From local grass-roots to global refugee organisation

The narrative describing the Danish Refugee Council – DRC – is the story of a grass-roots organisation that met refugees with compassion and open arms in 1956 and was then supposed to close down again. But the assignments kept rolling in and multiplied. Today, DRC is one of the world’s most well-run NGOs helping millions – with revenue running into billions. The more adept and professional the organisation, the greater the number of displaced, vulnerable people who can receive its assistance. From the provision of basic emergency aid in the midst of raging war to the organising of volunteers to welcome them to Danish society – DRC is on the spot.

60 years anniversary

It was late evening on 30 November 1956 when the train pulled in at Padborg Station. It had been travelling for two days from Vienna where Hungarian refugees had gathered after fleeing the intervention by the Soviet Union in their country. Around 200,000 people had fled Hungary at the time, and the Danish government stepped up to offer shelter to 1,000 of the Hungarians who had been forced to flee their country. And they were on board the train which pulled into Padborg Station that November evening.

A group of Danes were standing there waiting to receive them. Musicians were playing traditional Hungarian songs and people were handing out Danish pastry and cups of hot tea to the tired travellers. Speeches were also appropriate for the occasion. It was important to make the Hungarians feel welcome.


In the days leading up to the arrival of the refugee train, many volunteers had been busy organising and working round the clock to find lodging for the Hungarian guests.

“We drove all over the place in terrible weather to find lodging for the many refugees,” as Børge Thøfner, one of DRC’s founders, described it later on.

On 14 November, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had summoned a group of Danish organisations to a meeting where they were asked to help the Hungarian refugees. The organisations accepted the task and formed an umbrella organisation called “Danish Refugee Aid” (the Danish Refugee Council), whose name appropriately described how it was tasked with welcoming refugees into Danish society. It was originally conceived to be something temporary. Once the organisation had helped the Hungarian refugees to “find their feet”, it would be dissolved. But that is not how it turned out.

Refugee aid finds its form

In the initial years of its existence, DRC focused solely on the Hungarian refugees. But defectors also arrived from other communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, so DRC’s mandate was widened to include people of all nationalities a few years later.

From the outset, the conceptual framework was to be there for refugees from start to finish, and the effort was aimed at addressing any challenge that refugees could face when entering Danish society. One of the first questions asked by new refugees when they arrived was, “Is Denmark a good country?” The answer was yes. For the first many years of DRC’s existence, Danes welcomed refugees with friendliness and warmth upon their arrival in Denmark. The Council’s aim was to “realise genuinely philanthropic goals”.

The mindset of maintaining a consistent, unified effort aimed at refugees also prompted DRC to look beyond Denmark’s borders. Already from 1960, DRC began working abroad, which included helping refugees in Germany and Austria who were still living in refugee camps after World War II and helping displaced persons in Algeria and Hong Kong. The basic approach has always been to provide assistance in Denmark, but also in other countries around the world, where the vast majority of refugees and displaced people are to be found. This was true both in 1960 and today. Because DRC has never considered this an “either or” dilemma. The guiding principle has been that “refugees should receive assistance primarily and wherever possible in their home country”.

But for the first many years, DRC's work was primarily carried out in Denmark. DRC was responsible for the integration task and provided a unified effort for every aspect of this task. Early on, language schools were set up and, what is now called “Lærdansk” (LearnDanish) has been making the Danish language accessible to refugees for generations. Although these integration efforts, currently anchored in Integrationsnet (Integration Network) and Frivillignet (Volunteers’ Network), have undergone many changes over the years, they focused on helping refugees enter the Danish labour market from the outset – and were very successful. The Hungarian refugees and their Eastern European counterparts were soon employed and merged into Danish society without any major problems.



