NEW TIMES IN THE BOARDROOM
New perspectives, objectives and instruments. Interview with Anne la Cour Vågen, the new Head of the Asylum Department at the Danish Red Cross.
On the 31st of December 2010, Anne la Cour Vågen waved goodbye to her former colleagues at The Danish Refugee Council, where she had been Head of the Asylum Department for eight years. The very next day she moved into a bright office in Centre Sandholm's administration building, where she started as Head of the Asylum Department at The Danish Red Cross.
New Times met her during her during these first weeks with The Danish Red Cross and she was kind enough to give us an interview.
She began by telling about the mixed emotions she went through when being appointed:
“First I was very honored. But I must admit that it was also difficult for me to leave The Danish Refugee Council. I always had a very good relationship with my former colleagues at The Danish Refugee Council. After twenty-six years it was a big step, as you can imagine. But I see taking over the office after Jørgen Chemnitz as a nice and interesting challenge,” she said.
The challenge is unique because The Red Cross is the main operator of the asylum centers in Denmark. This role which was established many years ago:
“From what I have heard, Jørgen Chemnitz actually started the whole thing. I read an article by him in which he explains how it all started. The Red Cross was asked to take care of a group of refugees that had arrived and then little by little it developed from there. Of course the reason why The Red Cross is still a main operator of the asylum system is that the Red Cross is very good at handling it. If we didn't do a good job, we would not be here. Even though I have only visited a few centres since I started, I am impressed by what I see. The members of the staff are highly skilled and very dedicated; they are professional and have a positive attitude,” Anne la Cour Vågen said with great enthusiasm.
Challenges on the job
The welcome cake was not taken off the table before the first demanding tasks arose, as the head of the Asylum Department explained:
“Unfortunately, there is a financial challenge. That was the first thing I was met with: we had to make cutbacks and that is a real challenge. We don't want the asylum seekers to feel the cutbacks too much-- although it is difficult to avoid--but we are doing our best. Apart from that the immediate challenge lies in the fact that there are around 1100 staff members - and it is important to me to be a good Head of the Asylum Department,” she stated.
Anne la Cour Vågen does not feel any pressure as such - rather a great challenge:
“It is a big job with lots of obstacles. At the moment I am trying to get an overview and to visit as many parts of the whole set up as possible. I will take some time to get the full understanding of the set up before I think about making any possible changes,” she said.
Neutrality and advocacy - a balancing act
The changes might come in the shape of a more outspoken attitude - an exploration of the Red Cross principle of neutrality, you might say [one of seven principles - see fact box, Ed.]. After all, the Red Cross is the main operator of asylum centres in Denmark and the primary care giver for the asylum seekers. Thus Anne feels very obligated to raise her voice in the debate.
For example, the new asylum director thinks Denmark has a quite restrictive policy towards both asylum seekers and refugees. There is definitely room for improvement, she said:
“It is not only in regards to the government regulations, but also in regards to the attitude of the population. It is always very important to stress the backgrounds of the asylum seekers as in why they are here and the role of the Danish government. It is important also to tell positive stories from the asylum seekers. I will be making a big effort to speak up for the asylum seekers,” Anne la Cour Vågen said.
One of the political issues is the question ‘should there be accommodation on offer other than the asylum centres?’ la Cour Vågen’s answer is clear:
“The Red Cross’ opinion is that it should be possible to live outside the asylum centers, if not from the start then at least after one year. Experience shows though that some asylum seekers feel more secure living in a centre where there are more staff members around, such as nurses and doctors. So living outside the centres is not always the best solution for everyone. I think asylum seekers should be able afforded a daily life which is as humane and dignified as possible. But what is also very important to me is that the asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Maybe not from day one, but at least after six months,” she stated.
Furthermore, Anne la Cour Vågen believes that asylum seekers should be allowed to learn Danish:
“I agree that if they are to return home it would not be of great benefit. But I am against the whole idea that the asylum seekers can become “too integrated” while they are waiting for an immigration answer. The most important issue is that there should be activities in one’s daily life and many possibilities to choose from.”
Regardless of the subject, be it accommodation, learning Danish or any other asylum issue, la Cour Vågen promises that the Red Cross will raise its voice every time there is a new draft proposal on the legislation of asylum seekers:
“It will definitely not be less with me as Head of the Asylum Department. We will comment on the draft proposals forwarded to us by the government and ask for more information when necessary. And when it comes to the daily life of the asylum seeker in regards to language-learning and accommodation, I think it is necessary for the politicians and others to listen to the suggestions of The Red Cross because the organisation has so much experience,” she said.
