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UNHCR expresses concern over proposed Danish refugee policies

News Stories, 22 January 2002

GENEVA, Jan. 22, (UNHCR) The U.N. refugee agency expressed concern Tuesday about a series of proposals to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into Denmark, and expressed a hope that Copenhagen, which has a fine tradition of caring for refugees, will "continue to lead by example."

The agency said it was still studying the proposals, which appear to set the scene for new legislation, but added that it was worried about their possible effect on family reunifications, welfare benefits for refugees, and the expedited return of asylum seekers to so-called "safe countries."

"We have some reasons to believe that the proposal would limit the possibility of seeking asylum in Denmark," Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman, said at a press briefing in Geneva.

Janowski added that the Danish proposals have particular resonance because Copenhagen will take over the rotating European Union presidency during the second half of 2002 at a time when negotiations on important E.U. directives on asylum will be continuing.

"It is with this in mind that UNHCR is seeking early discussions with the authorities on the implications of the new proposals for refugee protection," Janowski said.

Denmark, which was the first country to sign up to the 1951 UN refugee Convention, has traditionally been one of Europe's strongest supporters of refugees, but last November a Liberal-Conservative coalition won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections on the pledge to significantly reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the country.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers urged the Danish government earlier this month not to go ahead with proposed cuts to development aid, including funding for UNHCR. Copenhagen is the refugee agency's second biggest per capita contributor behind Norway.

Fewer than five percent of Denmark's 5.3 million people are foreigners, a lower proportion than in most European countries.

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Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story