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When Emmanuel, 34, originally from Burundi, was taken to the Sjælsmark center for rejected asylum seekers outside Copenhagen, the first thing that struck him were the iron gates and the tall wire fence that marked the perimeter. “They are to protect residents from possible attacks from outside,” the guards told him. Emmanuel was surprised by this answer, since the center was far from everything and without public transport, in addition to that he had arrived in Denmark three years ago and he had never felt threatened or in danger. A few months earlier, his request for asylum as a refugee was denied, which meant that he now no longer had the right to be in the country.
The life of this young Burundian had been in limbo: he had no money or work permit, he shared a small, cold room with three other strangers, he was not allowed to cook his own food, and he had to follow a strict routine with fixed hours that forced him to sleep every night in the center and register his fingerprints every 72 hours. But for Emmanuel, the worst thing was that he did not know when he would be repatriated: “I have lost my freedom and this is mentally destroying me […] the prisoners know what day their sentence will end, but this is much worse ”, he assured.
“During the interview there were several misunderstandings, among them, they did not believe me that I was Burundian,” explains Emmanuel with a resigned tone. His request was ultimately rejected due to the lack of evidence to show that his life was in danger in Burundi. Since he left Nyanza, in the southwest of the African country, in 2007, he has gone through a long ordeal that he prefers not to remember in too many details.
When Emmanuel finally made it to France, he applied for asylum for the first time, but after a few years without getting a response, he arrived in Denmark, where his case was considered. When he thought that he could start his new life, they continued three years of long waiting living in refugee camps on the Jutland peninsula, until they knew if he would be accepted or not. “I did not know how difficult it would be to seek asylum in Denmark, when you are fleeing you do not think about this, I just wanted to get to a safe country,” he excuses himself. Emmanuel now lives with the uncertainty of not knowing if he will be sent back to France, where he would be forced to live on the streets, or to Burundi, where the climate of political repression and violence against citizens who oppose the regime continues to be in force.
From tolerance to rejection
Denmark, the country famous for fun – an expression that could be translated as convenience and comfort – and having one of the most developed welfare state systems, it also had the reputation of being a welcoming and tolerant country towards refugees. But since 2015, with the so-called “refugee crisis” in the European Union, the Scandinavian country has adopted a “very hard and restrictive line”, explains Michala Bendixen, president of Refugees Welcome. Measures that have been relatively relaxed since the arrival of the Social Democratic government in 2019, but that include the confiscation of all cash and valuables that refugees may carry when entering the country, in order to pay their maintenance.
Heavy-handed policies have had their effect: in the past five years the number of asylum seekers in Denmark has plummeted, from more than 21,000 requests registered in 2015 to 2,716 in 2019. During the year 2020 and due to the covid-19 crisis, refugee arrivals have decreased further. But if Denmark is compared with its neighbor Sweden – which received 21,958 asylum requests in 2019 – the Danish strategy to stop being an attractive country for the arrival of asylum seekers becomes clear.
For Bendixen, the most alarming thing about the situation is that the discourse of rejection, promoted in the last decade by the far-right Dansk Folkeparti (DF) party, has been translated into “deliberately hostile towards refugees” policies supported today by all the parliamentary arch. “It seems that no one in Denmark realizes the positive impact on the welfare state that the arrival of refugees generates,” says Bendixen. “We have the resources to host 10,000 asylum seekers each year, yet the government is deporting refugees from countries like Syria within just three years of arriving here.”
Take “the leap” towards society
In Nørrebro, the multicultural district of Copenhagen, is the Trampoline House. Over the years, the community created around the house has enabled hundreds of refugees to “make the leap into Danish society,” explains founder Morten Goll. The project was born ten years ago with the idea of breaking the isolation they suffer when they arrive in the country. “Our goal was to show that there are better ways to integrate,” explains Goll. “When you force people to live in isolated camps, you are victimizing them and forcing them to live off the charity of the State,” he says. “This causes society to see them as a burden to the system, while also favoring hate speech and rejection that greatly deteriorate our democracy. Here we invite people to come and participate, interact and create a social fabric that also contributes to Danish society ”.
The project was born ten years ago with the idea of breaking the isolation that refugees suffer when they arrive in the country: “Our objective was to show that there are better ways to integrate”
Morten Goll, founder of Casa del Trampolín
Mohanned, 25, came to Denmark one and a half ago since he fled Syria in 2018: “I found myself in a country where I didn’t know anything or anyone, I had no money or anything to do, but when I got to the House everything changed”. Here she received legal help to process her asylum claim which was approved, she started studying Danish and now speaks it fluently, found her first jobs before resuming her studies in communication and journalism, and met her current Danish partner. In the afternoon, Mohanned stops by the House to greet his friends and prepare the discussion session on the movement Black Lives Matter that will be held the next day, in which Emmanuel will also participate. “I felt that the Casa has opened many opportunities for me and I had to return the favor by volunteering,” reveals the young Syrian.
Covid-19 crisis forces Casa Trampolín to close
The day-to-day life of the Casa was managed by volunteers and university students in internships who directed all the training and cultural proposals that were developed. Until a few months ago, the Trampoline House bar and kitchen had become very popular with Nørrebro residents, especially for the community dinners that were organized every week. But with the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic and health restrictions, the House has been closed to the public since December and its future hangs by a thread. “The coronavirus crisis has seriously affected the project’s economy,” explains Martin Goll. “During the fall we expected the arrival of private donations, but they have not arrived.”
Last January 1, it was learned that the Trampoline House will no longer open, which has meant a huge blow to the entire community that was part of its ecosystem. But Goll clarifies: “The project and the ideas do not end here, we have fought a lot and we take all the learning and the methods to continue contributing to society, we are sure that in the midst of a crisis, for many people we are more necessary than ever. ”.