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Denmark's treatment of refugees and people with disabilities

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Michaela Medveďová / Sara R. Newell

Following her visit to Denmark in May and June of 2023, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović published a report with recommendations for the rights of people with disabilities, refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

The report was welcomed by Monica Lylloff from the #enmillionstemmer movement, who sent an appeal to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in August 2021. The appeal was supported by professors, attorneys, The Danish Trade Union for Public Employees, and the Disabled People's Organisations Denmark.

In this issue, we will focus on the Commissioner's findings and recommendations for the rights of people with disabilities in Denmark. You can find the entire report here and the summary of the report's conclusions.

In the report, the Commissioner "calls on the authorities to foster a structural approach to improving the situation of persons with disabilities, in particular through the introduction of a general legal obligation for reasonable accommodation, as well as a comprehensive national action plan on persons with disabilities" which she states would be the most optimal approach to such a complex, multi-faceted topic.

Compared to the last report the previous Commissioner carried out on Denmark in 2014, Mijatović positively notes several positive legislative changes, "including greater protection of persons with disabilities against hate speech, a law on accessibility requirements for products and services, and the Act on Prohibition of Discrimination on Grounds of Disability, adopted in 2018, which applies to all public and private activities in all areas," as well as some improvements made to ensure reasonable accommodation, even though there still isn't a general obligation. Introducing a general legal obligation is strongly recommended by the Commissioner.

Furthermore, the Commissioner welcomes the fact that nationwide data is being collected through surveys as it "permits an analysis of the outcome gaps between persons with and without disabilities in the enjoyment of several human rights, and any changes over time". However, unfortunately, as she continued: "Analyses of this data confirm not only the existence of significant gaps across various areas of life but also a lack of progress in narrowing these gaps over the years."

"The Commissioner calls on Danish authorities to take a structural approach to narrowing the gap for people with disabilities."

The following gaps for people with disabilities were identified:

  • Lack of protection from discrimination and violence, with no major changes between 2012 and 2020

  • Lack of access to public transportation, with the percentage of people with physical disabilities who can use public transportation actually decreasing from 66%

  • in 2016 to 57% in 2020

  • Difficulties with accessibility, especially in older buildings

  • Decreased options to participate in social life, often connected with the above issues

  • Lack of access to education and inclusion, even though the Commissioner "welcomes in this regard the government's stated intention to develop an action plan with measures aimed at students with disabilities."

  • Lack of possibilities for employment

  • Poorer health and lower quality of healthcare.

Living conditions and protection from violence and sexual abuse need to be improved.

The Commissioner "strongly encourages the authorities to explore ways to strengthen persons with disabilities' freedom to choose where and with whom they live". The report also strongly recommends reducing the number of larger, institution-like residential facilities.

Furthermore, the Commissioner strongly emphasizes "the need to address challenges such as the exposure to violence and abuse, including sexual abuse, in residential institutions". The report states:

The Commissioner was deeply concerned by reports that persons with disabilities and living in residential care facilities were significantly overrepresented among victims of sexual abuse – according to one study, they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and seven times more likely to be raped, than those who do not live in residential facilities.

She suggests measures to be implemented to prevent this, including improved knowledge and proper training among the staff in residential centres, and enduring incidents are reported and investigated.

The Commissioner also urges the authorities to devote attention to "the reported increasing number of children and young people with severe mental health conditions being placed in closed care institutions, as well as the conditions within those institutions".

Civil and political rights must be protected.

The Commissioner urges the authorities to review the accessibility and practical barriers to the right to vote and the acquisition of Danish citizenship and to provide reasonable accommodation.

She also focuses on the issue of guardianship, concluding:

The Commissioner calls on the authorities to continue moving away from full guardianship and substitute decision-making, particularly by developing mechanisms for supported decision-making. As an interim step, the authorities may consider ways to encourage transitions from full to partial guardianship, including through increased awareness-raising for this relatively new mechanism.

Lastly, the Commissioner strongly urges the authorities to "drastically reduce the use of all forms of coercion, and to end recourse to any coercive measure that may amount to ill-treatment, including, in particular, the use of belt restraints for extended periods". Unless strictly in their best interest, the Commissioner also calls for an absolute ban on coercion used against children.

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