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Denmark's refugees in legal limbo

17 June 08 12:32 GMT
By Dominic Hughes
BBC News, Copenhagen

About 30 minutes drive from Copenhagen lies the Sandholm camp, a former barracks now home to hundreds of asylum seekers. Some have been here for a very long time.

One of them is 20-year-old Merna Samir.

As she shows me into the tiny bed-sit she shares with another young woman, it looks like a typical student flat.

Posters of pop and film stars are on the walls and there is a computer and TV.

But Merna's description of it is startling. "It is my little grave."

Slightly taken aback I think I must have misheard her. "Why do you call it that?" I ask.

"Because I feel like a dead person in it - with no future, nothing. It is a grave."

Merna, who speaks six languages, dreams of becoming a lawyer. But instead she is training as a hairdresser, a skill she will not be able to put into practice.

That is because Merna is Iraqi refugee number 440337. As a failed asylum seeker she is barred from working in Denmark.

Trapped

When Merna was eight her father was murdered and the family fled Iraq. They ended up in Denmark where their application for asylum was rejected.

But Denmark has no treaty with Iraq allowing for the forced return of failed asylum seekers. The same applies to Iran, Somalia and Kosovo.

Unwilling to go back to what is now a dangerous, foreign country, Merna is trapped.

The physical conditions in the Sandholm camp are not too bad. The residents are free to come and go.

All the basics - accommodation, fresh running water, food - are provided by the Danish government.

There is a bright kindergarten for the smaller children, buses to take older children to special schools plus a football pitch for the adults. The big problem is uncertainty.

A report by European MPs who visited the camp concluded the psychological effects of long periods in these conditions - sometimes more than 10 years - can be devastating, especially for children and young people.

Some children in the camp have been born in Denmark and speak Danish, but they are in effect excluded from society.

And the groups of bored young men hanging listlessly around the camp tell their own story.

Passive

The Danish government does provide classes in subjects like computing and English.

But Mads Carstensen, head of training at the Danish Red Cross, says an asylum system that is meant to last for one or two years now has to cope with people who stay for much longer.

"You spend all this time in the Danish asylum system without working, without using your skills, and eventually you become passive. You lose your ability to act for yourself."

Campaigners for refugees say the exclusion of failed asylum seekers is a deliberate government policy.

But Mogens Camre, an MEP for the anti-immigration Danish People's Party - which supports the governing coalition - is clear. The asylum system must be maintained.

"We cannot force them to go home. But if we just said, 'Well, you have been denied asylum, you do not want to go home, then stay', then there is no asylum system, because then you are granted asylum irrespective of whether you need it or you don't."

Back at the Sandholm camp, Merna often sits in front of the main gates, watching the passing traffic. What does she think as she sits there?

"I feel like I'm in a train or bus station right now. I know one day my bus or my train will come and take me away from here."

But in the meantime Merna and hundreds like her are stuck in a legal no-man's land, with no way out except to go back to a country she does not know.

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