The evolution of Danish Refugee Resettlement Policy, 1978-2016

featured image
Image credit: Getty Images


Denmark has been resettling refugees since 1978; from 1989, the rate has been about 500 individuals a year. Among the first Danish “quota refugees” were Indochinese refugees interned on the unwelcoming beaches of their neighbouring nations. According to Hans Gammeltoft-Hansen, then president of the Danish Refugee Council and one of the architects of the quota program, the Danish state and NGO officials in charge of filling the quota initially made a point of picking some of the refugees who were unwanted by bigger resettlement countries. This included pregnant – and thus temporarily incapacitated – women, amputees in need of prosthetics, and tuberculosis patients. All were easy fixes for a comprehensive welfare state offering universal health care (Kohl 2009).

Fast forward almost four decades to early September 2016, when the Danish Minister of Integration, Inger Støjbjerg, suspended the resettlement quota until further notice. According to Støjbjerg, the suspension of the resettlement program is due to a lack of space, caused by the high number of refugees arriving in previous years. The suspension of the annual resettlement quota seems a natural fit with other recent policies such as housing asylum seekers in tents, while organisations working in the field protest that appropriate buildings are available. Activists and camp operators have voiced concern over high levels of conflict in the tent camps and pointed out the high costs of heating tents in the Danish winter. While financially and practically inexplicable, the use of tents serves an important symbolic function by signaling a lack of capacity and willingness to receive the relatively high number of asylum seekers of recent years.

In between these two moments in Danish history is 30 years’ worth of political struggles over the immigration question and numerous tightenings of the Danish Alien’s Act of 1983, once dubbed among the most liberal of its kind. This post goes on to describe those struggles, focusing especially on the last decade of political debates and the increased use of integration potential assessments.

Debating the domestic politics of resettlement

A highly symbolic and highly politicised act, refugee resettlement has been the topic of heated debates in Denmark for more than a decade. Resettlement proponents traditionally argue that resettlement is a way to make sure that the refugees who benefit from our help are the weaker, and thus more deserving, refugees. Direct opponents have been rare, except from within the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party.

Given the centrality of the immigration question in Danish politics, one might have expected the resettlement program to be abolished earlier. Its survival is likely due to two factors. First, Danes still like to see themselves as humanitarians, and refugee resettlement is perceived as a manageable and fair way of helping some of the most vulnerable refugees.

The other factor is that the Danish government of 2001-2011 made up of Venstre, the liberal party of Denmark, and the Conservative People’s Party which might have abolished the quota earlier, was more concerned with Denmark’s international reputation than today’s Venstre government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Thus, instead of stopping resettlement back in 2005, the Venstre-Conservative coalition kept it, while signaling control to sceptic voters by introducing a range of integration potential criteria for the selection of quota refugees.

Sometimes the symbolic value of resettlement acts in favor of the refugees involved. In 2014 the Social Democrat government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt tempered the demands for integration potential in the selection of refugees for resettlement in Denmark. Not surprisingly, integration potential was reintroduced by Venstre in the beginning of 2016 alongside a series of other tightenings of the Alien’s Act aimed at deterring refugees from seeking asylum in Denmark.

Whether the 2016 pause in resettlement is going to be permanent or temporary is too early to tell. In particular because only a few days after Inger Støjbjerg’s announcement, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen attended the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants on September 19th, 2016. At the Summit, the member states adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, thus expressing the political will to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, to save lives and share responsibility for large movements on a global scale.

Limiting and suspending resettlement through integration potential assessments

The suspension of the refugee quota is possible because resettlement is not a right but voluntary help offered by states to refugees with no other durable solution in sight. Resettlement states interpret their biopolitical, humanitarian obligations as reaching beyond the national level and the obligations they have as signatories to the Refugee Convention. Sharing the burden of refugee situations on a voluntary basis can also spur other states to partake in finding solutions for refugees whose needs are not being met within the system of refugee protection.

Resettlement is a discretionary act that is often based more in policy than law (van Selm 2004: 41). Because no state is obligated to resettle refugees staying in another state, refugees have no right vis-à-vis the resettlement state. They are subjects of care or charity, not of rights. For example, a refugee interviewed on a Danish selection mission is not covered by the Danish Administrative Act (forvaltningsloven) and thus receives no written ground of approval or rejection and has no appeal access. There is also no transparency in the selection.

As mentioned above, in 2004-2005 a reform of the selection of quota refugees were initiated by the governing national liberal Venstre-Conservative coalition. The reform introduced a range of new criteria to be followed by officials selecting refugees for resettlement in Denmark. Henceforward, resettlement could only take place after an interview with Danish officials, unless in urgent cases and cases concerning refugees with special care needs. Urgent cases and “twenty-or-more” cases for refugees with special treatment needs were not affected.

