The Danish asylum and integration systems discriminate against women from start to finish

Several ministers for integration have fought against social control of ethnic minority women, but are in fact simultaneously maintaining the oppression these women faced in their countries of origin

The text was published as Kronik in the Danish newspaper Politiken on December 18. 2020.

Tanja Burke Jensen is integration expert and owner of Hello Software.

Michala Clante Bendixen is chair of Refugees Welcome and Denmark’s country coordinator for the European Website on Integration EWSI.

English translation by Alice Fitzsimons-Quail, volunteer at Refugees Welcome.

Coverphoto: Gerd Gottlieb. Woman's café at asylum camp Sandholm.

Issues surrounding gender equality take up considerable space in the Danish integration debate, and with good reason. While male refugees are gaining a better and faster foothold in society, women are still lagging far behind.

The media and politicians are first in line to label the cultural and family backgrounds of the new residents as the culprits, while overlooking the gender discriminatory practices that legislators have built into the Danish asylum and integration systems. Both Støjberg and Tesfaye have been busy supporting women from minority backgrounds against social control, but this rings hollow when they simultaneously contribute to the same kinds of oppression women face in their countries of origin – just in a different form.

Based on our collective knowledge of the asylum procedure and the integration process, we have identified the following areas as particularly problematic:
●    Stays in the asylum centres and the activities offered there
●    Criteria for refugee status and other residence permits
●    Reception and integration programs offered by municipalities
●    The responsibility for the integration of children
●    Access to permanent residence and Danish citizenship

Women in Danish asylum centres are assigned the role of housewives

A report from Rigsrevisionen (2016) concluded that 81% of women living in the Danish asylum centres with children of nursery age are not offered the Danish language teaching and other activities they are entitled to. The asylum centres are not required to offer childcare to children between ages 1-3, which is why the providers (including the Red Cross) leave the responsibility of care with the mothers. The amendment sent out by the government this summer also did not take the women’s care work into account, but rather introduced an option to exempt them from participation in education programs.

When they are granted a residence permit, many of these mothers are transferred to the municipalities without having participated in any of the Danish language tuition programs received by many of the other asylum seekers. When they start the Self-Sufficiency and Return Program, they are therefore already several points behind.

This does not only apply to Danish language tuition. Women are also confined to the asylum centres to a greater degree while they await a decision in their case. They are often solely responsible for the children and many are too nervous to venture far from the centres as the public transport options are limited, necessitating long walks along dark country roads. In addition, men and women live side by side in the centres and share showers and toilets without real protection. It is not known how many women experience abuse in Danish asylum centres but fear alone can be enough to severely limit a woman’s daily life. The Danish Immigration Service rejects the idea of women-only centres for single women on the grounds that Denmark has a policy of gender equality.

The asylum system is designed for men

About 40% of asylum seekers in Denmark are women, but both the criteria for asylum and the asylum procedure itself put women in a far worse position than men.

When the authorities assess whether an asylum seeker needs protection in Denmark, it is done based on several conventions, of which the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 is the cornerstone. A refugee is defined as a person who risks persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, their affiliation with a particular social group or their political views – in other words, the classic refugee has a conflict with the authorities of their home country.

It is typically men who are active in politics, are imprisoned, tortured, and come into conflict with other groups in society. It is generally men who enlist or are forced into military and rebel movements, are most active in religious contexts, write critical articles, or encounter problems as part of their job or position in society.

Of course, there are also women who are politically active and are critical journalists, but they make up only a fraction of the total. When women flee their countries, it is often due to situations in which they have played a much more passive role, because of the general conditions in the country, or because of their husband’s situation. In this last case, on arrival in Denmark they are then dependent on his application and explanation of his case.

For those women who have their own motive for asylum, it is often directly related to gender: forced marriages; bride kidnappings; female circumcision; domestic violence; rape; honour killings; forced sex work and trafficking; their own sexuality; or communal/family rejection due to ‘disobedience’, divorce, or violation of religious dictates. Many of these asylum motives are considered ‘private conflicts’, which is why the woman is advised to seek the protection of the authorities in her home country. The same is true in cases where the law, the police and the religious leaders of the woman’s home country do not recognise women’s rights and require obedience from them towards male members of the family.

The criteria for asylum are decisive in the type of residence permit women receive, so they are often granted more insecure and temporary residence permits than men.

Women who are granted asylum in Denmark are typically not granted the status that follows from the Refugee Convention, but other, weaker forms of protection. For example, in 2017 only 19% of women granted asylum in Denmark were granted convention status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recommends greater recognition of women’s asylum motives, but the Danish Refugee Board continues its rigid and conservative practices in this area, recently criticized by the Danish Refugee Council.

If a woman has applied for asylum with her husband, or has come to Denmark under family reunification, her residence permit is usually based on his circumstances and asylum motive – she thus loses her residence permit if she gets divorced. A man can therefore threaten his wife with being thrown out of the country if she requests a divorce. Even women who are exposed to domestic violence have no guarantee that they can stay in the country if they leave an abusive partner. If a woman has applied for asylum alone, she typically receives a weaker status which she can easily lose, so when Tesfaye is busy revoking residence permits from Syrians, the vast majority affected will be women. the report 'Well-founded Fear' by Michala C. Bendixen.

Somali women celebrate being granted asylum in 2012. Photo: Gerd Gottlieb.

