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Volunteers have to work 'off-the-grid' to welcome refugees in Denmark

In the wake of the recent influx of refugees, the Danish government has been peddling right-wing propaganda, calling refugees '"welfare-shoppers" or potential terror threats in order to instil xenophobia and fear in the Danish people. Recent restrictions on Danish asylum policy are partially a response to such discourse, which has criticised the laissez-faire attitude of INGOs and public institutions in the first months of the refugees' arrival. In the first four months of the crisis, there was no significant presence of organisations such as the Danish Red Cross, Danish Refugee Council or Save the Children at the Copenhagen Central Station, when volunteers had to take care of 800-1,000 refugees arriving every day. The volunteers told me how they had to take care of thousands of injured, traumatised, ill or handicapped people, and how they felt completely helpless and incompetent in the face of such responsibility. Many refugees required legal advice or needed immediate medical or psychological aid. The volunteers, who are mostly students in their teen and early twenties, had to make do alone as INGOs and public services failed to recognise the severity of the situation. Along with such cases, the volunteers told me they receive a high number of unaccompanied children, some as young as nine, who have been traumatised from the war in Syria and from the hardships of their travels.

I spoke to one of the volunteer organisers, Erkan Sari, who recounted the daily struggles he encounters working "off-the-grid" to show humanity and solidarity to the refugees. The Red Cross allegedly sent four observers to evaluate the situation and concluded that there was "no need" for their assistance at a point in which Sari and other volunteers were receiving close to 1,000 refugees per day – helping them to buy train tickets; authorising translators; registering them; seeking medical aid etc. The Red Cross later came and put up a tent to assist the refugees equipped with over-the-counter medicine such as paracetamol and cough drops, handing out the drugs and taking photos before dismantling the tent the next day. "It was the biggest media stunt, I've ever seen," Sari told me.

"We felt helpless. It is strange that a group of 20-21 year olds had to be in charge of receiving people with such traumas who required legal and humanitarian assistance," Dana, one of the organisers, explained. The Danish Red Cross and Dansk Flygtningehjælp (Danish Refugee Aid) only appeared on the scene 10- days ago. They had the funds to rent an empty shop at the station and use it as a base to welcome and assist the refugees coming in. After an official apology was issued by the general secretary of the Danish Red Cross, the organisation is now cooperating with the volunteers.

Sari told me a story of a family of three who fled Iraq over sea via Greece. The father showed him two pictures of his two other children who were lost at sea in the Mediterranean. In denial regarding the likely fate of his children, the father urged Sari to report them as missing – which he did just in order to give the man some peace of mind. Most people who arrive are poor and traumatised just like this family. Many of the newcomers have lived in camps in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon prior to taking refuge in Europe – but such camps prove insufficient to protect political prisoners or wanted people fleeing for safety. These people are not "welfare shopping", as the current media discourse would have it in keeping with the current xenophobic political climate in Denmark, but desperate souls seeking safe refuge. The Danish government is now suggesting that refugees are coming with "suitcases of diamonds" and have floated a new law that would allow refugees to have their cash, jewellery and other valuables to be confiscated on arrival in order to fund their stay – an initiative that has caused international outcry.

Fighting for solidarity in Central Station

The thousands of hours of professional help provided by legal advisors and professional translators has helped the public institutions unmeasurably in processing the details and asylum applications of the thousands of refugees. The volunteers try to help people met up with family members already in Denmark or Sweden, helping them to buy them train tickets, caring for them, giving them food and comforting the children in the wait between their travels. The refugees' freedom of movement is about to become further compromised now that trains between Sweden and Denmark will be suspended from 4 January next year. The SJ and DSB (the Swedish and Danish national train companies) will be fined if they cannot check identification documents for all passengers on trains travelling between the two countries, and there seems to be insufficient funds for this service to run.

The volunteers also told of how their initial welcome stalls were only allowed in the station for the first three weeks. After this, police in civilian clothes came to take refugees and volunteers away from the station premises. At several confrontations, some of which were recorded and uploaded online, the police told volunteers to keep away from the station and to avoid assisting the refugees; when confronted with their will to show humanity and solidarity with war victims, the police responded that "we are only doing our jobs". When the volunteers asked why they had to leave, the police would point to DSB (the national train company) and vice versa. The police have learnt to very careful with what they say around volunteers as they insist on recording everything. After a while they started cooperating, and individual policemen agreed to award them protection in exchange for translation services – a number of policemen eventually began to show appreciation for the work the volunteers were doing. Despite being the executing power of the government, for some servicemen the current right-wing ideology has become too much. Several policemen have expressed a personal refusal to "rob refugees of their jewellery and cash" – as represented by the proposed law L'62.

The volunteers also expressed fear that the average Dane may be unaware of the interconnectedness of Denmark to the fate of people seeking refuge from wars such as the one in Syria or Iraq. Many people forget that Denmark, too, was involved in supporting the interventions in in Syria and elsewhere. These refugees are not people arriving "out of the blue" looking to gain money – as one volunteer said: "What would you do with money anyway if your entire family is at risk of being bombed?"

It is time for Denmark to take responsibility for its interventions in the Middle East and to pride itself on the welcoming, integrated and multicultural society it used to be. Indeed, some of the volunteers themselves told me how they themselves were the children or grandchildren of those who arrived in Denmark fleeing war or persecution and who were received with open arms – why should today's generation of refugees be treated any differently?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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