Humanitarianism still exists in today’s Denmark

If one only takes note of the extremist, discriminatory and inhumane measures taken by the current government to deter asylum seekers from coming to Denmark and make their lives even more miserable when they are here, it would seem that people fleeing war and destitution and arriving in today’s Denmark do not have much to be happy about. The key message that Morten Goll, founder of Trampoline House, and his team of researchers received from residents of asylum centers back in 2009 was that the situation they are in leads to Isolation, Poverty and Mental Paralysis. Read more here.

Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but something good is also happening. Incredible numbers of people in civil society are making active choices about which side of history they want to be on in these gloomy days for humanitarianism. They want to be on the ‘right’ side and are working hard—often in their free time—to counteract the devastating, dehumanising effects of asylum policy in Denmark. So many individuals have been active in welcoming refugees upon immediate arrival here, and gathering clothes and other articles that the refugees are in desperate need of along their route to Denmark. Too many people to name, unfortunately! Instead, I would like to share a brief introduction to a few of the initiatives initiated by volunteers and civil society that are impacting people’s lives for the better in Denmark:

Perhaps the most well-known institution is Venligboerne (Friendly Humans / Friendly Neighbours). This initiative started in 2014 when a small group of people got together to figure out how they could best welcome the 500 asylum seekers who would be arriving in their small town in Jutland, Hjørring. Venligboerne now has over 90 Facebook groups based in different districts, towns and cities in Denmark and abroad. Estimates of the number of members range from 20,000 to 150,000. The membership is Danish citizens, refugees, asylum seekers and other foreign migrants. As well as a platform for organizing different activities, the Facebook pages also serve as a ‘go-to’ for other activists who are implementing new initiatives and are in need volunteers, participants, connections and other resources, or simply want to share the news of their initiative. Read more about Venligboerne’s impact on the United Nations Refugee Agency’s website here.

In Nordvest, a district of Copenhagen that is home to a high number of residents with immigrant backgrounds, lies Trampoline House, which aptly describes itself as “an independent community center in Copenhagen that provides refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark with a place of support, community, and purpose.” Among many other activities including a Friday night cook-up and party, the house offers refugees and asylum seekers free legal advice, with the help of volunteer translators, language lessons, childcare, and medical counselling. This impressive institution receives funding from both the public and private sector and is run by refugees and asylum seekers as well as volunteers. One of the core values of the house is that there is no charity – asylum seekers only get their transport to and from the center paid by Trampoline House if they are present to ‘work’ or engage in activities for instance. The house tries to send the message “we need you and your skills” and empowers its target group through participation and giving responsibility. Read more about Trampoline House here.

Refugees Welcome is another key institution for refugees, asylum seekers and other denizens with an interest in the conditions such newcomers live under. The organisation provides free legal counselling and assistance as they believe that asylum seekers do not receive the advice and guidance they need during their application process: “many people make mistakes in their applications because of lack of knowledge.” Refugees welcome started out under the name Komitéen Flygtninge Under Jorden (The Committee for Clandestine Refugees) back in 1985 when a few Danes supported an Iranian friend who had his asylum application rejected. They managed to get the ruling overturned and since then have helped many other asylum seekers and refugees with legal matters. They changed their name in part because of the difficulties asylum seekers had with saying the previous name! Refugees Welcome relies solely on donations from private individuals. Read more about Refugees Welcome here.

Another initiative which is gaining recognition is the Facebook group Social Science Across Borders (SSAB). Founded by a group of researchers from the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) in November 2015, the movement is currently only in action in Copenhagen. As with Venligboerne, the membership mainly consists of Danes, refugees, asylum seekers and other foreign nationals who are based in Denmark. Social Science Across Borders “focuses on creating opportunities with and for refugees and asylum seekers in the realms of education and knowledge in the social sciences” and has the makings of a valuable resource not just for refugees and asylum seekers but for private businesses and institutes of higher education in Denmark and further afield. Meet SSAB on Facebook here.

There are so many more great projects in existence and starting up. These efforts undoubtedly work towards bringing asylum seekers out of their Isolation, Poverty and Mental Paralysis. They also benefit Danish society immensely by paving the way for more successful, participatory integration.

Thank you to all those involved for reminding us that humanitarianism is still rife in Denmark.

See also visAvis magazine, The Bridge Radio radio station, CAMP Center for Art on Migration Politics, Immigrant-Art, and also some of the institutions that aim to help refugees find work or get into education, Flygtninger i Job, Restart, University of Copenhagen, Everiwon.

Are you a volunteer in Denmark or elsewhere in Europe? Would you help me get a deeper understanding of the civil action happening by taking 2 minutes to answer this short multiple-choice questionnaire: In English and på dansk