An asylum system in internal conflict

For 30 years the Danish asylum centres have been stumbling over their own conflicting goals with regards to control and care. The author has a PhD on the subject.

When the first Danish asylum centre opened its doors in 1984, it was a response to a refugee crisis somewhat similar to the one we are facing now. Until then ‘spontaneous refugees’ as they were called at the time, had been accommodated in cheap hotels and guesthouses in Copenhagen whilst their cases were being processed. Most of the refugees coming to Denmark from the 1950s until the first years of the 1980s were to some extent invited by the Danish government. It was the time of the Cold War and the defectors were welcome because they were considered to vote with their feet.

In the 1980s the picture changed. That same year, when the first asylum centre opened its doors – as a practical solution to the acute need to provide shelter for the asylum migrants – two new words became so commonly used that they appeared on the list of new Danish words from the Danish Language Council. One was 'asylum seeker', the other 'convenience refugee'. These two images of refugees are different than before, when a refugee was seen as someone on the run from war. Instead they are now suspected of being soldiers of fortune abusing the asylum system, seeking a better living standard. This change in the language reflects a change in the perception of refugees which were to have consequences for the way future asylum migrants were treated.

Red Cross offers to help

The steep rise in the amount of spontaneous refugees made it practically and economically impossible to maintain the hotel solution. Instead, the Danish authorities accepted an offer by Red Cross which meant that they would house the refugees until their applications were processed. Red Cross opened up the first asylum centre, at very short notice, one August evening when the authorities suddenly needed accommodation for fifty Iranians.

The archives of the Ministry show that the asylum task had two purposes. The first was for the asylum seekers to be cared for with food, shelter, friendly volunteers to talk to and basic health care provision. The second aim, however, was for asylum seekers to be prevented from integrating into Danish society before they might get asylum, and thus the standard of care should be kept at a low enough level so that seeking asylum, in general, would not be considered attractive. In the subsequent years these aims, the care and the control, proved at odds with each other.

The asylum centres had consequences for the asylum seekers' lives in Denmark. Social problems were exacerbated within the confines of the centres’ structure which was way below the standards of other Danish residential institutions. There was little money, little time, and Red Cross staff was under genuine pressure to find time to listen to the refugees’ problems. Conflicts, abuse and behavioural problems were common in the asylum centres of the 1980s. This created tensions within the Red Cross, splitting staff opinion: some employees sought sanction options, whilst others believed that they needed more empathy and understanding of the difficult situation asylum seekers were in. Psychological expertise was summoned, and soon expenses for medication became a large expenditure in the asylum centres’ accounts.

In the asylum centre, asylum seekers turned into institutionalised residents and the Red Cross staff became front line bureaucrats, forced into solving their tasks in a reasonably satisfactory way within the budgetary limits. The American sociologist Erving Goffman would call both these groups ‘inmates’.
Goffman would also have said that individuals who check into an institution lose the power to decide for themselves like adults are used to. This happens through a process of violation which transforms the persons and – intentionally and unintentionally – adjusts them to the institution.

Asylum centres are typically set up in abandoned, public buildings. Military barracks in the countryside are popular because they offer cheap accommodation for a large number of people. They are also excellent to prevent integration.

Ill from waiting

In the 1990s the doctor in charge of Red Cross proves that waiting time in the asylum centres make the asylum seekers ill. A new refugee crisis hits our immediate vicinity and Denmark receives around 20,000 Bosnian refugees from the civil war in former Yugoslavia.

Danish politicians and Red Cross try to solve two problems with a single reform: the mental breakdown of asylum seekers and the escalating expenses for their care is ‘solved’ by improving the conditions with self-activation and the duty to clean and cook for themselves.

At the same time, the Ministry of Finance recommends to put the asylum care contract out to tender, to get the best price. A new ‘order-perform-receive’ model for the collaboration with Red Cross is supposed to give a better political control with the service in the asylum centres, making Red Cross more of an executor. However it is nothing but an ‘order-perform’ model as the recipients (the asylum seekers) cannot influence the level of service by moving to another centre if the service is below standard.