Wars and conflicts escalate – exacerbating the refugee problem

A large group of new refugees arrived in Denmark in 1969. Many Jews were having difficulty in communist Poland, and Denmark opened up its borders to accept these Jewish Poles. The invitation welcomed several thousand refugees, and DRC suddenly found itself in a situation that has characterised much of its history. It was – and still is – more or less impossible to make long-term plans when working in the area of refugee aid, because it is impossible to predict when the next crisis will arise and force people to flee. For this reason, a key skill-set of DRC is to be flexible and capable of quickly responding when the world situation of today suddenly looks radically different than it did yesterday.

And the world radically changed during the 1970s and 1980s. More wars and conflicts broke out than in previous decades, and the world was suddenly facing major international refugee crises in Chile, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, to name just a few.

At the same time, some Danes gradually shifted their view of refugees. Refugees were no longer people who deserved to be warmly welcomed with Danish pastry and tea at train stations. When Arne Piel Christensen, DRC’s Secretary General of many years, looked back (in his last annual report in 1997), this is how he described the trend:

“In Denmark, our unobtrusive humanitarian efforts were transformed into a whirlwind of political polarisation. A fear of insurmountable consequences at home resulting from remote, brutal conflicts and social dissolution abroad prompted a dramatic popular demand among the population to close off Danish society and free us from international dependence and an uncontrollable influx of refugees in the future [...] Humanitarian efforts have been repeatedly used as a substitute for the lack of political willingness to establish the requisite political solutions internationally.”

From its initial establishment, DRC has provided assistance to refugees and served as their spokesperson. The Council’s so-called advocacy efforts have always involved giving a voice to a group of people who rarely have the energy or opportunity to make themselves heard. At the same time, it has been important to introduce perspectives and facts into the refugee debate, which for decades has been marked by polarisation and been shrouded in myths, exaggerations and urban legends.

Feelings ran high particularly after Denmark adopted a new Aliens Act in 1983. The act, which by some was called “the most humane aliens act in the world”, was blamed by its critics for the rising number of asylum seekers coming to Denmark – and the rest of Europe – during the 1980s. The rise in number of asylum seekers also increased the workload in the asylum department tremendously. The Danish Refugee Council has from the very beginning provided impartial legal councelling and legal aid to asylum seekers in all phases of their asylum process in order to secure their rights and to support their ability to make informed decisions about their life on a well-informed foundation.



The turbulence continues and the convoys roll out

Once again, sweeping changes occurred in the 1990s when Yugoslavia fell apart as a civil war broke out. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee, and Denmark decided to accept 17,000 refugees from Bosnia–Herzegovina. The Danish government initially decided to isolate the Bosnian refugees from the rest of Danish society so they could return home quickly. Their stay was supposed to be temporary. They were housed in refugee villages and were not integrated or taught the Danish language. Instead, the authorities tasked DRC with implementing an activation programme for Bosnian refugees to give them skill-sets which they could use upon returning home. But the war continued and after three years politicians and others slowly began to realise how untenable the situation actually was.

In 1995, most Bosnian refugees were granted asylum, enabling integration efforts to begin. Nine months later, DRC drafted an integration programme specifically for Bosnian refugees and worked with counselling for the refugees, who decided that the wanted to return home. It was described as follows in the 1995 Annual Report:

“The task of ensuring Bosnian refugees a life in Denmark – i.e. housing, contact with neighbours, education, work, etc. – is perhaps the biggest humanitarian challenge confronting Danish society, Danish organisations, municipalities, the Danish business community and the general public since World War II. It is the biggest task by far for DRC in the 39 years of its existence.”

But DRC was also facing a comprehensive task outside of Denmark. Over the years, the organisation has worked closely with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). DRC became a UNHCR partner in Denmark in 1973, and thus accepted the task of providing emergency aid in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1992. The following day, the first office was opened in Zagreb, and in subsequent years, DRC became the biggest provider of emergency aid in the area. Lorries with emergency aid drove in convoys through war zones to reach the many people who stayed. The lorries symbolised the aid and at the same time served to inspire the design of DRC collection boxes, which are still to this day lorry-shaped to emphasise the direct line from the coin donated in Denmark to the aid provided around the world.