During the resettlement interview, the officials would assess the integration potential of the refugees interviewed by evaluating their “language skills, educational background, work experience, familial situation, network, age, and motivation” (L 403 June 1, 2005: section 8, 4). The criteria were supplemented by a list of negative criteria in the Bill’s explanatory notes excluding “illiterates”, “mentally ill”, “substance abusers” and “criminals” from resettlement in Denmark.

At the time, humanitarian organisations pointed out that some of the most vulnerable refugees risked exclusion because trauma-related behavior could prevent them from demonstrating motivation in the interview situation (Kohl 2009).

The reform spurred heated debates in Parliament. Proponents and opponents discussed whether the criteria make for a fair and reasonable way to select refugees, despite stark critique in consultations from relevant organisations such as the Danish Refugee Council, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and UNHCR itself (Hvidbog vedr. L403 af 1. Juni 2005).

In Parliament the reform was presented as one of several “integration initiatives” to “make aliens self-reliant as quickly as possible”. Opponents protested that refugees, unlike groceries, should not be cherry-picked according to the needs and wants of the receiving state and its labor market. Proponents argued that it was only rational to fill the quota with individuals most likely to benefit from the resettlement, and not with those of whom we know for sure that they will fail and end up as dregs of society (Kohl 2009).

Both sides in the debate shared the assumption that it is possible to select the refugees who will do well, and that the most vulnerable comes with a greater risk of financial loss and failed integration than other refugees (Kohl 2009).

According to a report published by the Danish Immigration Services in 2010, the introduction of the integration potential criteria could be part of the reason why the labor market participation of quota refugees after 5 years in Denmark significantly increased between 2002 and 2008. However, the report compares two groups of refugees, showing a steep increase in employment participation rates (EPR) of quota refugees with residence permits granted from 2003-2007 and measured in 2002 (EPR 7%) compared to those permitted to stay in period 1997-2001 and measured in 2008 (EPR 40%). The attentive reader may wonder why the Immigration Services chose to compare the group of refugees selected before the reform with a group consisting of refugees of which at least 50% were also selected before the reform. That is between 2003 and the fall of 2005 when the reform came into force. Interestingly, the group with the far most impressive rates (EPR 58%) arrived in 2003 – pre-integration potential assessment – and had been in Denmark for 5 years in 2008.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the reform reflects a fundamental change in the way the quota refugee is imagined within Danish political discourse (Kohl 2015). Before it was possible to ask, as Danish MP Thor Pedersen (Venstre) did during the budget debate in 1997, if

Maybe we should really look at the number of quota refugees we receive … so we do not help the haves – the well-off who can afford to take a plane halfway around the globe and to pay human smugglers to get into Denmark… Can we be sure it is the weakest we help by the way we spend the money?[1]

Evidently, at this point the weakness of the quota refugees could be taken as evidence of deservingness (Kohl 2015).

By 2005, however, weakness was evidently no longer an undisputed value in a refugee. On the contrary, weakness and vulnerability were core elements of the new imaginaries of the risky refugee. In the course of the previous decades’ integration debates, a corpus of bureaucratic knowledge on immigrant integration had been produced in which the quota refugees were re-imagined from subjects of care to subjects of risk (Kohl 2015).

The dismal employment participation rate of 7% for quota refugees arrived in the late 1990’s were used to fuel the 2005 reform and to give the minister of integration sovereign power over deciding which nationalities to select from. “The Burmese do well in the island of Bornholm,” as the director of the Danish Immigration Service once told me (Kohl 2009). Thus, the integration potential assessment did not only favor refugees with strong family members and good CVs, it also implied excluding refugees from election on political grounds based on their nationality.


As the number of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark in 2016 is significantly lower than in the previous years, the suspension of the quota is hardly a matter of emergency. For politicians whose constituency appears worried about retrenchment measures and immigration, the small but symbolically significant group of quota refugees provides an opportunity to demonstrate vigor in the area of curbing migration. Whether the quota stays closed is likely to depend on the reaction within Venstre, the centre-right parties and the Social Democrats. It also depends on whether Lars Løkke Rasmussen is going to put his money where his mouth was when he signed the New York Declaration at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants. When all is said and done, it could prove difficult for Denmark to put pressure on other countries to share the burden of dealing with today’s humanitarian crisis without reviving its resettlement quota.

You can read more on the integration potential assessment and the selection of refugees for resettlement in Denmark in Kohl, K. S. (2015). The Tough and the Brittle: Calculating and Managing the Risk of Refugees. I: Bengtsson, T. T., Frederiksen, M., & Larsen, J. E. (red.), The Danish welfare state: A sociological investigation. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave MacMillan.

Original comment in Danish, translation by author.