Surviving Denmark’s Open Prisons for ‘Undeportables’

Married to a Dane, with a Danish son, Khoshnaw Nameq has been refused asylum in Denmark but cannot be deported to Iraq because Iraq will accept only voluntary returns. Now in Italy, he refuses to give up on a legal future in Europe.

Written by Alicia Medina Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Protesters make their point outside the airport terminal in Copenaghen, Denmark. Aleksander Klug/NurPhoto via Getty Images

COPENHAGEN – Khoshnaw Nameq has watched his son grow up on the screen of his phone. It’s been nine years since he left his home in Iraq to escape a death threat. It’s been six years since his application for asylum was rejected in Denmark, three years since he married his Danish girlfriend, Christina, and nearly 18 months since his son, Kevin, was born.

Today the young father lives reluctantly in Italy, separated from his wife and child and trying to escape a particularly Danish form of limbo. Khoshnaw is among around 1,000 asylum seekers rejected by the Danish authorities. Many of them, like Khoshnaw, cannot be deported because their countries, including Iraq, will accept only voluntary returns, not deportations.

The “undeportables” are bound over to live in one of two “open departure centers.” In October 2016, Khoshnaw was sent to Kaershovedgard, a facility set among the forests and cornfields of Jutland, northwest Denmark. Police control who goes in and out and a sign outside warns those approaching that the “area is monitored by video.”

It’s not a prison, nor has Khoshnaw been convicted of any crime. In 2012, the Danish authorities rejected his asylum claim. While lodging an appeal, he was sent to an asylum center near the capital, Copenhagen. There he met Christina and they dated for three years. During their courtship, Khoshnaw was sent to another open departure center, Sjaelsmark, in the north of Copenhagen, close to where she lived.

In 2015, the couple got married and after a few months they were expecting their first child. As Christina neared the end of her first trimester, the couple received a letter from the Danish Immigration Services informing them that Khoshnaw was being transferred to Kaershovedgard, 220 miles (350km) away.

When he explained to them that his wife was expecting a child, he was told that “rules are rules.”

The rules dictate that after 5 p.m. no guests are accepted at Kaershovedgard, so Khoshnaw had to request permission to sleep at his wife’s home. He had to give five days’ notice. He cycled 5 miles (8km) to the train station then took a five-hour train ride to Copenhagen.

Asked what Europe means, he says it is a place where you don’t fear “that someone is coming to kill you.”

In December 2016, when Christina was pregnant, Khoshnaw applied unsuccessfully for special permission to get out of the center at any time. “I explained that I couldn’t know which day my wife was going to give birth, but nothing.”

To give himself a chance, he borrowed his wife’s car and on April 1, 2017, he got the call from the hospital. He managed to get there before Kevin was born. “I was lucky. I stayed five days with them, without permission, and then came back to the center.”

Having a Danish wife and a Danish son does not automatically entitle you to remain in Denmark. The application for family reunification needs to be submitted from the home country, not from Denmark. “The possibility of staying in Denmark is not guaranteed even if you are married and even if you have a child,” says Eva Singer from the Danish Refugee Council.

“Iraq is not my country anymore,” says Khoshnaw. He speaks perfect Danish and defines his way of thinking as “European.” Asked what Europe means, he says it is a place where you don’t fear “that someone is coming to kill you.”

Khoshnaw’s father was an officer in a Kurdish anti-terrorist unit under the wing of the U.S. Army in Iraq. But when in 2008 Iraq’s Parliament released thousands of prisoners, Khoshnaw’s family became a target. That year, their house in Kirkuk was attacked.

In 2010, his father was shot and wounded by suspected terrorists while driving home. When Khoshnaw visited him in the hospital, his father told him, “Tomorrow you are getting out of Iraq.” He had received a letter that read: “We can’t get you, but we can kill your son Khoshnaw.”

Khoshnaw crossed Turkey, Greece, Italy and Germany and arrived in Denmark, planning to reach friends of his father’s in Finland and claim asylum there. But a police raid in Copenhagen cut short the plan. “The police asked me for my passport (and) I said I didn’t have anything,” he remembers.

