The journey to Denmark – routes, risk and cost

Most asylum seekers travel to Denmark independently, without institutional support. This group of people is called spontaneous asylum seekers because they come to Denmark on their own and claim asylum when they arrive at the border of the Danish territory. Quota refugees, on the other hand, are selected by the UNHCR and the Danish authorities in places outside Denmark, and arrive directly to the municipality where they will live, and do not go through the same asylum process as spontaneous asylum seekers.   

Most asylum seekers come from countries where the European Union requires people to hold a visa in order to enter the Schengen area. It is very difficult to obtain a visa if you come from a so-called ‘asylum-producing’ country. Furthermore, many asylum seekers do not even have a passport and cannot legally leave their country. Since 2002, a person has not been allowed to seek asylum via a Danish embassy. In the 1980s, Denmark was one of the first countries to impose a large fine on airline companies if persons onboard an aircraft arriving in Denmark did not have a valid passport or visa. European countries have since followed. As a result, airline companies now carry out border control on behalf of EU states.   

In practice, the only access to Denmark is often ‘illegal’ entry – either with fake documents or no documents. Nearly always, such entry requires assistance from human smugglers who charge a hefty price. For example, the journey from Eritrea to Denmark with help from human smugglers typically costs 45.000 DKr and the journey from Syria to Denmark can cost up to 100.000 DKr. 

Human smugglers operate in groups and carry people a certain portion of the total journey. Then, migrants will often have to find a new smuggler who can assist with the next part of the journey. Migrants are viewed by smugglers as goods and are often treated inhumanely as a result. Often, families are separated during the journey. Many migrants lose their savings and personal documents and possessions and are exposed to violence and rape along the way. A large number of migrants die during their journeys – the most known death is the many drowning accidents in the Mediterranean Sea, but an unknown number of migrants have died in Sahara and the Sinai desert, and in remote mountainous regions, containers, trucks, and warehouses due to hunger, thirst, and disease.    

It is a paradox that it is a human right to seek asylum (and the majority of those who arrive are ultimately granted asylum), but that one cannot claim this right without breaking the law and exposing oneself to extreme danger. Often the few migrants who arrive with a valid passport and visa and thereafter seek asylum will have a hard time obtaining asylum because they have left their country of origin legally. Often, the visa to Denmark is perceived as a misuse and can further trigger the quarantine of the person who has invited the migrant to Denmark.

Currently, the main routes to Europe are either the Mediterranean Sea – through Morocco to Spain, through Libya and Egypt to Italy, through Turkey to Greece – or overland from through Turkey to Bulgaria. Additionally, a smaller number of migrants arrive from Russia, Armenia and China through Eastern Europe.   

In 2014, Italy implemented a large-scale and very expensive operation, called Mare Nostrum, in order to save many of the distressed migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. With the operation, it was possible to save an enormous amount of people. In the long term, however, Italy could not afford the expenses to the operation alone and the EU took over the operation but with a much smaller program known as Triton, which has proved to be completely insufficient to cope with the growing numbers of new arrivals. EU is now controlling the coastline of Europe with assistance from NATO.

The number of people who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea was at least 5,000 in 2016, which is 34% more than the year before. The number can, in fact, be much higher, as not all deaths are registered.

A report from IOM shows that 363,348 refugees and migrants made the journey alive. Most of them arrived in Italy (181,436) and Greece (173,561).

Many of the migrants seeking asylum in Denmark have been en route for more than one year before they arrived in Denmark. It is quite common to be stranded for a few months in places along the journey, such as Tripoli, Istanbul, or Athens. Some of those seeking asylum in Denmark did not have Denmark as their goal of final destination but have been stopped by Danish authorities in the airport or on the train as they were trying to reach other countries like Sweden, Norway or the UK. Because of the Dublin Regulation, they must have their case processed in Denmark.