Danish authorities say that the decision to deport Zarmena Waziri is of her own making: She broke the law. Since 2012, her various applications to remain in the country have been rejected three times, and she has disregarded every order to leave.
Zarmena Waziri’s dementia is so severe that when she recently ate an orange, she forgot to swallow and nearly choked to death. She has suffered multiple strokes, has high blood pressure and wears a diaper.
In a case that has captured headlines across Denmark, Danish authorities have called for Waziri, a 70-year-old Afghan woman, to be deported to Afghanistan, where, her children say, she is sure to die.
Her daughter Marzia, her main caregiver, has lived in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, for 25 years and owns a small grocery business. Marzia’s two children are Danish citizens.
“I live in constant fear that I am going to come home and find that the door has been knocked down and that my mother is gone,” said Marzia Waziri, who spoke fluent Danish and was close to tears. “She wouldn’t last a day in Afghanistan. She has no one there.”
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Danish authorities counter that the decision to deport Zarmena Waziri is of her own making: She broke the law. Since November 2012, her various applications to remain in the country have been rejected three times, and she has disregarded every order to leave.
Human-rights advocates say humanitarian imperatives should trump legal considerations. The case is under review.
Under the U.N. refugee agency’s policy, “countries may not forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger,” but, in practice, the granting of asylum is largely at a country’s discretion, according to legal experts. Cases like Zarmena Waziri’s invariably cause a clash between humanitarian concerns and the letter of the law.
Zoran Stevanovic, spokesman for Northern Europe for the refugee agency, said it would strongly advise against returning to Afghanistan a person who had failed to receive asylum but was older and ill because, aside from the growing violence there, Afghanistan lacked appropriate facilities to care for her.
“Without a social network who can support her in Afghanistan, she is at risk of serious harm,” he wrote in an email.
Before Waziri became ill, her family said, she was a pioneering women’s-rights activist and teacher who was among the first women in Afghanistan to publicly remove her veil, shake a man’s hand and run for parliament, in the late 1960s.
Countries across Europe have been tightening immigration rules as anti-immigrant sentiments simmer on both sides of the Atlantic. A tough stance on refugees has become such a vote-getter in Denmark that the integration minister, Inger Stojberg, recently celebrated the government’s 50th anti-immigration regulation with a cake.
Such hardening attitudes are not limited to Denmark. In Germany, which accepted more than 1 million refugees and migrants in 2015 and faces elections in September, three mass expulsions of Afghan men have occurred since the fall. Hungary, evoking echoes of World War II, recently unveiled plans to detain asylum seekers in small enclosed villages surrounded by razor wire.
Denmark’s tightening rules do not concern only those from war-torn countries. Mary Stewart Burgher, a 60-year-old retired Houston native who worked for the World Health Organization in Copenhagen, became a cause célèbre in Denmark this month after she was ordered to leave after living there for 32 years. After she made several heartfelt pleas on television in American-accented Danish, she was notified the day before her planned deportation that she could stay, at least while authorities reviewed her case.
Fears are growing in Europe that incoming terrorists are masquerading as refugees and that welfare states are being overstretched. In Denmark, a culture war over Islam exploded after the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005 spurred a violent reaction around the world.
Aarhus, where the Waziri family lives, has attracted unwanted attention for its gritty immigrant neighborhoods, but has also gained notice for a successful program to deradicalize jihadis in a country with the second-highest number of foreign fighters per capita.
As in other countries across Europe, a far-right populist party, the Danish People’s Party, is attracting voters by railing against immigration. The center-right government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has supported dozens of restrictive anti-immigrant measures, including a law requiring newly arrived refugees to hand over valuables such as gold or jewelry to help pay the costs of lodging them.
Denmark is so eager to speed up deportations that in March, the government chartered a flight for about 50 police officers and officials to return 16 rejected asylum seekers to Kabul.
Martin Henriksen, a senior member of the Danish People’s Party who is chairman of Parliament’s Committee on Foreigners and Integration, said immigration from Muslim-majority countries was threatening Danish identity and the country’s vaunted tolerance.
“Some see humanism as an obligation to let a lot of Muslims into your country, but that’s not how I see humanism,” he said in a phone interview from Copenhagen. “The immigration we’ve had, particularly from Muslim countries, has in many ways destroyed our country.”
While empathizing with Waziri’s case, he said a person’s dementia or illness was not a sufficient ground to offer refuge in Denmark. “We don’t return people if we know there’s an execution battalion waiting for them at the airport,” he added. “Of course we don’t.”
No family back home
Waziri’s journey from Afghanistan to Denmark took root in 2008, after she suffered the first of several strokes, and her husband, a wealthy landowner from the Gereshk District of Helmand province, married a much-younger woman who did not want to take care of her, her family said. After she joined two of her children in Denmark in 2012, her husband was slain in bed by the Taliban, leaving her with no family back home to care for her.
Her five other children live in Germany, but under European Union rules, she must apply for asylum in Denmark since she landed there first.
Danish Immigrant Counseling, the advocacy group helping Waziri, said the government had first refused to grant her application for asylum, since she had a husband in Afghanistan. By the time he was killed, she was already in Denmark, disqualifying her from applying for family reunification from abroad. Waziri’s daughter said the family had ignored several deportation orders, fearing that going back to Afghanistan would kill her mother.
Waziri’s granddaughter Hosna Waziri, 20, an aspiring doctor, said in fluent English that since all the members of the family worked or studied, they sometimes had to leave her grandmother alone on the sofa, with only Afghan music as company.
She said that her parents came to Denmark from Afghanistan to escape oppression when the country was under communism, and that no one in the family wanted to return, including her grandmother, whom, she noted, cannot recall her seven children’s names.
“When we ask my grandmother if she wants to go back to Afghanistan, she says, ‘No, I don’t like it there,’” Hosna Waziri said. “She tells us: ‘It is dirty. I don’t want to be surrounded by women with their faces covered.’”