The Danish police took his fingerprints and he applied for asylum in Denmark. According to the Dublin regulation, an asylum seeker has to apply for asylum in the first country where the fingerprints are registered. For a year and a half he lived in a house paid for by the Danish government, while waiting for an interview with the asylum service.

Then in 2012 he was rejected. They told him it was safe for him to go to the north of Iraq. “Had it been a safe place for me, my father wouldn’t have sent me to Europe,” he points out.

Under the Danish Aliens Act, rejected asylum seekers who do not volunteer to return are sent to a detention center. But when the return is “not foreseeable,” the alien is obliged to remain indefinitely in one of the open departure centers until they volunteer to leave the country.

The E.U.’s Returns Directive established a six-month maximum period of detention, but the Danish government does not consider people like Khoshnaw to be detained because “they are free to leave the departure center at any time as long as they fulfill their obligations (for instance, reporting to the police),” according to an email from the Danish ministry of immigration.

Asked about the rejected asylum seekers who stay for years in these centers, the immigration ministry said that if rejected asylum seekers stayed, “it was because they refused to comply with the authority’s decision to leave the country.”

Khoshnaw lived in Kaershovedgard for over a year and got the message. The center was “designed to make us feel depressed,” he says.

According to the ministry of immigration, the purpose of the centers is “to send a clear signal to the aliens that they do not have a future in Denmark, and to motivate them to contribute to their return.”

Khoshnaw lived in Kaershovedgard for over a year and got the message. The center was “designed to make us feel depressed,” he says. Every month, Khoshnaw would have an interview with the police. They would threaten to put him in jail if he did not return to Iraq and he would answer, “Whatever you do, I don’t care, I am not giving up.”

Eventually, he had to give up. After a year of requesting permits to cross Denmark to stay a few hours with his wife and son, Khoshnaw could not take it anymore. “Without my son I couldn’t live in Denmark like that,” he says.

During the winter, when Kevin or Christina were sick, he would overstay at her home, which led immigration services to restrict his leave permits. Had he kept disobeying the rules, he risked prison.

In December 2017 he absconded from the center, making his way to Italy, where he has once again applied for asylum. Under the Dublin regulation, Italy should send him back to Denmark – where his fingerprints were first recorded. But his lawyer has lodged an appeal in Rome while they await a decision. In Italy, unlike Denmark, asylum seekers can work.

Khoshnaw got a job in a hotel bar. After eight years in Denmark being unable to work and languishing in a departure center, he has regained some sense of normality. He gets up in the morning at a home provided by a Catholic charity and heads to work. “The only thing I don’t have is my family,” he says.

“Every time I asked him, ‘Kevin do you want to give me a hug?’ he is always, like, opening his arms and hugging.”

They talk every day, Khoshnaw says. Three days after Khoshnaw left Denmark, Kevin started crawling. Last July, Christina and Kevin visited Khoshnaw in Italy and for a week they lived like a normal family. When he met them at the airport, Khoshnaw asked Kevin, “Do you want to come to your father?” Kevin gave him his hand. “It was very nice to know that he did not forget me.”

Khoshnaw and his family reunited briefly in Italy. CREDIT: Khoshnaw Nameq

“Every time I asked him, ‘Kevin do you want to give me a hug?’ he is always, like, opening his arms and hugging,” says Khoshnaw. He misses holding him. The future is uncertain and Italy could send him back to Denmark. Khoshnaw is scared of ending up in prison.

Despite being forcibly separated from his wife and son, Khoshnaw is still thankful for his safe life in Europe. Earlier this year, after so-called Islamic State militants launched an attack on Kirkuk, his parents sought refuge in Turkey.

A death threat separated him from his family in Iraq. Migration laws separate him from his family in Denmark. Still, he keeps a positive attitude: “One day everything will be good … just nobody knows when.”

Until that day comes, he watches his son grow up on the screen of his phone.

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