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Daniel Møller Ølgaard worked as a caseworker in the Immigration Service.

Change of roles: A former caseworker in the hot seat

Daniel Møller Ølgaard worked as a caseworker in Centre Sandholm for eight months last year. His job was to interview asylum seekers, but today we change the roles, so he is interviewed by an asylum seeker.

By Marion Chen

As a former caseworker in the Immigration Service, Daniel has mixed feelings about the asylum system in Denmark.

“Denmark, compared to the other countries, is still in the good part of the countries. We treat the asylum seekers quite good. We have a relatively small influx compared with some of the South European countries, like Italy and Greece, and we actually allocate resources to deal with it. On the other hand, I think we also implemented some changes that were problematic.” says Daniel Møller Ølgaard.

Daniel was interviewing both adults and unaccompanied minors in Centre Sandholm, but today he doesn’t work for the Immigrations Service anymore. Even though, he is still limited by the law of confidentiality, so he can’t talk about the specific procedures in the Immigration Service. Today Daniel is working on a Ph.D.

What is the general criteria to judge an asylum seeker’s request for asylum in Denmark?
“The general criteria is the conventions, including international conventions, related to human rights violations. If you are personally persecuted in terms of five reasons, such as religious, politically or sexual persecution, you can be granted asylum. You have to be in a concrete risk of being killed or being subject to human right violations, if you go back to your home country. That’s the law.”

Is there a law for the caseworker to secure that all the asylum seekers are treated equally? How do you make sure it happen in practice?
“There is a law. This goes for any government office for a public employee. You are obliged to live by the rules and actually you get those rules at the first day of the employment. One of those rules is to treat people fairly. If any employee is caught mishandling cases, either on a personal level or if not abiding by the laws in that specific area of work, then he will be fired and banned from working in other government offices.

In that position you have a lot of power. You really do. You don’t make final decisions, but you are the one writing everything down and you are handling the interview. It is very important for us to write things down in a truthful manner and we made a great effort to make sure that the applicant knows how we write it down. Everything is translated at the end of the interview, so that the applicant get to know what the caseworker has written down.”

In that position you have a lot of power. You really do.

How did you feel about having the power to decide the future of other people?
“That’s something I was really aware of when I started the job, but it fades away when you get into it. It is so regulated and there is not a lot of wiggle room. It’s very rare that cases are in a sort of grey zone and if they are, you have to talk with them again. At the beginning you are very insecure about what you’re doing, so you consult your team leaders and your head of office much more, but then you find out that there is a huge safety put into place so that it’s difficult to make grand mistakes, which makes you relax a little more.”

Many asylum seekers feel that the caseworkers don’t know enough about their home country. What do you think about that? Do you think it is a problem?
“I have had this conflict many times where the applicants feel that it’s very important to explain a lot of details about their home country and culture. But to be honest, it’s not very important, because it is not allowed to judge your case on that, because it is not depending on specifics. The international conventions are universal so it doesn’t matter what kind culture you come from.”

The problem is that we have no chance of verifying very specific kinds of information.

“If information from an asylum seeker contradicts the background information that the Danish government has, then the applicant’s explanation will most likely be rejected on that basis alone. And that is the most difficult part – it must be difficult for the applicant, because he can say “I was there!”, and that’s a very good argument. The problem is that we have no chance of verifying very specific kinds of information. On the other hand, if we don’t have any background information that speaks against the information given by the applicant, and the information seems coherent and likely to be true, then we can’t reject it.”

Are there any actions to correct mistakes?
“There is a lot because this is a big system. Any rejection of asylum is automatically moved to an independent legal board – the Refugee Appeals Board – which is independent from the Danish Immigration Service and it has representatives from different bodies. Anyone who gets rejected will get the chance to make their case with a lawyer. If they can convince the board that the case has mistakes, then the board can rule that the case has to go back to start over again.”

People working there do a good job.

Do you have anything you want to add?
“My personal opinion about the system is that people working there do a good job. My head of the office was very, very good. I never once felt that any of my colleagues didn’t care about the applicants. But we are also subject to a lot of regulations and changes of the rules from the government that made it difficult. But we found a way to make it as bearable as possible. I really liked working there. I mean, it is a tough job, but I felt that the people I talked to and the people I was in touch with did a good job.”

What is an agreement of confidentiality?
An agreement of confidentiality involves a set of rules that any worker at the Immigration Service has to sign. It means that they break the law if they reveal the internal working procedures, even though one doesn’t work there anymore. Therefore Daniel is only allowed to talk about the general procedures and his personal opinion.

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