Last week, Danish immigration minister Birthe Roenn Hornbech left office under the shadow of scandal. The immediate cause of her dismissal: the illegal rejection of citizenship applications, in this instance submitted by at least 36 stateless Palestinian youths. It’s an issue that rarely makes front page news, but in fact this case only scratches the surface of a much wider, though often unseen, campaign to restrict access to Danish citizenship on discriminatory and xenophobic grounds.
The ministry’s actions in this case caught Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen’s attention because they violate Denmark’s international obligations under the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The Convention requires states party to grant citizenship rights to persons born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless. This principle plays a bedrock role in global efforts to combat the spread of statelessness by eliminating the possibility that stateless status could be inherited by a new generation, compounding its debilitating effects on access to education, political engagement, employment, health care and other vital social services.
Concern over the fact that the Immigration Ministry had knowingly denied citizenship to stateless persons then quickly gave way to astonishment last Tuesday, when Minister Hornbech’s replacement, the Minister for Development Cooperation, Søren Pind, effectively declared that immigrants should assimilate or leave and made a case for even tighter immigration laws.
According to a recent poll, Pind’s stance is not in line with the majority of Danish citizens. The minister is now the butt of a popular “Assimilate Søren Pind” Facebook campaign that has led thousands to change their profile picture to Pind’s official press photo over the weekend—a symbolic effort to show, according to the organizers, “how boring a country without diversity and space for multiple cultures would be.”
Of course, the Facebook campaign would be impossible if users could not post a genuine profile photo in the first place. In the language of the metaphor driving the campaign, the stateless applicants caught in Denmark’s immigration fortress would only appear as empty silhouettes.
Arbitrary denial of citizenship to stateless persons is not a new phenomenon in Denmark. In 2009, the Justice Initiative filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights in H.P. v. Denmark. The case challenged Denmark’s citizenship policies as applied to a stateless refugee who escaped torture in Iran over 20 years ago and who has been denied Danish nationality in eight successive applications over the course of 11 years.
The applicant furnished substantial evidence that he suffers from a learning disability associated with post-traumatic stress, making it extremely difficult for him to pass a language test required for acquisition of Danish citizenship—despite over 1000 hours of instruction in Danish. Still, immigration authorities refuse to regularize his status. H.P. is another faceless victim of Denmark’s unyielding—and unpopular—assimilation campaign.
Minister Pind called the Facebook campaign “good advertising” for his upcoming election bid this November. He has one thing right: visibility is a key to empowerment. As long as stateless individuals habitually residing in Denmark remain invisible and so deliberately marginalized by Danish authorities, they have faint hope of enjoying the essential rights made possible through a grant of citizenship.