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Everything changes

In the late 1990s, everything suddenly changed for DRC.

Since 1956, DRC had been responsible for integration efforts in Denmark, but a new Integration Bill presented in 1998 delegated this responsibility to Denmark’s municipalities instead. Although the bill was well-intentioned, DRC was very concerned by the fact that only one year had been reserved for the municipalities to prepare for assuming responsibility for this enormous task.

At the same time, the change prompted serious considerations about what type of organisation DRC should be. Almost 80% of its funding was removed at one fell swoop. Should DRC close down? Or should it seek a new direction? Andreas Kamm had assumed his duties as Secretary General six months previously, but what type of organisation was he actually leading at this point? The upheaval caused 600 employees to be made redundant, i.e. more than two-thirds of the entire staff. It was a painful period and tough to endure.

But rather than give up, the newly-appointed Secretary General spearheaded a new strategy for the organisation: continue working at national level with asylum efforts, submitting bids for the municipalities’ integration tasks and sharply intensifying its focus on voluntary work.

At the same time, however, DRC wanted to pursue a far greater commitment at international level based on the experience gained from operating convoys in the Balkans. 1999 became Year One for the new Danish Refugee Council.



Growing pains

The strategy worked. In the following years, DRC continuously grew and developed its efforts at international level. Unfortunately, there were plenty of wars and conflicts to be dealt with. After the Balkans, the next major action area was Chechnya where, together with the member organisation Danish People’s Aid (DPA), DRC distributed 80% of all emergency aid provided to the victims of the conflict. At the same time, new goals were set to define the distinctive characteristics of this work as “flexibility, resourcefulness and prompt action”.

These values had never changed, but even keener focus was given to continuing the professionalisation of DRC’s work. Inspired by multinational corporations such as Maersk, DRC focused on developing and enlarging its activities. DRC’s motivating concept was the more it could grow, the greater the number of refugees it could help. At the same time, the holistic approach remained a cornerstone of emergency aid. DRC aimed to be there and provide its assistance from start to finish, and the experience gained at one end of the organisation should help prepare and improve the work at the other end.

In 2002, DRC was working in 15 countries all over the world providing “emergency aid and assistance for repatriation, reconstruction, helping to make refugees self-supporting, demining and building up civil networks and organisations to promote peace, reconciliation and sustainable development” as described in that year’s annual report. Things developed rapidly in subsequent years. More and more countries were added, while DRC worked to implement more and better standards to define how its work could be done in the best possible way to maximise the number who could be helped. In a single year – between 2007 and 2008 – DRC doubled its efforts in East Africa and was now working in more than 30 countries. In 2007, DRC entered into a strategic collaboration agreement with the UNHCR, which emphasised its status as one of the UN’s preferred partners in the area of humanitarian aid.

In the summer of 2008, the management intensified its efforts through the strategy “Danish Refugee Council, Version 2012”. This ambitious strategy outlined four overarching goals: to provide more assistance to displaced persons; intensify advocacy efforts; ensure, develop and document the quality of DRC’s work; and generate revenue of DKK 1 billion for the work by 2012. But DRC’s revenue surpassed DKK 1.1 billion already in 2010. This figure has now grown to DKK 2.6 billion. Also, whereas Danish-based efforts had accounted for 80% of DRC’s revenue in the 1990s, the exact opposite is true today, where international relief efforts account for 80%, and DRC is now present in 40 countries around the world.

When DRC intervenes in a conflict to help refugees and displaced persons, it maintains a presence until the problems are resolved. It took 18 years before the work associated with the civil war in Bosnia came to an end. The work in the Northern Caucasus took 17 years, whereas the work in Sri Lanka ended in 2014, after 14 years. DRC always goes in with a long-term strategy.



