Families torn apart by family reunification rules are hoping for another chance from the new government.
The case of an eight-year-old girl who is being threatened with deportation has turned the spotlight on Denmark’s unyielding family reunification rules once again.
Despite letters of support from her teachers and school principal, and her parents’ urgent pleas, the Immigration Service has deemed the Bangladeshi girl Ripa incapable of integrating and ineligible for residency in Denmark.
Ripa’s is just the latest of approximately 800 cases of children who have been refused residency permits since 2005, according to public broadcaster DR.
Ripa’s father, Jamal Ahmed, has lived in Denmark since 1998 and works as a dishwasher at the Hilton hotel in Copenhagen. He and Ripa’s mother, who still lives in Bangladesh, divorced before Ripa was born.
In Bangladeshi culture, when couples split and remarry, the children remain with their biological fathers.
“That’s how the culture is in our country. A man can keep his children from an earlier marriage in his new marriage, but the woman cannot. The new husband simply won’t allow it,” Ahmed told DR.
Ripa’s mother has since remarried and cannot keep Ripa. At first the girl was sent to live with Ahmed’s mother, but the older woman is now too sick to care for her.
“The plan was that Ripa should come to live with me in Denmark before she began school, so that she could make Danish friends and get an education in Denmark,” Ahmed said.
When Ripa turned six two years ago she came to Denmark to live with Ahmed, his new wife and their child. However, her family reunification residency application was rejected on the grounds that she had come to Denmark too late and was incapable of integrating.
Changes to the family reunification rules introduced by the Liberal-Conservative government and the Danish People’s Party (DF) in 2004 stipulate that children of foreigners living in Denmark are only eligible for family reunification if they are under 15 and are judged capable of integrating successfully, and if their parents apply to bring them to Denmark no more than two years after receiving their own residency permits.
The rule changes were allegedly introduced to discourage foreign residents from allowing relatives in the home country to raise their children for numbers of years, so that they acquire the language, customs and culture of the home country. The theory being, the younger the child is when she comes to Denmark, the better chance she has to learn the Danish language and customs and integrate successfully.
By that argument, if the parents wait too long to apply to bring their children to Denmark, it could mean they do not really want them to adopt Danish culture and become ‘Danish’.
Teachers from Ripa’s schools in Denmark have written on her behalf, vouching that she is in fact integrating very well, even though she first came to Denmark as a six-year-old.
“In the time I have known Ripa she has developed tremendously from being a quiet girl who could barely speak Danish to a girl with self-confidence and fluent Danish. She has playmates and goes to Danish school. She is decidedly capable of integrating,” Ripa’s after-school teacher Henning Hansen wrote to the Immigration Service on her behalf.
The principal of Ripa’s school confirmed in a second letter that Ripa was developing and integrating well with Danish children both socially and linguistically.
Ripa’s biological mother also wrote a letter saying that she wanted Ripa to stay in Denmark with her father.
Ahmed continues to fight the Immigration Service with the help of immigration lawyer Åge Kramp. But the state is now threatening to enforce the deportation. Two weeks ago police came to Ahmed’s home, asking to see the family’s passports. Ahmed is afraid of what will happen to Ripa if she is deported.
“There isn’t anyone who will look after her in Bangladesh. My ex-wife cannot take her because of the family structure. My mother is sick and old and is herself being taken care of by family in the US. I don’t know who will take care of my daughter if I cannot keep her,” he told DR.
The Immigration Service’s deportation order is not an idle threat.
In March, a 12-year-old Thai boy, Sirapat Kamminsen, was deported despite the objections of his mother and Danish step-father, who both live in Denmark. The reason given was that Sirapat was not sufficiently integrable. Immigration authorities were informed that there were no close relatives in Thailand who could care for him, but he was deported anyway.
For the past six months Sirapat has been living with an elderly teacher in Thailand, and his family is still fighting to overturn the ruling and bring him back to Denmark, MetroXpress newspaper reports.
The immigration service asserts that children who are deported always have a parent or other close relative in the home country who can take care of them and that children who do not are given Danish residency even if they do not meet all the requirements.
Sirapat’s step-father, Kurt Viborg, told MetroXpress he was hopeful that the new left-of-centre government would soften family reunification rules so that Sirapat could come back to his family in Denmark.
Nevertheless, while many international families and couples are hopeful about the new government, their situations remain uncertain. The prime minister-designate’s Social Democrats in fact voted for the 2004 bill that led to Sirapat and Ripa being refused residency. Moreover, the Social Dems and their coalition partner, the Socialist People’s Party (SF), have promised to maintain some of the most controversial family reunification rules introduced by the Liberal-Conservative government and the DF, including the 24-year-rule and the ‘attachment requirement’.
The 24-year-rule stipulates that both partners in a relationship must be at least 24-years-old for the foreign partner to get a residency permit, while the ‘attachment requirement’ says families and couples must demonstrate that they are more strongly tied to Denmark than to any other country.
“We said loud and clear that we are not going to change the 24-year-rule and the ‘attachment requirement’ … we’re not behind that,” prime minister-designate Helle Thorning-Schmidt announced just two days before the election.
By contrast, the centrist Social Liberals and far-left Red-Green Alliance have both called for a total elimination of both the controversial points system for family reunification and the 24-year-rule. It remains to be seen, however, how far they can influence the Social Dems and the SF and whether they will be willing to use their political capital to radically revise the country’s immigration rules.
Immigration lawyer Åge Kramp expects that some of the rules will change, but not all.
“The amount of rules in this area is like an iceberg. What the public and most of the politicians see is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kramp told The Copenhagen Post. “The top of the iceberg could change – things like the 24-year-rule – but, then, when you remove the top, the rest of the iceberg begins to pop up.”
Nevertheless, Kramp hopes the immigration rules for children will be reconsidered.
“There might be some non-integrable parents, but the children – they are all innocent,” he added.