Right. Back to normal operation mode.
Last night Danish police entered a church in Copenhagen where a number of Iraqis who have had their asylum applications rejected had been gathering for the past three months. At least to me, there was nothing surprising about the way the stand-off ended as there was only to realistic solutions – either the Iraqis gave up and surrendered themselves to the authorities or the police would apprehend the Iraqis.
That the government should overturn the decisions by the Refugee Appeals Board was inconceivable in the real world. The historical parallel was the “Palestinian case” where a number of Palestinian asylum seekers occupied/entered/sought shelter in another church in Copenhagen back in 1990 and where a majority in parliament outside of the government forced a special legislation granting the group residence permits1. Given that a) the present government has a majority with DF and b) the Social Democrats may not have been very tempted to repeat the 1992 experience, political intervention was highly unlikely. So those involved must either have been very naive or playing a long-term game with children and families as pawns.
The entire process raises a number of interesting and difficult issues. Which is to say that I will not be telling you, if the police action was appropriate or not (it was legally correct, but legality and appropriateness are occasionally two different things), just as I find it hard to decide how rejected asylum seekers should be handled.
First of all: Apparently both the local vicar and members of the group supporting the Iraqis believed that churches and other religious places somehow hold a special judicial status in Denmark. They do not: Since the reformation, any church or religious place is under normal Danish jurisdiction2. The only places or persons exempt are embassies (which are formally not “Danish soil”), the monarch (here the question is what status other members of the royal family hold) and MPs – but in the event of, say, an occupation of the chamber of the Danish Folketing, the likelihood of any MP protesting against the police entering the chamber is rather small.
If legal misconceptions weren’t behind the idea of “church asylum”, then there is the question of using the church as a tool in a political conflict. Asylum seekers may appeal to our sympathy, but – to take a hypothetical example – what if a “pro-life” vicar decided that housing the killer of a doctor who performed abortions was acceptable civil disobedience? And should the church be given special rights to decide what was acceptable speech or not? Putting an institution outside of normal legislation or social norms is not without complications once you try to think in more general terms.
Then we have the entire asylum process and the treatment of asylum seekers in Denmark. You don’t exactly have to be a rocket scientist (or a Ph.D. in Political Science) to figure out that the aim of Danish policy is to discourage foreigners from entering the country and that asylum regulations have been tightened considerably during the last 20 years. To an outsider it is very difficult to decide how many asylum seekers Denmark can or should cope with and exactly how procedures for deciding on political asylum should be designed.
If we assume that an asylum seeker has a strong motive to gain legal permission to stay in a country, then we should also note that there is a problem with asymmetrical information when handling asylum applications. You cannot count on asylum seekers giving correct information even about his or her identity – but you cannot count on countries like Iraq or Lebanon providing anything like correct informations about the risks faced by individuals either. It is very hard not to get a substantial number of false positives or negatives in such a process.
The next problem is the right to a due process and here we enter a major problem in Danish public administration. In the absence of a system of distinct administrative courts, Danish governments have set up a number of “court-like” institutions on a number of policy areas. The main objective here has been to stop administrative decisions from being subject to hearings and decisions in ordinary civil courts. Asylum policy follows this pattern of administrative decision subject to “court-like” review. Would administrative courts be better from an individual rights perspective – more or less efficient and time-consuming? And would it really be a good thing to have asylum processes drag out forever? Basically, you would have asylum seekers trying to wear out the administrative system or the administrative system trying to wear out asylum seekers (The latter alternative describes the present situation).
Political intervention like the 1992 “Palestinian Act” is problematic because it opens for unequal treatment. If you make a lot of noise and get politicians to grant you special rights: Good for you. But is it a good thing from the perspective of due process and equal treatment?
I would also note that appealing to international law is a non-starter in Denmark these days. The Social Liberal Party may not have learnt the lesson yet, but neither the Metock verdict nor statements from UNHCR (not a legal body, I know) or other organisations have had much impact on the political level or general opinion – at least not in the way RV would like. The Social Democrats were badly damaged by internal disagreements over immigration and asylum policies and would prefer the entire issue to just go away.
In all of this, we have a complicated political game between the Danish and Iraqi governments. Generally, Denmark hasn’t been too interested in developing Iraq despite being part of the US-led coalition – but could the Iraqi government be using rejected asylum seekers as pawns in an attempt to engage Denmark in development policies? Or maybe I have read too much Machiavelli?
Oh, and the immigration minister tells us that the timing of the police action was completely by chance and not due to any political interventions. I know I shouldn’t be too conspiratorial but still: Where did Ekstra-Bladet get its informations about Iraqis committing social fraud from? Was the timing of the disclosures really purely coincidental?
I know, I know. Too much Machiavelli.