“Der er et yndigt land” (there is a lovely country) - this first line from the Danish national anthem is certainly true when talking about its citizens’ social protection. Denmark is globally considered a generous country in providing social protection and caring for people’s wellbeing. However, this only applies to citizens and legal residents. For refugees, limits on access to social protection mean not everyone can enjoy this lovely country.
In terms of national social protection expenditure, Denmark is amongst the top five spenders in the European Union (EU). The country dedicated around 22% of its gross domestic product (GDP), or approximately US$ 100,000, on social protection in 2017 (Eurostat, 2019; Jendresen, n.d.). This high level of social protection is mostly funded through taxes. Benefits are considerably high, aiming at making the lives of minorities, the ill, the old, the homeless, and the unfortunate worth living.
Does this protection extend to refugees and asylum seekers on Danish soil – a group of people that is particularly vulnerable, but not Danish? This article explores the role and programmes of the Danish government for providing social protection to asylum seekers and refugees.
Social protection in Denmark
According to the definition of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), state-driven social protection programmes can be classified into three types: Social assistance (mainly cash assistance, or in-kind such as food aid etc.), social insurance (including unemployment and maternity benefits, pension systems, health insurance), and labour market protection (promoting employment through amongst others education and job training) (FAO, n.d. ; Long and Sabates-Wheeler, 2017: 8).
As mentioned, the Danish state provides a high number of high-value social protection programmes, which involve, but are not limited to, family allowance, entitlement to children’s day care, maternity/paternity cover, free public healthcare benefits, sickness benefits, personal care at home, incapacity and disability pension, senior disability pension, old-age pension, and unemployment money (Zagorskis, 2018).
Eligibility: Citizens versus refugees and asylum seekers
Following Zagorskis (2018), all Danish citizens, as well as legal residents of Denmark that are part of the Danish labour system and meet particular criteria, have access to social protection benefits. Of course, Danes have to prove there is a valid reason for them to be eligible to receive this support from the state. For example, a family allowance is only given to individuals who have children.
Refugees and asylum seekers need to go through several steps to gain access to social protection in Denmark. The Danish Parliament’s Immigration and Integration Committee “works with asylum and refugee policies, foreign nationals and integration” (The Danish Parliament, n.d.) to grant asylum and decide on the refugee status of foreign nationals.
After arriving in Denmark, asylum seekers must register have their fingerprints taken, and complete an official asylum form. They are then interviewed by the Immigration Office (Benedixen, 2018). The result of this interview has a big influence on their immediate eligibility for social protection.
Once this process is complete, four outcome scenarios include:
- The Dublin Agreement comes into effect, and the asylum seeker is re-directed to the EU country, which is responsible for his/her case. The social protection is limited to very low cash benefits, food in the canteen, no internship or school allowed, and stay at the reception centre, Sandholm.
- Åbenbart Grundløs-sager (ÅG) (obviously no reason behind seeking asylum): In these cases, the applicant either comes from a country where asylum is almost never awarded, or the asylum motive is obviously weak. Mostly, this ends in rejection, which effects the refugee’s status and access to social protection enormously. ÅG applicants receive no benefits and must stay at centres with access to the canteen.
- If neither of these two scenarios are the outcome, the asylum seeker is processed in the so-called “normal procedure”, which consists of a second interview with the Immigration office.
- If the application is denied, the case is automatically forwarded to the Refugee Board (Flygtningenævnet) to revise the decision again. The refugee is given an advocate by the Danish state. Only after the Refugee Board’s decision has been made is the acceptance or denial final. The asylum seeker is then sent home. If they do not cooperate in this regard, the social protection status worsens again dramatically: They are required to live in return centres without pocket money or money for cooking, no right to an internship or education, and face risk of imprisonment amongst other risks.
- If the application is accepted, the then refugee status assigned individual must move to his/her attributed residence community. This community takes care of the integration process for the next three years.
The role of municipalities: Integration
At first glance, the processing of refugees to Danish municipalities is seemingly very impersonal and anonymous; following statistics and quotas. However, if the correct application is submitted, personal circumstances, such as employment opportunities as well as health conditions, are considered. Particular connections to a municipality to enable family renunciation are also accounted for (The Danish Immigration Service, 2018).
The official transfer of refugees to municipalities sees their social protection increase tremendously compared to pre-asylum status. Education is an important first step to provide refugees with the necessary skills to enter the Danish job market.
