Denmark is likely to become the first EU country to process asylum seekers outside Europe, in a government proposal that has drawn anger from human rights advocates.
The country’s parliament will vote on Thursday on a law that would allow Denmark to send asylum seekers to a third country, most likely in Africa, to have their claims assessed.
Early readings of the bill have drawn support not just from the ruling centre-left Social Democrats but also the centre-right opposition.
But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has denounced it as a “frightening race to the bottom” that is against the principles of international asylum co-operation.
Demark has gained a reputation for adopting one of the toughest stances on migration in the EU, under immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye, a Social Democrat who is himself the son of an Ethiopian immigrant.
The country is the first in Europe to declare the area around the Syrian capital, Damascus, safe for refugees to return to. The government has also taken tough domestic measures, including forced evictions in migrant neighbourhoods to try to break up what it terms ghettos in several Danish cities.
Under the latest proposals, asylum seekers arriving in Denmark would be transported to a third country, where their application would be processed. If successful, the asylum seeker would be allowed to remain in the third country and if not, that nation would deport them.
“The current asylum system has failed. It is inefficient and unfair. Children, women and men are drowning in the Mediterranean or are abused along the migratory routes, while human traffickers earn fortunes,” Tesfaye told the Financial Times, adding that “a key aim” was to reduce the number of “spontaneous” asylum seekers to Denmark.
Some leftwing lawmakers criticised the government for not outlining which third country it would use, saying they refused to give it “carte blanche”. But attention has focused on Rwanda after Tesfaye and another Danish minister travelled to the capital Kigali in late April, and signed a memorandum of understanding on asylum and migration.
The agreement did not include anything on the processing of asylum claims and Kigali made it clear that “receiving asylum seekers from Denmark” was also not part of the deal. But Amnesty International still warned that any attempt by Denmark to send asylum seekers to a third country would be “not only unconscionable, but potentially unlawful”.
Rwanda has a tradition of welcoming refugees, and hosts some 130,000 of them, mainly from neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although earlier plans to relocate African migrants from Israel to Rwanda fell through in 2018, a so-called Emergency Transit Mechanism centre, or ETM, was established the following year in Gashora.
The move came after the Rwandan government, the UNHCR, and the African Union signed a deal to shelter refugees and asylum seekers who had been held in detention centres in Libya. More than 500 refugees — mainly from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia — have been sent from Libya to Rwanda.