to the third country. Nik Tan has recently analyzed these legal issues in more detail. The bill does include the proviso that it is dependent on the agreement being in accord with “Denmark’s international obligations” and Social Democrats have assured that a “monitoring mechanism” would be put in place, but again have offered no specifics.

The Danish plans involve an initial screening of asylum seekers for vulnerability, before they are transferred to a third country, which could be Rwanda. Their asylum cases will be processed there. If they are recognized as refugees, they will be settled there. If not, their possible deportation will be the responsibility of that third country. The plan would thus involve building out Denmark’s deportation infrastructure, including both a new form of detention centre, new systems for screening asylum seekers, and a new form of deportation (which has been called ledsaget tvangsmæssig overførsel – accompanied forced transfer).

Broadly speaking, we might divide the official basis for the plan into two pairs of arguments: one pair focuses on humanitarianism and the injustice of the current asylum system; the other on the economic and social burdens of refugee reception together with an argument for the cost efficiencies of externalizing asylum reception. The scheme is humanitarian, they argue, because it will “save” migrants from human smugglers and the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, while at the same time addressing the injustice that the poorest refugees cannot afford to make the journey to Europe. The second set of rationales are economic in nature, based on claims that the cost of hosting refugees in Denmark risks undermining the welfare state, both economically and socially, while also arguing that the costs of helping people in need are lower in the Global South. These arguments insist that the current asylum system is “broken” and that new solutions are necessary.

Many of these arguments seem disingenuous on any reasonable reading, as the plans do seem directly in line with the stated policy aim of deterrence.  Rasmus Stoklund, the government’s immigration spokesperson put it this way, “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.” This blunt statement cuts to the chase. Fundamentally, the plan aims to inspire asylum seekers to apply for protection elsewhere, and so can be read in line with so many of the other Danish deterrence policies aimed at getting asylum seekers to apply for protection in countries like Sweden and Germany. If these plans work, the hope is that no asylum seekers will need to be transferred to Rwanda, because none will come to Denmark. It is for this reason that the threat of externalization may do more policy work than its practice.

Nevertheless, it is worth pausing a moment to consider the question of the humanity of Danish refugee policy. In a noteworthy interview, Mattias Tesfaye, the former Minister for Integration (now Minister for Justice) likened his then job to carrying the One Ring from the Lord of the Rings. He explained that “You can carry it for a while, but you have to be careful not to have it on for too long, because it will destroy your humanity. It will turn you into Gollum.” Similarly, Søren Pape, the leader of the Conservatives in Denmark, who would likely be made prime minister if the Social Democrats lose power, expressed reservations about the Rwanda plans, saying they tested his humanism. These reservations have not stopped either Tesfaye or Pape from supporting the plans, however.

The recent arrival of Ukrainian refugees have cast a somewhat different light on the Danish plans for asylum externalization. Danish politicians are all agreed that Ukrainians should not be subject to these plans. Indeed Markus Knuth, the migration spokesperson for the Conservatives, has been very blunt, stating that “We should open our arms as wide to Ukrainians as we are hard and rejecting of African migrants”. However, there is no formal way to separate these groups out legally, and the government has therefore focused on a language of proximity, arguing that since refugees should be helped in their neighboring areas, Ukrainians should be helped in Denmark. This solution, however, rather begs the question of why Afghan asylum seekers should be flown to Rwanda.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Whyte, Z. (2022) Hoping For Zero: Danish Externalization Plans to Rwanda and a Politics of Deterrence. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/06/hoping-zero [date]

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