Waiting in uncertainty
There have been cases of asylum seekers being rejected by the Immigration Service, where they end up staying in centres for periods of up to ten years - without the possibility of going back to their respective countries nor the granting of asylum in Denmark. This scenario is a horrible situation, said Anne la Cour Vågen:
“I would say that especially if it is because their countries will not receive them for one reason or another, then they should be given a temporary residence permit. When we see asylum seekers stay in a centre for such a long time it destroys their lives, and you see individuals become psychologically affected. I think it is important that the Red Cross raises the flag and insists that something be done for these individuals - I think it is the responsibility of my organisation to bring it up and ask the politicians to examine it,” she said.
But is the Red Cross doing enough to prevent this scenario?
“I think the Red Cross does a lot when it comes to this issue but we can always do better. You can always bring up an issue like we did with the question regarding those who were to be sent back to Greece. Some of the asylum seekers had waited for a year, so it was high time a solution was reached. And in this office I will be able to raise issues like that. But there are many stake holders in the asylum area. Because I have been in this business for such a long time I have a big network, so I would know who would be able to do something. There are others like the Danish Refugee Council and Amnesty International who you can call upon, especially if it is not within the mandate of the Red Cross, but within the mandate of some of the other organisations, as they can assist and/or support us,” she pointed out.
Future changes in the Asylum Department
Initially Anne la Cour Vågen used to work with the Danish Refugee Council, before she became Head of the Asylum Department at The Danish Red Cross - a situation that can create a good working relationship between the two in the coming years.
“Yes, definitely. I know exactly how the lawyers in The Danish Refugee Council operate. So I think they will be facing more work now, because they are the ones who give out legal counseling, and I will be calling on them.
I also want the centres to be open to the local community. It is not like they haven't done that before, but in order to make this “advocacy” work amongst the Danes, it is important to show what is happening in the asylum centers. Who and what are the asylum seekers? Why are they in Denmark?,” she said, and continued:
“In general we should be more open and service-minded. This attitude is important for the staff members. It is important that they are service-minded both towards those living in the centres and towards the outside community. If someone calls and wants a meeting, whomsoever they may be, I will be glad to welcome them for a talk,” she stated.
Lend me your ear
It is important for a new boss to quickly gain an understanding of the organization and one of the best methods for this is to listen well:
“I want to learn from the heads of the different asylum centres and get to know from them what the big challenges are. I am quite sure that I can come up with some proposals, but for me it is very important that before I make any changes I know what I am up against. So that's why I take lots of notes and always write down good ideas and wishes,” she revealed.
Even though the asylum department is a well functioning system there will be changes - but not solely for the sake of making changes:
“In general, I will support that we are and will continue to be highly professional and that we set some agendas. We are also talking about the consequences of having children in an asylum centre. I will call on the head of the Psychologists to speak publicly about this issue. So I will bring that into the spotlight and advocate for it, but that is just one small thing. When it comes to management, I have some questions about how things are organized so that everything can run smoothly,” Anne la Cour Vågen said.
She highlighted that every change made should be of benefit to the asylum seekers:
“Indeed, how I organize the management side of the organization should of course benefit the asylum seekers. I plan to do advocacy work for the issues of: accommodation, the possibility of being able to work, and for those asylum seekers staying at the centres for a long period of time, while also assisting those whose residence permit has been revoked. The needs of the asylum seekers will be the top priority in all that I do. This will be the group that I think off all the time,” she said.
On a final note
If we may ask you a personal question, how do you interact with your family and this high office?
“That's a big challenge. I am married and I have two children who are sixteen and eighteen. It makes a big difference that they are older because they have their own lives now, so I have more time. I will of course try to have some days completely off during the weekends. But it is true that this is a job that you will never really leave and things can happen during the weekends, requiring my attention, but I knew that before I accepted the position,” Anne concluded with a smile.
THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF RED CROSS / RED CRESCENT:
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, co-operation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.
It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.
In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
The Movement is independent. The National Societies, whilst auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.
5. Voluntary service
It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.
There can only be one Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.
Asylum and the law
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