The self-activation programme and other improvements to conditions did not make the asylum centres’ problems disappear.

Activation programme

In 2003, the Conservative coalition government introduced a mandatory activation programme in the centres. Economic incentive and mandatory activities are supposed to prevent the mental and physical breakdown of the asylum seekers, as well as strengthen their morale and their ability to act.

However, the activation programme proves to be another example of the asylum system stumbling over its own conflicting goals. This is mostly due to a basic lack of understanding of the human condition and the problem-solving which the activation programme represents. The central points being that adult asylum seekers now have to enter into a contract with the centre regarding activation in terms of schooling and internships for 10-37 weekly hours.

To finance the activation programme, the cash allowances to the asylum seekers were lowered. A small part of the money that they had lost could now be regained by taking part in the activation.

The activation programme included the opening of job centres in the Danish asylum centres. The employees create internships (e.g. cleaning, working in the fitness room, recycling shop or bicycle repair shop of the centre), making up schedules, keeping records of participation and withdrawing allowances for unlawful absence.

A system like this cannot avoid a certain degree of discipline, control and institutionalised distrust. The control is necessary, mostly because the activation must – besides giving the residents the ability to make a little money – give the staff ways to penalise the ones who do not clean.  

This tension in the activation program echoes in the daily meetings between job centre employees and asylum seekers.

The job centre 2011-2012

In 2011 and 2012 I spent a total of four months observing the daily routine of the activation programme, to find out how it works in the everyday life of the asylum centres.

With the activation comes a need to understand the asylum seekers' skills, present the different internship options and monitor the participation. However, the activation was not considered important enough to use expensive, professional interpreters so the conversations in the job centre were done with help of other asylum seekers doing internships as job centre interpreters or, if necessary, with single words, signs and gestures.

Although the activation contract and much of its content is mandatory, the employees at the job centre in an asylum centre have an important task in motivating the asylum seekers to participate in the activation.

In the conversations and the documentation describing the activation, four different reasons are given to explain why asylum seekers should take part: First, they get paid; second, it's good for them; third, they can learn how things are done in Denmark; and fourth, it's only fair to give something back.

The four reasons make the asylum seeker, the employee and the activation situation appear different and they try to seek to solve different issues.

First, the asylum seekers are seen as economically rational individuals, paying for their own care, yet are expected to accept activation even if the economical incitement isn’t enough.

Secondly, asylum seekers are met as people who need activities for the sake of their wellbeing, yet are expected to accept activation for other reasons even if they don't feel any better from activation.

The third view is that asylum seekers are people who need knowledge and skills to move on, although they are expected to take part of the activation, whether they learn from it or not.

Moralistically, the asylum seekers are viewed as people who, on one hand, are responsible for their own situation, yet on the other hand need training to become proper people. The activation programme is supposed to keep them on a straight moral path and avoid their disempowerment.

The reasons are subject to characteristic pressure which prevent them from being truly convincing. If you pursue them, they dissolve into a confusion of internal contradictions and discrepancies.

For this reason, conversations between job centre employees and asylum seekers become ambiguous. The psychosocial and economic reasons might unite asylum seekers and employees, but there is a risk of disunity and resistance, when asylum seekers realise that the pay is extremely low and the task, in certain cases, consists of sitting in an empty workshop.

Making problems worse

The asylum activation programme, which was supposed to improve conditions for the asylum seekers and counteract the breakdown of the residents in the centres, paradoxically as it seems, ends up worsening some of the processes leading to this. This happens, for instance, when the mandatory, practical or non-existing content of the internships violate the status of the asylum seekers as being competent and self-determined adults; when their labour is devalued; and when they are treated as people who cannot be trusted to do what is best for themselves and the community.

If it is not possible to ensure meaningful content of the activation and/or fair pay, the asylum activation programme will end up as yet another example of Danish asylum policy stumbling over its own conflicting goals, made worse by the problems it set out to solve.

Katrine Syppli Kohl has a PhD in sociology, and defended the thesis "Asylum activation and Ambivalence: The Management of Asylum Seekers in Denmark" in November 2015.

Read more about her research here (in Danish): og i Politiken.