The first social protection programme starts as soon as refugee status is granted: In 2016, a working group of government, the Red Cross, and language schools developed a standard package for a four-week-long course in Danish culture and society, as well as ‘turbo Danish’ (Immigration Office Denmark, n.d.). In particular, the latter is considered a valuable asset for finding a job. It is also a necessary skill for integration into everyday life and administrative procedures linked to social protection (such as doctor’s appointments, access to information about professional education, and insurance).
Final arrival to the designated municipality therefore sees the commencement of a three-year integration programme, which requires the municipality to provide permanent residence/housing, access to a language school, job centre support and activation (Bendixen, 2018b).
Social protection Programmes targeting refugees: Challenges
Even though there are rules on the social protection each municipality has to provide as part of the integration process (KL - Local Government Denmark, n.d.) , the actual support varies greatly between the communes (Bendixen, 2018a). While some municipalities try to help as much as possible, others spend the bare minimum on the integration programme for refugees. This means that the social protection statistics and intended programme outcomes are likely to incur high discrepancies.
A particularly under-invested component exists at the start of the integration programme – you might want to call it ‘on-boarding process’. Success here depends hugely on staff capacity in municipalities. Statistics show that even high-performing municipalities in the integration process lack sufficient personnel. This undermines the potential for refugees to benefit from all the support on offer, thereby undermining their integration into Danish society (ibid.).
That being said, arguably the most important social protection programme – free access to health care – is granted to all accepted refugees in their municipalities, full equating refugees and Danish citizens and residents in this regard. Nonetheless, in contrast to Danish citizens and permanent residents in the kingdom who receive full cash benefits (kontanthjelp) from the government, since 2015, refugees are only eligible to a so-called ‘Integration Allowance’ if they are job-hunting (integrationsydelse) (Bendixen, 2018a).
However, the Integration Allowance is merely half of the regular cash benefits and leaves refugees, after tax and other expenses, with about one sixth of the calculated minimum amount for survival in Denmark for covering transport, dentist, food, phone etc. (ibid). Other benefits, such as an increase in cash assistance, family allowance, or rent support, depend on accruing principles as well as the refugee’s determination and success in education (language) (ibid.).
Vulnerability and responsibility
Social protection offered to legal refugees in Denmark differs hugely from the social protection afforded to Danes and residents of Denmark. This has been criticised in the past by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for violating the UN refugee convention (The Local DK., 2015). Even though a legal support system is in place, it is not enough to guarantee refugees the level of social protection afforded to citizens in the country.
Eligibility and access also hugely depends on the effort made by refugees themselves, as well as individuals in municipalities and communities, to provide additional assistance. This shortcoming in protection undermines successful integration into a society that is expensive, with a distinct language, while being alienated from citizens who enjoy the full spectrum of state benefits.
Denmark is not a “lovely country” for refugees: It only offers basic social protection to this vulnerable and precarious population in the most trying of times. That being said, as a leader in the field, it holds great potential. Currently, success is dependent on the exceptional dedication of municipal staff and outside help. The Danish government is merely one pillar in the social protection network for refugees: The role of other stakeholders in providing support is worth exploring.
Bendixen, Michala Clante (2018a). Integration Allowance. Accessible: http://refugees.dk/en/facts/integration-jobs-education/integration-allowance/. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Bendixen, Michala Clante (2018b). The Integration Program in the Municipality. Accessible: http://refugees.dk/en/facts/integration-jobs-education/the-integration-program-in-the-municipality/ Accessed May 10, 2019.
Bendixen, Michala Clante (2019). Asylprocedurens Tre Faser. Accessible: http://refugees.dk/fakta/asylproceduren-i-danmark/asylprocedurens-tre-faser/. Accessed May 9, 2019.
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KL - Local Government Denmark (n.d.). Kommunale opgaver – Integration. Accessible: https://www.kl.dk/kommunale-opgaver/integration/. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Long, K. and Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2017). Migration, Forced Displacement and Social Protection (GSDRC Rapid Literature Review), Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham.
The Danish Immigration Service (2018). New to Denmark, Accessible: https://www.nyidanmark.dk/en-GB/ReceivedReply/Asylum/Yes%20to%20asylum. Accessed May 5, 2019.
The Danish Parliament (n.d.). The Immigration and Integration Committee. Accessible; https://www.thedanishparliament.dk/en/committees/committees/the-immigration-and-integration-committee. Accessed May 7, 2019.
The Local DK (2015). UN: Refugee benefit cuts violate convention. Accessible: https://www.thelocal.dk/20150811/denmarks-refugee-cuts-violate-un-convention-unhcr. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Zagorskis, Valdis (2018). “Your social security rights in Denmark”, EUROPEAN COMMISSION, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.