Modern crises

War broke out in Syria in spring 2011, and soon developed into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. DRC was already present in Syria before the war: in a large-scale effort to help Iraqi refugees who had sought shelter with their Syrian neighbours. The focus in Syria soon shifted, however, concurrent with the transformation of the uprising into an outright, widespread civil war. The fact that DRC was already present in Syria explained why, in 2012, DRC had the opportunity to help internally displaced persons in Syria – as the first international humanitarian organisation to do so.

At the same time, DRC maintains a massive presence in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where more than four million refugees have sought shelter.

Today, DRC is the biggest international organisation providing aid to internally displaced persons in Syria proper. The task is wide-ranging: from providing basic emergency aid and shelter to helping displaced persons become self-supporting.

In Syria’s neighbouring countries, DRC is also providing basic urgently-needed emergency aid and making long-term development-oriented efforts aimed at ensuring the future of the many refugees in Syria’s neighbouring areas. Vulnerable Syrians receive help in the form of food, clean clothes and winter aid as they flee up through Europe.

In Denmark, DRC serves in an advisory capacity in the asylum-seeking process and many of those who are granted asylum learn to speak Danish through the LearnDanish programme and are introduced to the labour market through the Integration Network. Once the conflict is over and it becomes possible to return home, DRC will be ready to provide repatriation advice.

The Big Picture

But even when the war in Syria is over one day, the work will not be. Therefore, DRC’s planning is based on the Big Picture and a holistic approach from the outset. This involves both emergency aid and long-term development – as well as being present from start to finish – to ensure that the aid needed by the refugees is available in every phase of their displacement.

The strategy for international efforts is summarised as follows:

“When a large number of people are forced to flee, it is simply not enough to set up refugee camps and distribute food. Being content with quick-fix solutions during refugee disasters will heighten the risk of the problem recurring. The provision of assistance to neighbouring areas erases the dividing line between emergency aid and development aid, stabilises the region and supports both refugees and the local populace.”

DRC is now present in more than 40 countries and provides aid to millions of displaced persons and refugees – and all of its efforts are still driven by a holistic approach. The experience gained is shared and used across the organisation and provides a unique insight into every phase of displacement. DRC operates refugee camps, provides basic emergency aid and organises long-term development in war zones and neighbouring areas.

At the same time, DRC demining specialists clear mines from abandoned battlefields in many different countries to enable local residents to once again feel free to move about and lead normal lives. Along the dangerous escape routes, DRC's employees assist the many refugees and migrants who are in grave danger of being exploited along the way. In Denmark and abroad, DRC defends refugees’ rights through its advocacy efforts. When asylum seekers arrive in Denmark, asylum advisers are ready to provide information and assistance concerning conditions and rights. Many refugees learn to speak Danish at LearnDanish language schools and receive help to enter the Danish labour market from the Integration Network. Finally, DRC’s thousands of enthusiastic volunteers are also ready to welcome refugees and provide the social network that refugees also need.

When DRC was named the third-best humanitarian organisation in the world in 2015, its approach was aptly described as “The Complete Game”.

Needed as never before

Today, DRC employs more than 6,000 people all over the world. The work is performed by social workers, lawyers, logisticians and emergency-aid workers, demining specialists and many more. A lot has happened since the Hungarian refugees arrived in Padborg one November evening in 1956. Back then, DRC started out as an umbrella organisation with six members. Today, DRC comprises 29 members, all helping to ensure broad, popular support for the work. This support is also clearly reflected in the level of volunteering.

In September 2015, when refugees were walking into Denmark along Danish motorways, the phones in the offices of DRC were ringing for days, with people calling in asking how they could help. Just as when volunteers made themselves available when the Hungarians came to Denmark, volunteers are providing their assistance today when other conflicts force people to seek shelter in Denmark. Never before have so many people wanted to help, and never before have there been so many in need of it.

DRC has existed for 60 years now, and its efforts are needed like never before in the history of DRC – both in Denmark and abroad in the conflict-ridden areas where 95% of the world’s refugees and displaced persons are to be found. DRC is omnipresent. DRC is on the spot.

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