Reception and integration program offers in the municipalities

Male and female refugees participate in the same programs and must meet the same requirements when they are granted asylum and placed in a municipality. Language school, internships, courses, job searching via Jobnet with NemID – all are mandatory, even though statistics show women do far worse than men: only one refugee woman gets a job for every three men. However, it is well documented that it is not due to reluctance on the part of the women, and that the husbands' reluctance for their wives to work and learn Danish is also limited. It takes a special effort to get the women involved, but it is not impossible. Figures for the next generation show that female descendants from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Iran and Afghanistan have not only caught up with young Danish women but overtaken them in terms of education and employment.

It is not the women's abilities or motivation that predetermine these outcomes, it is their situation before arrival and the system that meets them in Denmark. To get the women involved one must, to an even greater degree than with men, consider their individual preconditions and not resort to a one-size-fits-all approach. Refugee women need care services for their children, networks and mentors, teaching and courses based on their situation.

A 19-year-old female student from Syria needs a completely different program than a housewife from Afghanistan, yet today none of them get the help they need. A woman who is illiterate and has lived most of her life within the four walls of her home does not receive any special education or courses, yet is expected to be able to contribute actively to the Danish labour market from day one. Meanwhile, women make up more than half of the 5,000 Syrian refugees who have been granted the special asylum status §7(3) since 2015. This group has been prevented from accessing higher education until this year. reception in the municipalities here.

Children are women’s responsibility

The Integration Act defines the municipalities' responsibilities towards refugees and the requirements that refugees must live up to if they want to receive public benefits.

The law is aimed exclusively at adults and does not say anything about how the municipality or institutions should handle the children's integration process, nor about how the parents should learn to adapt to the role of parenting in Denmark.

Whether we like it or not, the children's upbringing typically lands on the woman's table. It is most often the woman who makes sure that the children get up in the morning and bring a packed lunch to school, it is she who listens to the children's problems, and it is she who stays at home with them when they are ill. The woman therefore has a dual role: she must not only maintain control over her own integration, but she must also ensure that the children succeed with theirs.

In addition to the 37 hours a week where she will be learning Danish and undertaking internships, she must, without help and without possessing the necessary language skills, learn to handle and act in the role of a parent in Denmark. She needs to keep track of Aula, provide healthy packed lunches, attend parent-teacher meetings, organise the children's birthdays, keep track of their vaccination programs and dental appointments, and fill out one application form after another to try funding the kids' SFO, clubs, glasses, medicine, and sports. The integration benefits they receive barely covers rent and food.

Once again, it is worth emphasising that all these responsibilities must be managed in a language that she has not yet mastered. And why? Because the government has not made sure that there is information available in the languages ​​that newcomers speak. They only gain access to the knowledge they need when they have learned to speak, read, and write Danish at a sufficiently high level.

The woman is therefore faced with a dilemma. She can focus on her own integration and let the children's run its course, or she can spend her time fulfilling the parenting role as best she can. But she cannot do both.

Access to permanent residence and citizenship

All the conditions mentioned have negative consequences for women’s futures in Denmark. The requirements for obtaining permanent residence and citizenship have been tightened so many times that it has become virtually impossible for many refugees to fulfil them – and here women are again particularly hard hit because of the emphasis on language skills and employment. In 2019, only 238 people with a refugee background were granted permanent residence status, which is a prerequisite for obtaining citizenship. Among the refugees who came to this country in 2001-2009, only 21.7% of the women were able to meet the requirements for citizenship after 12 years, versus 32.4% of the men.
If we first look at language, it is women's educational backgrounds and role in the home that constitute the biggest problem. When refugees receive a residence permit in Denmark, they are enrolled in one of three Danish language programs: 1, 2 or 3. Illiterate people are enrolled in program 1, refugees with a short education start at program 2, while those with a medium or long education enter program 3 – three parallel courses, each adapted to its target group, from which you take a final exam – not three steps that you work your way up through.

To obtain permanent residence, completion of program 2 is required, and for citizenship, program 3. Since most women are enrolled in program 1, they are already more or less excluded – unless they later take follow-up Danish courses at evening classes.
Besides the language requirement, it is the self-sufficiency and employment requirements that cause the most problems for women, partly because they lack the experience and skills needed to take on a job in Denmark, and partly because they are women. Like Danish women, refugee women find it more difficult to find full-time work in Denmark, and for many it is impossible to reconcile family life with a full-time job. Women all over the world have a lower level of participation in the labour market than men, regardless of age or educational background. According to Statistics Denmark, for example, only 47.9% of women in Denmark are in full-time employment compared to 65.3% of men. When we confront refugee women with employment requirements that are devoid of gender differentiation, we demand that they achieve what Danish women have not yet achieved: equality in the labour market.

If, on the other hand, we look at the requirement for a clean criminal record, it is women who do best. In fact, a larger percentage of women with a refugee background meet this requirement compared to any other group, including Danish-born women. Read more about integration in general here.

We will have to take responsibility

A prerequisite for equality is to treat people based on their situation and set goals that an individual has a real opportunity to live up to. When a woman comes to Denmark and applies for asylum or family reunification, she is consistently treated according to a standard designed for men. The result is that Danish society perpetuates the oppression and discrimination that we are so busy condemning in other countries and cultures. A thorough overhaul of the asylum system, integration process, and residence rules are needed to rectify this problem.

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